Afghan women fear U.S. exit

March 27, 2012


What will happen to Afghan women?

As the United States winds down its presence in Afghanistan and tries to talk to the Taliban, will Afghan women pay the price? Will the gains they’ve made over the last decade be rolled back?

Last week, I heard Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton make a passionate commitment to the contrary at a lunch marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council.

During “this period of transition,” she said, “it’s absolutely critical we protect these gains and expand on them.”

Clinton’s pledge

To those who fear women’s rights will be sacrificed in talks, Clinton repeated what she has said in Kabul and elsewhere: “The United States cannot and will not let that happen.” She added: “Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last.”

Amen. Clinton is correct, and I applaud her passion on this issue. But given the slippage that’s already occurring in women’s rights in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal, I wonder how she will be able to keep her pledge.

To understand how much Afghan women could lose, let me offer a few statistics. As Clinton noted, in 2001, life expectancy for women in Afghanistan was just 44 years. Now it is 62 years. In the Taliban era, almost no girls went to school, but today 3 million do, making up almost 40 percent of primary-school enrollments. In the past decade, nearly 120,000 Afghan girls have graduated from high school, and 15,000 are enrolled in universities.

There’s no doubt that the life of women and girls in rural areas and even in cities is still seriously restricted in accordance with local custom. And many girls no longer attend school in areas where the Taliban have returned.

Progress apparent

But, having visited Afghanistan in 1999, when it was under Taliban rule, I can assure you that women’s progress since then has been substantial. On that trip, I spoke with little girls who were attending secret schools at great risk. I interviewed widows who could not get medical care because no women could venture outdoors without a male relative age 16 or older. I talked to educated women who were virtually imprisoned because they could not go outside or work.

Today, one-fourth of government posts and 28 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women. Afghan women and girls make up 24 percent of doctors and medical workers.

Yet, in talking with women in Kabul by phone or during visits, I have heard deep fear that they will be sold out by their government, and by the United States, in talks with the Taliban. Despite Clinton’s assurances, they do fear the old days will return.

The nine women members of the 70-member Afghan High Peace Council, which is charged with seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, are left out of major discussions. (Indeed, the council itself has been sidelined since its head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated last year.)

U.S. diplomats have been holding secret talks with the Taliban to try to get negotiations going in the Gulf state of Qatar. But Afghan women have no input to those discussions; they can only wait and wonder whether U.S. negotiators would, or could, ensure their rights.

‘Code of conduct’ endorsed

Another reason Afghan women are fearful is that their president, Hamid Karzai, has already endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by an influential council of clerics that restricts women’s rights. The Ulema Council’s document renounces the equality of men and women enshrined in the constitution, saying “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” It endorses husbands’ rights to beat their wives under certain circumstances.

The code also endorses many rules that are a throwback to Taliban days, saying women should not travel without a male guardian and should be segregated in schools, markets, and offices.

Karzai defends this code as being in line with Islamic sharia law. But he is clearly sacrificing constitutional principles, and women’s rights, in order to court conservative clerics — and, perhaps, the Taliban.

This clerical code is not legally binding, but Afghan civic activists say it has emboldened conservatives to start harassing women, and to push for a formal rollback of their rights. Afghan human-rights groups view this as a foretaste of what will happen if the Taliban win a major role in the government via peace talks.

This brings me back to Clinton’s public commitment to Afghan women. She has rightly emphasized that the Afghan constitution protects them. While we still have leverage in Kabul, U.S. officials should push Karzai to give women and civil society a formal voice in any Afghan peace negotiations.

As for U.S. negotiating efforts, if we take Clinton at her word, in any talks with the Taliban the United States must insist on guarantees that women’s rights would not be repealed. Any U.S. aid to a future Afghan government, with or without a Taliban presence, should be contingent on that premise.

“We all need to be vigilant ... in our ... refusal to accept the erosion of women’s rights and freedoms,” Clinton said Wednesday. The trick will be translating that premise into facts on the ground.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Abdu Omar 6 years, 2 months ago

Sharia Law protects women's rights and allows them the same freedoms and responsibilities as men except that men and women have different bodies. One of the purposes of Islam is to reestablish the place of a woman in society, but men in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world, feel threatened and want to maintain their supriority. As long as they feel threatened, the place for women in their society is bleak. Education is lacking and women should play a role in educating men in their country. Most of these men cannot read or respond to these issues because they lack the ability to think critically. Let them learn to read, and then they can read the truth.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 2 months ago

Afghanistan has never been about women's rights. Women are losing rights here in the USA. Yes there is a war against women in the USA as we speak.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

+1 How true. The American Taliban is more subtle but shares some of the objectives of their brothers across the ocean. The concerns are the same: men make decisions for women whether they like it or not.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 2 months ago

Been into the hyperbole already this morning, have we?

