Defending women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan

April 4, 2009

Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?

The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi’ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women’s rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists. 

In Pakistan, video footage has been circulated of Taliban militants flogging a teenage girl in the Swat valley, where the government concluded a peace deal with the Taliban in February. The graphic and disturbing video, which has been posted on YouTube, has outraged many Pakistanis and the flogging was condemned by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as shameful. There have been contradictory reports of exactly when and why the girl was punished, although Dawn newspaper quoted a witness as saying she was flogged two weeks ago for refusing a marriage proposal.

But where do women’s rights fit into the new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

The New York Times quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying in response to a question on the Afghan law that “women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama administration”.

Mark Malloch Brown, Britain’s foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the U.N., was quoted by the Guardian as expressing dismay over the Afghan law’s impact on women’s rights. “We are caught in the Catch-22 that the Afghans obviously have the right to write their own laws,” he said. “But there is dismay. The rights of women was one of the reasons the UK and many in the west threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion.”

And NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the Afghan law could make it harder to raise troops to be sent to Afghanistan. “We are there to defend universal values and when I see, at the moment, a law threatening to come into effect which fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights, that worries me,” he told the BBC.

Now, setting aside for the moment the question of how far the West should be prepared to fight for women’s rights, compare these statements to what Obama said when he defined his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan:

“Many people in the United States — and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much — have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan?  After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there?  And they deserve a straightforward answer.

“So let me be clear: Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.  And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

His comments were seen as a break from the aims of the former Bush administration to impose Western-style democracy in Afghanistan.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been clear about the need to keep the goals limited, telling Congress: “If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose.”

Narrowing the focus to defeating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies will force Washington to make some unpalatable choices about how far it is willing to turn a blind eye to the repressive treatment of women both in Afghan society and among the Pashtun tribals in Pakistan.  Is the renewed attention on women’s rights the first evidence of mission creep?

You might argue, as does Rafia Zakaria in this editorial in the Daily Times, that there is a moral obligation to help Afghan women.  You might also argue that raising the status of women often has powerful impact on improving economic conditions — helping to eliminate the poverty in which Islamist militancy thrives.

But that’s far closer to nation-building than to setting limited goals. And it’s not what Obama said when he defined the purpose of sending  men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan. 

(Reuters file photos: President Barack Obama, and women in Taloqan in Afghanistan)


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