Their empty talk of liberating Afghan women

Helen Redmond exposes the lie that the U.S. war on Afghanistan was about liberating women--and describes the struggle of women themselves for equality.

Malalai JoyaMalalai Joya

IT SEEMS like a ludicrous claim now, but when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago in the "war on terror," one of the most potent justifications was to liberate Afghan women.

George W. Bush lined up a group of influential women, including his wife Laura and liberal feminist organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation, to press the case that the ruling Taliban was guilty of gross human rights violations against women and girls.

The claim was that a U.S. military victory over the ruling Taliban regime would end rape, forced marriages, domestic violence and the wearing of the burqa. In a post-Taliban era the mainstream media reported, women would have access to education, employment, health care and positions of power in the new government. Afghan women would finally be free.

It was all lies--or as Afghan feminist Malalai Joya writes in her memoir A Woman Among Warlords, "It was dust in the eyes of the world."

Joya is the most uncompromising and trenchant critic of the U.S. attempt to sell an imperialist war as a humanitarian war to liberate Afghan women. In the introduction to her book, she writes:

The United States has tried to justify its occupation with rhetoric about "liberating" Afghan women, but we remain caged in our country, without access to justice and still ruled by women-hating criminals. Fundamentalists still preach that "a woman should be in her house or in the grave." In most places, it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative. Girls are sold into marriage. Rape goes unpunished.

Joya is also an outspoken opponent of Barack Obama, the Karzai Government and the U.S. war that has deployed over 100,000 troops to Afghanistan and killed thousands.

That is why she is being denied a visa to enter the U.S. for a speaking tour to promote her book. The State Department understands Joya's ability to speak truth to power about the war in Afghanistan that a vast majority of Americans now oppose. Apparently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's sisterhood with Afghan women doesn't extend to Malalai Joya.

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AFTER 10 years of war and occupation and over $18 billion in international aid to rebuild Afghanistan, the lives of the majority of Afghan women are unchanged or worse. Statistics from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs paint a grim picture:

-- Every 30 minutes, a woman dies during childbirth.

-- 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate.

-- One in every three Afghan women experience physical, psychological, or sexual violence.

-- As many as 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan.

-- Life expectancy for women is 44 years

The government of President Hamid Karzai, put in power by the U.S., has presided over the deterioration of women's rights, and in some instances actively promoted taking them away. Karzai signed a law that legalized rape in marriage.

In the latest attack on women's rights, the Afghan government wants to take over the running of domestic violence shelters. A new rule would forbid women accused of "moral" crimes, like running away from home or zina (adultery), from gaining admission to a shelter. As Manizha Naderi, a member of Women for Afghan Women wrote, "This is going to turn back women's rights. I'm really afraid for Afghanistan, for the Afghan women. It's going to be like living under the Taliban." According to Human Rights Watch, there are only 14 shelters in the entire country.

War and occupation make the struggle for women's liberation difficult. The unrelenting bombing of civilians, including wedding parties and children collecting firewood; night raids that disappear husbands, fathers, sons and brothers into secret military prisons; the bombing and mining of agricultural areas; social dislocation; and the insecurity that war foments all force women to focus mainly on the survival of their families, not the struggle for equality.

The Western media promotes racist and sexist stereotypes of Islam and depicts Afghan women as passive victims of domineering Muslim men, who therefore need to be rescued by "enlightened" Western men in military uniforms. But under the most difficult circumstances, Afghan women have always struggled against sexist cultural traditions and misogyny.

It is a rich history that includes the support of thousands of men. In her book, Joya writes that her father was her greatest champion and insisted that she get an education. He supported her dangerous work as an underground teacher under Taliban rule. Night after night, he stayed up with her, helping her prepare lessons to teach school the next day.

A study by the Asia Foundation in 2010 showed that support for gender equality is high in Afghanistan--64 percent believe women should be able to work outside the home and 87 percent support equal educational opportunities for women.

But Afghanistan is still an overwhelmingly poor, rural society where women are a degraded currency, exchanged and sold to settle tribal feuds and opium debts. A community and group identity is the norm--Western feminist ideas of independence from men and separation from family barely exist.

Under "purdah," there is a strict patriarchal system that proscribes sexual behavior, dictates the strict segregation of men and women, enforces the wearing of the veil and requires women to be accompanied by a male relative in public, part of a code of behavior referred to as "mahram." The forms that purdah take vary geographically and by ethic group--for example, some women wear the burqa and others a hijab. In Kabul, women walk in public unaccompanied.

Over decades, women have used purdah to their advantage, and also resisted and challenged it. For example, under the Taliban, women used the burqa to conceal books and other contraband. Thousands of Afghan women are currently in prison for running away from home, and for refusing to accept forced marriages or endure domestic violence.

Joya recounts how a twist on mahram encouraged solidarity between men and women: "I have seen myself and heard from others of many cases when a woman was caught without mahram, but a man who was passing nearby rescued her by coming forward and saying, 'Here, I am her mahram.' This was dangerous for a man if the Taliban found him not to be a real mahram."

Men and boys also suffer under the system of purdah and are punished for violating strict gender rules. Males are the other half of forced marriages and are expected to protect and support their wives and children in a country that is under foreign occupation, and where the economy is shattered and unemployment is endemic.

Prepubescent boys called bacha bazi (literal translation: "boy play") are sold into sexual slavery to male pedophiles. Military commanders, former warlords and rich businessmen treat the young boys like concubines, force them to dance and sexually abuse them.

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THE LIBERATION of Afghan women can't be separated from the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan. Access to education, employment and health care for all women is a prerequisite. Reproductive rights are crucial to advancing women's status in Afghan society. The average Afghan woman has seven children and spends most of her adult life pregnant, nursing and taking care of children.

Afghan women have the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Pregnancy in the developed world is safe, labor and delivery is closely monitored, and women rarely die. In Afghanistan, pregnancy brings with it the threat of death. Abortion is illegal and contraception is unavailable in most parts of the country.

Without the ability to control their fertility, Afghan women cannot be the equals of men and fully participate in all aspects of society.

The women of Afghanistan are waging two struggles--the first is to liberate their country from the U.S.-led war and occupation and the second is for their own liberation. Those of us in the U.S. who oppose the war, believe in the right of self-determination for all nations and support women's rights have to stand in solidarity with Malalai Joya and the people of Afghanistan--and declare: "Here, we are your mahram."