On November 18 2001 Laura Bush gave her first radio address urging worldwide condemnation of the treatment of women in Afghanistan. She stated that the ”fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”. This was because the plight of women and children in Afghanistan was “a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control”.
The then First Lady cited numerous statistics and reports that backed her claim and immediately after her speech, the State Department released an 11-page report on the Taliban’s “War Against Women.” The report stated that the “Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage”.
Waging war under the pretext of the “liberation of Afghan women” was certainly a potent selling point for the world to buy. There is nothing easier to sell than the idea of rescuing helpless women. When the US illegally invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the guise of a “War on Terror” (An absolute oxymoron. A war on terror?.. War is terror) women were already being abused by the Taliban and the warlords for some time. In fact, it had gone on for years before the US even batted an eyelid.
Women have long been the victims of a highly patriarchal and mostly tribalist society in Afghanistan. The Taliban are indeed inhumane and intimidating. Laura Bush was not wrong to point out that the systematic oppression of these women is a matter of deliberate human cruelty. However, more than a decade has passed since this noble address and can we say that women are substantively better off than they were in 2001?
” 72% of Afghan women believe their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago ” and ” 27% of MPs are women (higher than the world average) and 5% of positions in the army and police force are filled by women “
These achievements are not to be underestimated. However, do they serve as a precedent for the discussion on women’s rights in Afghanistan today? No. Women continue to be systematically marginalised, persecuted and oppressed.
Power dynamics from the home to the Parliament remain largely favourable to men and the judicial and legislative systems have shown they are not on the side of women, but against women. The President passed a “Rape Law” in 2009 allowing husbands to starve their wives if they refuse to obey their sexual demands. The number of women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes” i.e. running away from home has risen by 50% in just 18 months.
Oxfam and ActionAid’s statistics might ease the guilt and relieve the conscience of many, but they are not representative of Afghan women as a whole.
Ask a women in Wardak or Kandahar if she feels the “liberation” of the western intervention and she will look at you with bewilderment. This is because the bells of freedom do not reverberate through Afghanistan. 87% of women continue to be illiterate. As many as 80% have faced forced marriages and life expectancy is 44 years. Why dont Oxfam or ActionAid publish these statistics? Or are they too telling of the failed war on Afghanistan? These figures are ones that expose Afghan women as the biggest losers of the war.
Laura Bush said it was the duty of the humane world to alleviate of the plight of women and children. Yet alleviate they did not.. 18 billion dollars and an occupation later, 1 in 4 children before they turn five and Afghanistan is still the worst place in the world for a woman to give birth. It may not even be wrong to argue that the situation has since exasperated. All the money, time and “noble” rhetoric did not manifest into reality. And the western world is still scared today to admit they failed Afghan women.
“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” — Malalai Joya in A Woman Among Warlords.
Mohadesa Najumi is originally from Kabul, Afghanistan, now living in London. You can follow her on@mohadesareverie.