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[casi] How We Forgot About Afghan Women
Published on Thursday, December 19, 2002 by the lndependent/UK

How We Forgot About the Women of Afghanistan
It shows just how long our concern will probably last for those affected by
our next military adventure

by Natasha Walter

When I was in Afghanistan six months ago, I met some women from Herat, in the
west of the country, who had come to Kabul for the great political assembly,
the loya jirga. We met in a stifling tent in the courtyard of the loya jirga
offices. I will never forget, as long as I live, the atmosphere in that tent.
For the first time in so many years, these women believed that they might
break out of their terrible experiences of oppression, and although they were
still tentative, bubbles of optimism constantly floated in the air.

One of the most optimistic voices in the tent came from a woman whom I will
call Sima Kur. She was a middle-aged woman, dressed all in green. She told me
that Ismail Khan, the warlord who rules Herat, had originally decreed that no
women were to go to the loya jirga from his province. When he had been
overruled by the central administration, the women had been delighted. "This
is the happiest day for women in Afghanistan," she said. "We are here and now
we can defend women's rights. The doors are opening for us."

Despite their long history of oppression, these women were eager to taste the
fruits of freedom. Sima Kur told me that in Herat no woman had yet dared to
take off her burqa. "But they all say to me, Sima, when you get to the loya
jirga, please, for our sakes, speak without your burqa. Let them see your

Although I never supported the war in Afghanistan, when I heard those women
talk I began to believe that great good could come out of the terror.
Whenever I have thought and read about what has been going on in Afghanistan
since then, it is those women, especially Sima Kur with her indomitable
spirit, who recur to me. She became a sort of touchstone to me of the
possibilities that exist in that benighted country.

That is why I read the new report from Human Rights Watch with a sense of
growing horror. The report documents the current reality of women's lives in
Herat, and it tells us that the hope that those women expressed to me is
being betrayed. Undoubtedly, the lives of women in Herat have improved since
the Taliban left; above all for one reason – they are allowed to go to
school. But, as one woman interviewed for the report said, "Everything else
is restricted."

Ismail Khan, the ruler of Herat, can count on good relations with the
military forces in the area. When Donald Rumsfeld met him earlier this year,
he called him "an appealing person". Certainly, he was our useful ally in the
struggle to rid that region of Afghanistan of the Taliban. But in supporting
him we are supporting another regime that loathes women.

This is a regime in which women are still forced, against their will, to
cover themselves from head to foot when they go out. Even young girls taking
off their headscarves at school have been beaten. It is a regime in which
women are not allowed to go in cars with men who are not their close
relatives – or to walk with them or even talk privately with them in their
own homes. If they break these rules they can be arrested, taken to police
stations and forced to undergo gynecological examinations to check they have
not had sex.

Although women can go to school, they have been arrested or intimidated for
all sorts of offenses from driving cars to speaking to journalists or talking
publicly about women's rights. They are discouraged from taking any jobs
other than teaching, especially any work that might bring them into contact
with foreigners or men. Last month, Ismail Khan announced on the radio that
all men "are obliged to beat" women who walk with men who are not their

There is a stony sadness in the words of some women in Herat today. One is
quoted in the report, saying: "The leadership here is very bad for us. It is
not much different than the Taliban."

The West went to war with Afghanistan without a clear picture of what the
country would look like after the removal of the Taliban, and now that these
reports of gross violations of human rights are being published, we are
washing our hands of responsibility for them. Downing Street has a website
page on the war entitled "Facts", which lists 10 "media views that were
wrong". It includes my statement of a year ago: "In the rush to do deals with
the new de facto rulers of Afghanistan, it looks very likely that the
interests of women will be ignored." I wish I had been wrong.

There is no immediate answer to this situation, since there is no obvious
alternative to Ismail Khan's leadership of the western part of Afghanistan.
But there is a long, slow answer – that all aid should be conditional on
women's rights being respected, that international organizations should put
more pressure on local rulers to respect women's rights, and that far more
support should be given not just to women's healthcare and education, but
also to their fledgling political and advocacy organizations A great deal
more money and trust should be given immediately by the West to the
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the only indigenous
organization that supports full equality and a secular state, and which is
still ignored by Western governments.

The fact that this report on Ismail Khan's abuses of women's rights has been
ignored by the commentators and reporters who were so eager for war in
Afghanistan has another lesson for us. It shows just how long our concern
will probably last for those who will be affected by our next military
adventure. The attention span of the media is so short that, despite the
great promises of our leaders at the time, we are shrugging off our ongoing
responsibility to the people of Afghanistan. Abuses of women's rights in
Afghanistan were headline news as we were preparing for war; now they are
hardly worth a mention.

How long will we give the people of Iraq before we get bored by the reports
that they have still not achieved democracy? Will it be just a year after a
US invasion that some report by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International,
documenting abuses against Kurds or dissidents, will be relegated to a couple
of paragraphs on page 15 of our newspapers, rather than being the subject of
government launches?

There is much too much lazy hopefulness being expressed that the blood that
will be spilt in Iraq will easily be compensated for by the flowering of
democracy once Saddam Hussein has been removed. But the conference of Iraqi
exiles that wound up yesterday left the post-war future of Iraq as obscure as
ever. Although it is clear that the United States wants to install a
government that will be more amenable to US interests than Saddam Hussein's,
it is not at all clear how hard it will work to make sure that such a
government will be more accountable to its own people.

I am not in favor of war. But since it looks certain that there will be war,
we should talk clearly about the ongoing responsibility that Britain will be
taking on – not just to future wielders of power, but also to the powerless
civilians. War may be the end of the story as far as we are concerned, but
for the people most affected, war is only the beginning of the story.

© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd


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