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

Check out our own Mullah Sam for an example.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 2 months ago

Women's rights in Afghanistan = don't think so.......

Plans to build a pipeline to siphon oil from newly conquered Iraq to Israel are being discussed between Washington, Tel Aviv and potential future government figures in Baghdad.

The plan envisages the reconstruction of an old pipeline, inactive since the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1948, when the flow from Iraq's northern oilfields to Palestine was re-directed to Syria.

Now, its resurrection would transform economic power in the region, bringing revenue to the new US-dominated Iraq, cutting out Syria and solving Israel's energy crisis at a stroke.

It would also create an end less and easily accessible source of cheap Iraqi oil for the US guaranteed by reliable allies other than Saudi Arabia - a keystone of US foreign policy for decades and especially since 11 September 2001.

Until 1948, the pipeline ran from the Kurdish-controlled city of Mosul to the Israeli port of Haifa, on its northern Mediterranean coast.

The revival of the pipeline was first discussed openly by the Israeli Minister for National Infrastructures, Joseph Paritzky, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz .

The paper quotes Paritzky as saying that the pipeline would cut Israel's energy bill drastically - probably by more than 25 per cent - since the country is currently largely dependent on expensive imports from Russia.

US intelligence sources confirmed to The Observer that the project has been discussed. One former senior CIA official said: 'It has long been a dream of a powerful section of the people now driving this administration [of President George W. Bush] and the war in Iraq to safeguard Israel's energy supply as well as that of the United States.

'The Haifa pipeline was something that existed, was resurrected as a dream and is now a viable project - albeit with a lot of building to do.'

The editor-in-chief of the Middle East Economic Review , Walid Khadduri, says in the current issue of Jane's Foreign Report that 'there's not a metre of it left, at least in Arab territory'.

To resurrect the pipeline would need the backing of whatever government the US is to put in place in Iraq, and has been discussed - according to Western diplomatic sources - con't http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/apr/20/israelandthepalestinians.oil

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

So a proposed oil pipeline from Iraq to Israel is proof that there is a war on women, both in the U.S. and Afghanistan?

You're going to have to provide a lot of dots before we can begin connecting them.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

It does indicate that concern for women's rights is not what is driving the occupation of Afghanistan.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

It also indicates that Mexican drug cartels couldn't care less about U.S. plans to send robots to Mars.


jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Since you seem to be trolling my every comment, and my original comment was made in reference to Merrill's comparison of an oil pipeline from Iraq to Israel with U.S. and Afghani wars on women, why not try to make that link for him. Your comment says nothing that would make such a link. Or Merrill can speak for himself and make such a link.
Or you can troll on over to other threads, look for comments by me, and add your snarky remarks. Whatever.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

Well, I admit that I merely scanned Merrill's post, and assumed it was about pipelines that are still planned to traverse Afghanistan (in addition to the ones in Iraq.)

My bad on that, but that pipeline is still more of a driver of the occupation than any concern for the women of that country.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

There will always be unintentional consequences resulting from conflict. Some will be good, some not. But we shouldn't confuse them with the intent of the conflict and whether or not the conflict was necessary. The allies victory over Germany allowed half of Europe to escape a cycle of violence. It allowed a significant number of Muslims to move to Germany, mainly from Turkey. It set in motion German modernization that has caused Germany to become an economic power. None of those was the intended consequence of our mission. That was simply to defeat Nazi Germany. The same is true in Afghanistan. We went into Afghanistan not to provide freedom for women, not to build pipelines, not to eradicate the poppy fields. Some of that might happen. And it might happen to varying degrees. But that wasn't our intention going in nor should we lose focus of what our intentions were. To whatever degree we can help women in Afghanistan, we should. And if some pipeline should be deemed a benefit, what the heck, do that as well. But the focus was defeating the Taliban to such a degree that terrorist organizations could not use that territory as a launching pad against U.S. interests.

juma 6 years, 2 months ago

The mohammedans, sometimes called moslems, are anti-female. This is a fact and every woman in every moslem country agrees. It is total and absolute falsehood to say islam protects women's rights. women are property belonging to the male mohammedan. wounded-soldlier is typical of moslems living in the free western countries but expounding the virtues of islam. If islam is so great then move to a moslem country.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

"This is a fact and every woman in every moslem country agrees."

Wow, who appointed you spokesperson for 750 million women? Did you personally interview all of them?

booyalab 6 years, 2 months ago

Who cares about Afghan women? I can't even get free birth control!

booyalab 6 years, 2 months ago

Well, I can...but I have to, like, go across town.

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