“Women’s rights are human rights,” Hillary Clinton declared at the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women in 1995. As President Barack Obama’s “good war” in Afghanistan goes bad and negotiations with the Taliban increasingly seem likely, there has never been a greater need to recall these words.
While it is hard to disagree with the generals and politicians who say that a military victory is not possible and a political solution must be found, are the women of Afghanistan going to be asked to pay for this political settlement with their rights?
In any negotiations, the West will insist that the Taliban not allow Al Qaeda to set up training camps, or otherwise operate from Afghan territory. The Taliban may agree to this. But that is not sufficient. The United States and NATO should not withdraw their troops without a commitment to respect civil liberties and guarantee the rights of women. Is this possible?
By way of reminder, this is the same Taliban whose brutal repression saw women under virtual house arrest and subject to incessant terror during their six-year reign.
This is the same Taliban that denied women the right to education and employment, deprived them of social and political participation and that whipped, beat and verbally abused them for laughing aloud or for failing to cover their already shrouded and faceless bodies in exact accordance with Taliban rules.
This is the same Taliban that hauled girls into the Kabul football stadium to be executed publicly, and for conduct that would not be considered criminal under any democratic law.
Even years after coalition forces invaded Afghanistan, women still face a constant threat. In 2006, the female rights activist Safia Amajan was gunned down for suggesting that women had a right to education and work, and just last year teenage girls in Kandahar had acid thrown in their faces for attending school.
And who would represent women in any negotiations with the Taliban? Middle-aged male generals and diplomats? Afghan warlords and Pashtun power-brokers? It seems unlikely that women would be allowed a meaningful place at the table. Of the thousands gathered at the Afghan peace Jirga in June, only a small number were women and none were involved in its planning.
“The belief is that women are not important,” said Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women’s Network, describing a mind-set that she says “has not been changed in the past eight years.”
The Afghan Constitution guarantees the equality for women. But if the Taliban were brought into the government, they would likely demand Shariah law, at least in some areas. Iran, invoking Shariah law, last week sentenced Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, to death by stoning for alleged “adultery while being married.” (After an international outcry, the Iranian government backed down, though her fate is still unknown.)
Such barbaric practices were prevalent during the Taliban reign. The West has little influence over Iran, but in Afghanistan it has an opportunity to help determine the fate of a country’s people.
Are we prepared to walk away knowing that women may once again be bound, buried neck-deep in the ground and stoned until they slowly bleed to death? After invading the country, do we not have a moral imperative to leave it better than we found it?
Even if the Taliban committed itself to honoring the rights of women, it is difficult to conceive how this would be enforceable. If the Taliban were to renege on a promise not to allow Al Qaeda bases, it is easy to imagine that American missiles would once again rain down on the country. Would the West go back to war if the Taliban tore up a promise to allow girls to go to school, women to work?
At the outset of this now nine-year war, Cherie Blair and Laura Bush, among others, defended it as a war to liberate the women of Afghanistan. Their moral reasoning was derided by some commentators — “It would be the first imperial war in history to liberate women,” wrote Tariq Ali, a prominent Pakistani leftist. Sadly his derision may be well placed after all.
In the 1980s, the United States funded the Islamic war against the Soviets for its own purposes, and then walked out, leaving behind a breeding ground for terrorists and the brutal enslavement of women as the Taliban took over.
We must not allow the progress of the last nine years to be snatched away from the women of Afghanistan. We must not abandon them again. Women’s rights, after all, are human rights.
Thea Garland, a freelance writer based in London.