Security over women’s rights in Afghanistan

8 Feb

We have been repeatedly rammed down our throats the rationale for supporting the invasion of Afghanistan  – the myth that this is a ‘war against terror’. A war to eradicate and stop terrorists from destabilising the region and the world. A war against Islamic fundamentalisms advocated by the likes of groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban that preaches extremist beliefs and practices including those against women.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2009, p. 2),

‘The US and its allies cited the defense of women’s rights as one of the primary reasons, after the need to root out al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban, for their 2001 invasion and subsequent commitment to rehabilitate Afghanistan’.

Yet, the invasion and the support by the West on the supposedly ‘moderate’ Karzai government is anything but a move towards promoting women’s rights. This has been substantiated by studies and expert NGO opinions. It would be more accurate to argue that the reverse is true – that this horrific war waged against Afghanistan is creating more harm than good for women in the conflict-driven state.

While the US has always appear to provide a cover of humanitarian intervention  in its overseas involvement such as introducing laws devoting 175 million into combating violence against women worldwide over a five year period (AFP 2010), this is a pitiful amount as compared to the billions being channelled into counter-terrorism, war and other military purposes.

In its 2011 budget, the Obama administration increased aid to Pakistan by 1.2 billion which is ‘aimed at bolstering war on internal militants’. Funds catering to training, equipment and other assistance to foreign militaries would also increase to 500 million (Baldor 2010). To add it all up, the administration is seeking approval from Congress of up to 741.2 billion for its military budget of which it consists of:

‘… $548.9 billion for the “baseline” budget plus $159.3 billion to pay for “overseas contingency operations,” mainly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq [my emphasis]. And, by the way, [US Defense Secretary Robert Gates]  he says, tack on another $33 billion to the current year’s budget, to pay for the 30,000 extra troops (and all their supplies, weapons, and so forth) that President Obama is sending to Afghanistan’ (Kaplan 2010).

The increased funding not only makes a mockery of Obama’s Nobel peace prize but also reflects US continued military dominance in its interventions. It also speaks volume of American exceptionalism and its emphasis on traditional security rather than women rights.

It is therefore no surprise that the London Conference on Afghanistan that was represented by ministers, UN, EU and Nato officials was also stubbornly silent on women’s issues (see conference website, This has prompted the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to express ‘deep concern at the exclusion of Afghan women from the high decision-making level of the 28 January London Conference, as well as at “the absence of clear strategies to protect women’s rights in the process of the discussions leading to negotiations with representatives of the Taliban‘. CEDAW (2010) has also ‘pointed out that there are two Security Council Resolutions which underscore the importance of women’s active participation in all peace-building efforts and recovery’.

The exclusion of women in this conference also appears to be a wilful act:

‘When the feisty young Afghan activists, Orzala Ashraf, tried to raise the lack of female inclusion[ in the conference], she reportedly was told “This isn’t ladies business, this is about security” (Haussegger 2010).

In another report on the conference, it was noted that only three female participants were present. They include an Afghan women, a female government official and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. A guest complained,

‘Government officials just don’t care about women’s rights, but are happy to use women when useful for their political agenda’ (Mojtehedzadeh 2010).

Clinton was also criticised for being a lone figure amongst a group of male politicians and bureaucrats. In short, ‘gender issues are marginal and lack immediacy’ (Mojtehedzadeh 2010).

Tom Hayden, a former US state senator, is of a similar opinion when he argued that womens rights ‘will always be secondary to military objectives’ (2009). He sums up the futility of the war in promoting gender equality:

‘Even if all the Taliban are killed, Afghanistan will be a deeply patriarchal Muslim country where change will emerge from outside and inside pressures.

These progressive initiatives could be advanced today by the Obama administration and Congress as civilian ones, not as cover to solicit support for deeper military occupation’ (Hayden 2009).

A women MP in Afghanistan, Malalai Joya, who was evicted from the Parliament by US backed warlords condemned the invasion:

‘A troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and continued air strikes, will do nothing to help the liberation of Afghan women. The only thing it will do is increase the number of civilian casualties and increase the resistance to occupation.

