An Uneasy Peace
In January, Hamid Karzai, chairman of the Afghan interim administration, quietly signed the "Declaration of Essential Rights of Afghan Women," which guarantees equality between men and women, equal protection under the law, equal right to education in all disciplines, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and political participation, and freedom to wear or not wear the burqa or any form of head covering. After five years of Taliban oppression, the worst in the world for women, such freedoms are heartening indeed. Their exercise, however, depends on certain conditions--not least of which is basic security--that do not currently exist in Afghanistan.
Equal protection under the law is meaningless when the courts are not functioning and there is no reliable national police force or army. The exiled King Zahir Shah has twice delayed his return to Afghanistan because of assassination threats. At the beginning of April, a coup d'état in the making by alleged associates of former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was foiled when hundreds were arrested for planning "terrorism, abductions and sabotage." It's a misnomer to call the 4,500-strong British-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) "peacekeepers," since they are confined to the capital and have a mandate to defend only the UN and the government, which precludes any protection for ordinary Afghans. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Karzai himself have said that the ISAF needs to be increased to 30,000 and deployed throughout the country, but President Bush continues to reject such expansion.
"How can we win the war, and lose the keeping of the peace?" asks Eleanor Smeal, whose organization, the Feminist Majority Foundation, led the US campaign against the Taliban's oppression of women. "President Bush said he would not turn his back on Afghanistan, but not having more security forces is a disaster. It doesn't make sense." The situation on the ground belies the Bush Administration's claims that it has won the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, averted a famine and liberated women. As the US military struggles to stamp out persistent pockets of now-you-see-them, now-you-don't Al Qaeda and Taliban, death from hunger is common, lawlessness rampant, and little has changed for the vast majority of Afghan women.
Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that very few women have discarded the burqa--a garment best described as a body bag for the living--because they fear for their safety. Recent reports of gang rapes by armed Afghan factions echo the indiscriminate sexual violence of the four-year civil war of 1992-96, which paved the way for the Taliban, with their promises of restoring law and order. Human Rights Watch now reports a "wave of killing, rape and widespread ethnic persecution" in northern Afghanistan, where an anti-Pashtun pogrom is raging. "We have found case after case of gang-raping of women, and even children," says senior researcher Peter Bouckaert. Adds Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, a New York-based international women's human rights organization: "Rape is being tolerated and condoned by regional Afghan authorities. They are complicit in the assaults. The people running these parts of the country have a history of such abuse themselves."
Hafiza Rasouli, 46, a UNICEF project officer, spoke for many women when she told me during a recent visit to Kabul: "We felt safer under the Taliban. We could sleep with our doors open at night, but no longer. When it comes to our security, we have not forgotten Nahida."
Thirteen-year-old Nahida Hassan became a symbol for Afghan women and girls who were raped during the two decades of war. When a commander and twenty of his troops broke into her Kabul apartment, killing her 12-year-old brother and gunning down her other male relatives, Nahida understood she was the target. To avoid being sexually savaged, she leapt from the sixth-floor window to her death. Today, there is a shrine on the spot where she fell. "Everyone knew who the commander was. But no one dared touch him," said the girl's 64-year-old grandfather, Mohammed Hassan. The commander enjoyed the protection of his party, whose fundamentalist cleric leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, headed the government at the time and, more recently, the Northern Alliance, which holds key positions in the new interim administration. And with Hekmatyar back in the picture--a notorious warlord and rabid extremist who during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s was a major recipient of US military aid funneled through Pakistan's intelligence service--security for women could become much worse. In his brief sojourn at Kabul University in the 1960s, Hekmatyar was infamous for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled female students. Since then, he has been responsible for a vast list of atrocities and assassinations.
A growing schism between a few apparent progressives and the conservative hard-liners in the interim administration was highlighted when, days before Karzai signed the emancipation document, his justice minister announced that the new government would still impose a strict form of Sharia law. In an interview with the French news agency Agence France-Presse, his chief justice explained that public executions and amputations would no longer be held at Kabul's sports stadium, but that they would continue. "The stadium is for sports. We will find a new place for public executions," he said, adding that adulterers, too, will still be publicly stoned to death. The new interior ministry, meanwhile, requires women to have the permission of their male relatives before traveling or applying for passports, just as the Taliban did.