Afghanistan and its women

Kabul, OLD MOD BLDG2, originally uploaded by crzy_ray.

Since the Afghan government has recently shown little regard for the rights of its women, is it any surprise that women have not braved injury and death to turn up at the ballot box?

Although no official turnout figures are available and the election results are not yet final, election monitoring groups and political activists from Taliban-plagued provinces report that in dozens of insecure districts, almost no women voted. Nationwide, they say, women’s participation was much lower than in either the 2004 presidential or 2005 parliamentary elections.

…”Our constitution gives all men and women equal rights to vote, but in most areas that were not safe and secure, men did not let the women leave home and voted for them,” said Sabrina Saghib, a member of a parliamentary committee on women’s rights. “That is against the law and those votes should not be counted as women’s votes.”

— Constable, Pamela.  “Many Women Stayed Away From the Polls In Afghanistan.Washington Post, 31 August 2009.

I believe the Afghan mission could continue to be worthwhile, provided we hew to first principles and do not sacrifice them.  I do recognise that it will be a generational struggle, involving several decades, possibly many more than I have to live on this planet.  Casualties are to be expected, and indeed if our losses had been a hundred thousand more, the essential cause would not have lost any of its importance.  Further, I know that leaving Afghanistan would create a power vacuum, one that resurgent Islamism would be happy to fill.  And we would in any event be forced to go back at some point, to clean out the proverbial rats’ nest once again.  But it should be noted that any result that leaves the women of Afghanistan as second-class citizens, whether by clerical diktat or democratically-formulated statute, is an empirical failure.  And our government should be challenging any such subjugation, privately and publicly.

At the very least, HM Dominion Government should be making the point that retrograde laws erode public support for the Afghan effort; and at some point that erosion is going to result in the withdrawal of military, financial and diplomatic support for the Afghan government.  The patience of Western polities is not long-lived at the best of times; to intentionally try it by denying basic universal rights is unwise, to say the least.

How does one suppose an Afghan woman of the future—today a mere child— will react?  She will have heard the rhetoric of equality and personal liberty from our media and representatives, yet her day-to-day life will be permeated with gender discrimination.  She will have been promised liberation only to suffer years of bondage, with our hardware and men protecting the very persons who created those bonds.  Whatever she will be taught about universal human rights will be cruelly undercut in the day to day realities of her life.  Will she then, at voting age, be favourably inclined toward us (and favourably inclined toward Afghan politicians seen to be cozy with NATO)?  Will she look back on our assistance with gratefulness, or a certain weary cynicism that our deeds failed to match our words?  Do we not play right into the hands of tinpot totalitarians everywhere, who are fond of saying that human rights are a hypocritical sham—a convenient stick that we use to beat the Third World on occasion?

For me, the Afghan “rape law” (now merely a “starvation law“) is a line too far.  It is something we cannot countenance.  It is destructive to home front morale, and to watch its passage in silence is an insult to the dignity of women.  Equality of men and women is a bedrock principle of our Charter of Rights; and our message to Afghanistan should be unequivocal—we cannot support the undermining of  universal rights, especially as a cynical vote-getting ploy.  In 1945, we would not have consented to the gradual reintroduction of Nazi law, on the justification that nascent German democrats needed to win the approval of old-guard fascists.  Mr. Karzai, and our own government, should not be permitted to slide this under the rug.

A choice must be made.  Either we stand for these universal freedoms and the rights of Afghan women, or we accede to so-called pragmatism and permit women to be enslaved for political advantage.  But let us have no illusions about the devil we are dealing with.

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