To really help Afghan women, citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere must tell their government to stop propping up and covering for a regime of warlords and extremists’ (Greenwald 2009).

Sonali Kolhatkar, co-cirector of the Afghan Women’s Mission  and Mariam Rawi, member of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan asserted that the war has worsened conditions for women in the country:

‘Waging war does not lead to the liberation of women anywhere. Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women’s rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté…

… After the invasion, Americans received reports that newly liberated women had cast off their burquas and gone back to work. Those reports were mythmaking and propaganda. Aside from a small number of women in Kabul, life for Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban has remained the same or become much worse.

Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children.

Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war. The conflict outside their doorsteps endangers their lives and those of their families. It does not bring them rights in the household or in public, and it confines them even further to the prison of their own homes. Military escalation is just going to bring more tragedy to the women of Afghanistan [bold – my emphasis]‘ (Alternet, n.d).

The widespread violation of women rights in Afghanistan cannot be understated.

In the HRW 2009 report, ‘We have the promises of the world’ which focuses on Afghan women’s rights, their situation has remained ‘dismal in every area, including in health, education, employment, freedom from violence, equality before the law, and political participation’ (p 3).

It also noted that while there have been ‘rhetorical’ commitment’ to women rights and millions spent in this sector, ‘women have not been a central priority for the government or for international donors, whose focus is primarily on the armed conflict rather than the broader concept of civilian security and rule of law’ (HRW 2009, p. 3).

In March 2009, Karzai signed new laws which was described as ‘riddled with Taliban style misogyny’ to appease the Shia fundamentalists. After intense campaigning and pressure from the West and women rights groups he amended parts of the controversial legislation though it still fell short of international standards. For example, child custody rights are granted to fathers and grandfathers but not mothers or grandmothers (HRW 2009, p 3).

On violence against women, a 2008 study discovered that 87.2% of Afghan women ‘had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetimes’ (HRW 2009, p 6).

Other forms of discrimination and repression practices targeted against women ranged from child and force marriage, women’s access to the justice system to girl’s access to secondary education (HRW 2009).

If anything, it is clear that the war in Afghanistan has  not been aimed at alleviating the plight of women nor promote gender equality. To argue otherwise would be a convenient lie. But even if we are to give US and its NATO and allies the benefit of the doubt, it is apparent that military means coupled with propping up a puppet dictatorship can hardly be considered legitimate nor effective. As the West and Karzai discussed the possibility of negotiating with the warlords and Taliban during the London conference, it becomes apparent that security concerns will trump over human rights. Once again, the rights of Afghanistan women will be mercilessly sacrificed on the altar of the West.

Works Cited

Baldor, L. C 2010, ‘Pentagon seeks billions to battle terror abroad’, Associated Press, 4 February, accessed 8 February 2010.

CEDAW 2010, Afghanistan: any agreement with the Taliban must include women’s rights – UN experts’ body, media release, 5 February, accessed 8 February 2010

Greenwald, R 2009, ‘Debunking the myths about women’s rights in Afghanistan’, Huffington Post, 13 July, accessed 8 February 2010.

Haussegger, V 2010, ‘A witness to horror’, 6 February, accessed 8 February 2010.

Hayden, T 2009, ‘Pentagon enlists feminists for war aims’, Huffington Post,  accessed 8 February 2010.

Human Rights Watch 2009 a, ‘We have the promises of the world, women’s rights in Afghanistan’, December, accessed 8 December.

Kaplan, F 2010, ‘Too big to fail?’, Slate, 1 February, accessed 8 February 2010.

Kolhatkar, S & Rawi M, n.d., Why Is a leading feminist organisation lending Its name to support escalation in Afghanistan?, Alternet, media release, accessed 8 February 2010.

Mojtehedzadeh, S 2010, ‘Meeting in monochrome: women and the Afghanistan conference’, OpenDemocracy, 1 February, accessed 8 February 2010.

US lawmakers target global violence against women, AFP, 5 February 2010, accessed 8 February 2010.


One Response to “Security over women’s rights in Afghanistan”

  1. hannah's dad February 9, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    What can I say other than that you have written a sorely needed excellent post.

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