Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
By Andrew Hammond
There have been worrying signs in Kabul over the past week that political and social gains made by women since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001 are at best tenuous.
”Normalising” the country’s profile after the extremes of five years of Taliban rule has been one main justifications for continuing the Western military mission in Afghanistan, and of Hamid Karzai’s government.
Karzai’s interim cabinet after 2001 included a female vice-president and there were three female ministers after his
election in 2004. Next month’s parliamentary polls maintain a quota to ensure at least 25 percent of Walesi Jirga seats are filled by women.
Civilian casualties in the worsening war in Afghanistan are up just over 30 percent in the current year, the United Nations said in a mid-year report this week, holding the Taliban responsible for three-quarters of the deaths or injuries.
More worrying, women and children seem to be taking the brunt of the violence directed by a resurgent Taliban, which will only stoke more concern about the wisdom of seeking reconciliation with the hardline Islamist group.
A Time magazine cover showing the face of an 18-year-old Afghan woman mutilated by the Taliban has set off a furious debate about how far to go in search of a political settlement with the resurgent Islamist group to end nine years of fighting.
On the one side are those who point to the latest atrocity as a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban, and that nothing really had changed. Women will pay the heaviest price if the hardline Islamist group returned to power, they warn. On the other hand are those who argue that America cannot indefinitely remain in Afghanistan to defend women’s rights which in any case remains an elusive goal. Indeed the latest abuse took place while troops are on the ground which goes to show the limits of military power.
I was recently on a flight back from the western Afghan city of Herat. I was with a female friend, an American consultant who was in Herat compiling field research on civilian casualties. There was a ‘free seats’ policy on the Pamir Airways flight so my friend and I went to the first available empty row, which happened to be the exit row in the middle of the plane.
As we went to sit down a clean-shaven flight attendant who looked like he was in his twenties told us we had to sit elsewhere. I asked why and he said “It’s for men only, no women, please sit here,” pointing to the next row behind. My friend and I looked at each other with disbelief. We both asked him again, why we couldn’t sit there and why being women prevented us from sitting there. Without any hesitation he said: “It’s for men and able bodied people only.” We were shocked.
Where women really stand in Afghan society didn’t hit home to me until I walked down a busy market street in Kandahar without seeing a single woman. The birthplace of the Taliban, Kandahar is conservative even by Afghan standards. It is also the focus of NATO’s next big military offensive in Afghanistan, and I spent a couple of days last week embedded with a U.S. military police unit there to report on plans for the offensive and the mood on the ground.
Back in 2002, onlookers would often gather outside the U.S. military headquarters in Bagram in Afghanistan, watching women soldiers in full battle gear sitting on top of vehicles on guard duty at the entrance to the base.
For a deeply conservative society such as Afghanistan, it was a novel sight to watch women in such a role, more so coming soon after the harsh regime of the Taliban. From time to time, the women would get annoyed and holler to the men hanging around and staring at them: “Back off. Haven’t you seen a woman ever?”
It must take a particularly determined lot to bomb a bus full of pilgrims, killing scores of them, and then following the wounded to a hospital to unleash a second attack to kill some more. Karachi’s twin explosions on Friday, targeting Shia Muslims on their way to a religious procession were on par with some of the worst atrocities committed in recent months.
It also came just two days after a bombing in Lower Dir, near Swat, in which a convoy of soldiers including U.S. servicemen were targeted while on their way to open a girls school. Quite apart from the fact that the U.S. soldiers were the obvious targets, the renewed violence along with fresh reports of flogging by the Taliban calls into question the broader issue of negotiating with hard-core Islamists as proposed by the Afghan government just over the border.
At Thursday’s London conference on Afghanistan, some 60 countries will to try flesh out the details for a plan to gradually hand security to Afghans, which involves strengthening and expanding Afghan security forces, improving the way donor aid to Afghanistan is spent and reintegrating Taliban fighters. But where do women fit into these plans, especially if the Taliban are to be involved?
The plan, which has been tried in the past without much success, would involve luring low-level Taliban from the insurgency using jobs and money to re-join Afghan society. There has also been much talk, particularly in the media, about the possibility of dialogue or negotiations with the Taliban.