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Women in Afghanistan: from cause célèbre to ‘pet rock’?

Western media and the West as a whole is rapidly losing interest in the situation of Afghan women. And hardly anyone is taking notice, writes Judy Mandelbaum.

10 April 2011

With the world’s attention riveted on the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, you may have missed a development that is theoretically just as historic: the Taliban have been quietly dropping their opposition to female education.

Do you remember the women of Afghanistan? The USA and NATO repeatedly highlighted their desperate plight as a prime justification for military intervention and for the open-ended occupation of that unfortunate country.

"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," as Laura Bush put it in a speech in 2006.

Last summer, a shocking photo of a young Afghan woman called Aisha, whose nose and ears had been sliced off for the crime of fleeing her husband’s brutality, adorned the cover of Time Magazine with the title “What Happens if we Leave Afghanistan,” bringing that fading narrative back into Middle America’s consciousness with all the subtlety of a bunker-busting bomb.

The Taliban’s attitude towards female education has been the focus of much of this reporting. The regime had outlawed it during its reign of terror from 1996 to 2001. Since Mullah Omar’s fall from power, acid attacks on schoolgirls and bombs in classrooms have been the hallmarks of his movement’s continuing anti-feminist campaign.

Now that Afghanistan has been “free” for nearly a decade, could the Taliban’s attitude be changing? In January, Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak, a close adviser to President Karzai who has been closely involved in negotiations with the Islamist movement, told the Times Educational Supplement during a trip to Britain that the group’s leadership had decided to allow girls to go to school.

“It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change. What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls’ education.” To this he added: “I hope, Inshallah, soon there will be a peaceful negotiation, a meaningful negotiation with our own opposition … and that will not compromise at all the basic human rights and basic principles which have been guiding us.”

He pointed out that while the Taliban had completedly halted education for girls, currently “38 per cent of seven million students and 30 per cent of the 180,000 teachers are female.”

The hijab makes it okay

According to some Taliban spokesman, the opposition to female education is not fundamental but has more to do with preventing the sexes from mingling in the classroom. Some analysts also believe the Taliban has experienced a learning curve since it was thrown out of power in 2001 and now appreciates the benefits of modern technology and also learning. In southern Afghanistan, Taliban commanders are quietly telling local elders that girls are welcome to attend gender-segregated schools as long as both they and their female teachers wear the hijab and the curriculum adheres to Muslim and Afghan traditions.

So is the Taliban really abandoning its hard line towards female education? I’m not buying it – not yet, anyway. The Taliban government-in-waiting has not made any official announcement of the new policy, nor is it likely to do so.

As Taliban analyist Alex Strick van Linschoten told the Guardian in January, "They are unlikely to announce things like this since it will all come up in any potential negotiations and this is one 'concession' they could make to the foreigners.” Minister of Education spokesman Abdul Sabour Ghofrani said last month that although he had heard of no objections to female education, “no conditions have been exchanged and no deal has been made” with the Taliban.

Regardless of their position on female equality, the Taliban have a general problem with education. Last year, extremists attacked some 500 schools across Afghanistan, killing 169 children, teachers, and school employees and injuring 527, according to UNICEF. It is not clear how many of these were girls’ schools.

A survey conducted by CARE in 2009 revealed that “out of the total number of survey respondents working in the educational sector, 21% admitted to having received threats. Khost is by far the most badly affected province in this sense; there, no less than 59% of education personnel claim receiving threats in the past.”

Are Afghan women now “pet rocks”?

So for now the Taliban’s olive branch appears to be more of a symbolic bargaining chip as it jockeys for power than a genuine change in policy.

What I find intriguing about this development is not only how little attention it has attracted in the Western media but also how “the West” as a whole is rapidly losing interest in the situation of Afghan women. And hardly anyone is taking notice.

On Sunday, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote about how the US government is quietly abandoning the cause of gender equality in its dealings with Afghans, specifically in connection with land reform and inheritance, which are life-and-death issues in a largely agrarian society like Afghanistan.

"If you're targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives," he quotes J. Alexander Their of USAID as saying. "The women's issue is one where we need hardheaded realism. There are things we can do, and do well. But if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble."

According to a senior US official involved in Afghanistan policy, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. There's no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down." (Emphasis added.)

Chandrasekaran also notes how the Karzai government has recently started rolling back major pro-feminist reforms since 2001 with scarcely a peep from Washington:

New rules being drafted by President Hamid Karzai's government would bar private safe houses for women who are fleeing abuse and place new rules on those seeking refuge in the country's 14 public shelters, including forcing women to submit to medical examinations and evicting them if their families want them back. The proposed rules would also bring the shelters - funded by international organizations, Western governments and private donors - under the direct control of the Afghan government.

What do these new rules mean in practice? Afghan women’s activist Horia Mosadiq of Amnesty International explains:

This test examines women for evidence of sexual activity – not to protect them in case of sexual abuse, or gather evidence against their abusers, but rather to see if they are somehow morally at fault, and therefore, subject to prosecution!

The women who run the shelters rightly see the MoWA legislation as an insulting provision that will re-victimise women.  It could even be an avenue that is open to abuse for those in power who wish to put these vulnerable women behind bars for ‘adultery’.

The admission panel itself will not only complicate the process and deny protection to women and girls who need it, but also raise the very serious risk that women who have fled abuse by those with government connections will be put at even more risk, and be sent back to more abuse.

Or, as Chandrasekaran quotes his unnamed senior Washington official as saying, "The grim reality is that, despite all of the talk about promoting women's rights, things are going to have to give."

Last summer’s Time Magazine cover picture is just as powerful now as it was then. I would like to make one suggestion, though.

Instead of titling it “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” call it “What Happens If We Stay.”

Judy Mandelbaum, a regular contributor to Open Salon and other blogs, is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Drawing on her years of experience in overseas development and equality issues, this compulsive writer and backpacker is always on the lookout for the stories that tell us who we really are and not just what we would like to believe about ourselves.



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