Kelly Sans Culotte


ASIA

Afghan Women Face Taliban, Again
U.S. considers old ally as security disintegrates.
By Kelly Cogswell


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OCTOBER 16, 2003. Two years after the United States launched "Operation Enduring Freedom," Afghanistan's women have seen plenty of enduring, but only a slight gain in freedom. As security disintegrates, they may actually be losing what little they have gained, despite encouraging provisions in a draft constitution.

Rape and Violence
Amnesty International reported last week that "The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high. Forced marriage, particularly of girl children, and violence against women in the family are widespread in many areas of the country. These crimes of violence continue with the active support or passive complicity of state agents, armed groups, families and communities."

Local communities continue to enforce the obligatory wearing of burkas by women, or limit their freedom of movement, even though many of these rules have been technically lifted. When women dare complain, or report rape or domestic violence, the courts ignore them.

"The current criminal justice system is simply unwilling or unable to address issues of violence against women," Amnesty wrote. "At the moment it is more likely to violate the rights of women than to protect and uphold their rights."

And while U.S. news services tout new school buildings, and even martial arts classes for girls, the burning of a number of those girls' schools sends a more ominous message.

Mixed News
The draft constitution due to be voted on in December bans forced marriages and bridal dowries and requires the government to provide women education and health care equal to that of men. It also guarantees women one seat from each of the 32 provinces in the national parliament, and a minimum of 25 seats in the senate. The total number of seats in each assembly has not yet been decided.

Fatima Gailani, a member of the Constitutional Review Commission, excitedly declared that "No other Islamic country has a constitution that is so liberating for women."

Celebration may be premature. The constitution also establishes Afghanistan as an Islamic republic where "no laws shall run counter to the sacred principles of Islam." It further declares that Islamic law will be the norm when there is "no clear law in this constitution or other laws" with which to judge a case.

In other words, in the absence of specific legislation, the constitution leaves women, not to speak of the invisible gender transgressors lesbians, gay men, and transgender people, vulnerable to literal interpretations of the Koran and other Islamic texts, as well as tribal customs passing as Koranic law.

Morocco a Model?
Compare Afghanistan to Morocco where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, yet parliament is expected to approve reforms awarding women greater rights in both marriage and divorce.

The minimum marriage age for women there will be raised from 15 to 18. Women will be able to divorce their husbands, which they can't do now, while husbands that previously had only to disavow their wives will have to go through the legal system to get a divorce. Muslim men may continue to marry up to four wives, but additional wives will have to be approved by the courts — and their existing wives.

If Morocco can do it, why not the new U.S. and NATO-sponsored Afghanistan? In Morocco, where power rests securely in the hands of constitutional monarch King Mohammed VI, even he is proceeding slowly for fear of violent repercussions.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has no effective central government. President Hamid Karzai can't establish security beyond Kabul, where he's aided by 5,500 NATO troops, much less enforce human rights reforms in the provinces. The 11,500 U.S. troops on the ground have been concerned almost exclusively with pursuing Al Qaeda rather than with garden-variety peacekeeping. Even promised NATO forces stationed in the countryside will likely be overwhelmed.

Crumbling Security
In the latest string of attacks, suspected Taliban fighters killed at least seven Afghans Sunday in an attack on a government district office. It happened in a southern province where a resurgence of the poppy drug trade has spawned an increase in antigovernment violence. In another attack Sunday on a Special Forces unit, an American soldier was wounded. A few days earlier, dozens of Taliban prisoners staged a successful prison break.

As many as sixty fighters were killed in the north last week in ethnic fighting. The aid agency, CARE, reports that attacks on humanitarian workers have increased to one a day on average, many apparently related to the resurgent opium trade.

The lack of security not only diminishes the power of a central government which is today the only possible agent for social change in Afghanistan, but actually fosters a backwards trend with regards to women's rights. Increased attacks bring an increased presence of U.S. and NATO forces. This, in turn, fuels a conservative backlash of anti-Americanism, tribalism, and hardline Islamism.

The U.S. itself may sell out women for a bowl of security. As a desperate occupier looking for an exit strategy, it really has only two options: concessions to the Northern Alliance, itself tied to neighboring Iran and Russia, or, as Pakistan is recommending, turning once again to the ultra-conservative Taliban.

Dividing the Pie
Pakistan seems to be winning the day. Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote this week that the newly released Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Wakeel Mutawakil, a confidant of the fugitive Mullah Omar, is expected "to be given a senior position in the local government in Kandahar, the former spiritual headquarters of the Taliban."

U.S. overtures towards Mutawakil may turn into a full-fledged alliance if he and his Taliban, the United States' pre-9/11 allies after all, can establish order in Southern Afghanistan's poppy fields, and rein in the anti-American Islamists within the Northern Alliance. The Taliban is particularly well suited to the job, since according to Shahzad some of the recent anti-American attacks were the result of new alliances among some hardline Islamic parties within the ever-troublesome Northern Alliance, traditional Taliban foes.

In this equation, where the possible resurrection of the Taliban is the answer, and the fragile central government and disintegrating security the main quotients, the rights of Afghan women seem as elusive as Baghdad's bio bombs.


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