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.”