Afghan Women, Feminism, And The Problem With Limited Options

Are feminists in love with the surge? Earlier this week, Dana Goldstein, writing for the Daily Beast, explored "the left's latest divide," pitting feminists and nation-builders against antiwar sentiment. But where does this leave Afghan women?

Goldstein bases a large portion of her piece around the argument of women's rights activists who explain that leaving Afghan women is not part of the deal. Using Obama's Afghanistan strategy speech as a springboard, organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation are raising their voices in support for continued engagement in the country for the benefit of women. Not everyone is an enthusiastic about our prospects. Goldstein explains:

Other progressives, though, say the women's rights activists are naïve, and have failed to grapple with the fact that feminism was never more than a rhetorical ploy in debates about the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, whose real goal has always been to root out al Qaeda. They also point to the occupation's high cost in dollar terms, as well as the American public's limited tolerance for foreign wars. A recent Pew poll found that isolationist sentiment is at a four-decade high.

Even if the administration was willing to commit to a nation-building project in Afghanistan, it would be with an Afghan partner whose own record on women's issues is mixed at best. Though President Hamid Karzai recently signed the new Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women-which ups the penalties for rape, domestic violence, and child marriage-he also supported, earlier this year, the Shia Family Law, which subjected women in the Shia minority group to a number of discriminatory laws, including rules regarding when they can and cannot leave home unaccompanied by a man. Karzai has also made political alliances with warlords who hold regressive opinions on women's rights.

There is good reason to be worried about women. According to the Human Rights Watch:

Eight years after the Taliban were ousted from power, rapists are often protected from prosecution, women can still be arrested for running away from home, and girls have far less access to schools than boys, the report says.

With the insurgency strengthening in the south and making inroads into the north, the few gains made for women's rights since the US-led invasion of 2001 could be further eroded if Hamid Karzai's government and the international community push for peace talks with factions of the fundamentalist movement.

Elenor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Helen Cho, a board member for the Feminist Majority foundation, co-penned a piece in the Huffington Post, arguing that securing women's rights would call for a lot more investment in the region.

[M]ake no mistake. Afghanistan is in terrible shape. The Taliban have gradually returned. Nothing is as it should be, which is why we are asking for no less than a Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan, the same way we did for Germany and Japan after World War II. Afghanistan's water, sewage, electrical, and their once proud hospital systems have been all but destroyed by 30 years of war. We bombed it. We have an obligation to rebuild it.

Though we'd prefer that all U.S. funding be spent on development aid, we cannot in good conscience advocate the immediate military pullout that some are suggesting. The 2009 UN Humanitarian Action Plan noted that in 2008, "Approximately 40% of the country, including much of the South, remains inaccessible for most humanitarian organizations." Last year, 92 aid workers were abducted and 36 were killed, double the number from 2007. In recent public opinion polls, Afghans put security in their top three concerns right after food. Without stabilizing the country, there can be no significant redevelopment effort.

In March, President Obama announced a significant change in the Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy. He shifted the focus from Iraq to this troubled region not a moment too soon. The Taliban had taken over the Swat Valley in Pakistan and were within 100 miles of its capital. In case anyone was wondering if the Taliban had changed its ways, they promptly closed girls' schools, began flogging young women publicly, and committed other atrocities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban nailed a 70-year-old woman to a tree for allegedly talking with the enemy.

The new administration's strategy recognizes the need for development and reconstruction. The military appears to be changing its priorities, announcing that protection of civilians is their first priority. Virtually everyone knows that a military solution alone won't work. Yet, we cannot ignore that security and the Taliban are among Afghans' top concerns.

Linda Bereystein, investigative journalist, points to a different perspective on her blog.

Westerners usually frame the debate over U.S./NATO policy in Afghanistan is usually framed as a choice between handing the country back to the Taliban or propping up the Karzai regime. The latter is assumed to be a dramatically better option for women's rights.

Karzai pays lip service to women's rights, but jettisons them whenever they need to make a compromise to stay in power. It should be noted that the Karzai government was responsible for the infamous Shia Family Law which legalized marital rape within Shia marriages.

Last month, Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, told Michelle Goldberg of the Daily Beast that the situation for Afghan women is every bit as bad under Karzai as it was under the Taliban. Joya is also concerned that civilian casualties are fueling popular support for the Taliban.

RAWA and its grassroots allies think that pro-democracy forces could transform the country on their own without U.S. military occupation. That's a point of view we seldom hear in U.S. media.

I don't know how realistic it is to think that pro-democracy forces could prevail against warlords and the Taliban, but the question hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the issue of whether the U.S. could force reform at gunpoint. Maybe RAWA and its allies would have a better shot at power if the occupation wasn't shoveling billions of dollars to the most reactionary elements in society.

Over on GritTV, a woman known as Zoya, representing RAWA, outlines many of the issues with our current strategy in Afghanistan. After 30 years of war, Zoya discusses how the US occupation is still undermining Afghanistan, by propping up some terrorist groups to pursue others. After regretfully admitting the most realistic options for many women if Afghanistan were either leaving the country or suicide, Zoya explains why she was motivated to join RAWA and describes how Afghanistan needs a resolution.

Zoya:

These videos that your are showing about the rape and domestic violence against women, [is happening] under the domination of the United States. It's a time when thousands of troops are present. It's a time that [troops and groups from] more than 40 foreign countries are inside the country. [...]These things are [still] happening daily. This is the proof that America cannot do anything. The only solution - that RAWA was always saying - is that domestic violence [always depends] on political situations. It very much depends and relates to that. So as long as we don't have a democratic government, who cares for women's rights, how can we expect rights and the liberation of women?

Zoya explains that there are other alternatives to occupation, like helping to disarm the various factions that are fighting for dominance. She challenges Americans to rise up and tell the government to stop supporting warlords and criminals. She believes this is the best way to help, saying:

If you cannot to help us, leave us. But if you want to help us, the first help is to take all these fundamentalist, these viruses that the United States government created for Afghanistan.

Why Feminists Love the Surge [The Daily Beast]
Plight of Afghan women may worsen as war effort is stepped up, warns report [The Guardian]
Why Is the Feminist Majority Foundation Refusing to Abandon the Women and Girls of Afghanistan? [Huffington Post]
Not all feminists love escalation in Afghanistan [Majikethise]
GRITtv: A Voice from RAWA: Zoya on Afghanistan [Free Speech TV]

Earlier: Obama's Speech On Afghanistan Measured, Expected