Maybe it was the sex that caught our attention. Sex has a way of doing that. The lead of the story, after all, was that any Shiite woman in Afghanistan would be required by law “to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband.”
Or maybe it wasn’t the sex. Maybe it was the report that under this religious law, Shiite women could leave their homes alone only for “legitimate purposes.”
Either way, the story ricocheted around the world as if it were a trailer for a horror movie: “Taliban, The Sequel.”
This time our man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, signed a Personal Status Law that enshrined the lowest personal status on women from the Shiite minority that makes up 10 percent of the Afghan population. He bargained women’s lives like a chit in the struggle for political power, wooing the religious right in the run-up to the summer election.
The international reaction was swift and powerful. The headlines read “Marital Rape” and “Women Sex Slaves to Husbands!” Human rights activists protested. President Obama declared the law to be “abhorrent.”
I was not surprised at the uproar. Ever since the Afghan war began, we assured ourselves that whatever else, we had one moral victory. We’d freed the women from Taliban rule.
Before 9/11, the world had barely squinted at women covered like blue mushrooms under burqas, living under the Taliban’s house arrest. They had no public face, no public voice. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t go to school. They were beaten for an exposed ankle and killed for a supposed violation. They were even forbidden to laugh out loud.
Some saw this as the continuation of an ancient repressive culture, but the truth was far more chilling. Afghan women had slowly gained rights through the 20th century. They helped write their country’s 1964 constitution. They served in parliament and went to universities. They were 40 percent of the doctors and 70 percent of the teachers. Then the Taliban turned their homeland into a patriarchal jail.
After we invaded the country that had given safe haven to al-Qaida, even President Bush repeatedly described the emancipation of women as one thing that made the war worthwhile. In his 2002 state of union speech, he declared: “Today women are free and are part of Afghanistan’s new government.” Mission accomplished?
Indeed, women in Kabul and elsewhere threw off their burqas and girls went to school. The new Afghan constitution enshrined equality and things were far better. But gradually, American attention wandered and the Taliban and warlords began to return.
Taliban, the Sequel? In 2007, 236 schools teaching girls were burned down. In 2008, there were attacks on 256 schools that left 58 dead. Teachers have been killed in front of students and schoolgirls attacked with acid. Honor killings are up, burqas are back in many places. A 75-year-old woman was nailed to a tree and killed, and an Afghan member of parliament had her daughter legally taken away by a husband after he married a second wife.
The list goes on while a weakened Karzai placates the warlords, out of the spotlight.
“The women are the canaries in the coal mine,” says Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority, which has focused on Afghan women when they were in fashion and when they were out. “There is a campaign of terror going on by these reactionary Taliban-like forces,” she says, adding, “Now suddenly it’s gotten people’s attention.”
Sometimes it takes a religious law codifying marital rape to jolt us to attention. Sometimes, for that matter, it takes a cell-phone video of a 17-year-old woman in Pakistan being flogged to get us to see what happens when a government tries to trade part of a province for peace. But many everyday dramas remain invisible.
This time the world’s outrage has led Karzai to promise to “review” the law.
But if that Shiite minority is saved from having its repression codified into law, will we again ignore the struggle for all Afghan women?
“Human rights are not a Western concept,” says Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan human rights commission, “but universal, and necessary for all human beings.” Somewhere in southern Afghanistan another little girl is being “protected” from school, another woman shrouded in the anonymity of a burqa is begging permission to walk out her front door. This is happening on our watch. Eyes wide open please.
— Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.