Talking to Taliban at Afghan woman’s cost

August 20, 2010

Source: Viewpoint

Washington is backing an alliance between the government, warlords already in power, Taliban and the arch-criminal Hekmattyar whose true place is at the Hague tribunal. This policy may be the only way to get out of an inextricable war but the fate of the entire female Afghan population will be sacrificed on the altar of expediency

Thinking society in terms of essentialist stereotypes that lumps humanity into active/passive, warriors/victims necessarily perpetuates male domination and the entire mechanism behind nationalist wars. Men are not born rapists or combatants just as women are not natural pacifists. However, the case of Afghanistan is one where women have remarkably few opportunities for agency. In the past, it was not always the case, at least during the Daoud years and the much-maligned Communist times

This regime in Afghanistan created a class of educated, sophisticated women, albeit an urban minority, that was to suffer the most from the  brutal rule of illiterate Fundamentalists. The inherent social inequality means that educated women as elsewhere in developing countries are usually privileged and urban.  The relative wealth and status that these usually middle-class women enjoy has helped them find routes (including migration) to escape the fate inflicted on  their poorer compatriots. Today this class have women which had migrated has not returned, with few exceptions and these have not been given any form of power by a government run on a reactionary consensus

Women are the veritable victims both of thirty years of unabated war and the compensatory violence at  the hands of their own men who need to offload their own frustrations and anger at being incapable of handling their own lives.

They are also victims of a symbolic violence, as they have become the official cause for armed confrontation between conflicting approaches to human rights and civilization generally, a now territorialized war between a rural majority and a minority composed of a small urbanized elite, backed by US and Western forces. It is in these terms that the recent slaughtering of a humanitarian team by the Taliban , in August 2010, on the border of Nuristan and Badakhshan provinces needs to be considered [1]. Although the aid was medical and destined for women and children in areas where maternal mortality is the highest in the world , it was nevertheless perceived as an invasion of private territory, as symbolized by women, by foreign maleness. In a culture where male honour is pivotal, empowerment of women (including access to independent health care) effected by external powers (British or American, colonial or neo-colonial) can only be seen as an attack against collective virility and patriarchal privilege. The peculiar brand of Afghan Fundamentalist Islam continues to provide God-given legitimation to the most violent prescriptions of customary law.

In the days of the British Raj, Victorian ideals were to a certain extent more in keeping with the upper-class more than what has been attempted today. The feminist principles which major aid agencies support today are rooted in first generation secular feminism which considers women as individuals with their own personal desire for fulfilment, preferably overriding traditional female roles such as marriage and family. The Communist government ran into the same trouble and found themselves having to deal with a war that was as much a civil war as one directed towards the Soviet troops. Are the United States heading towards a similar situation?

From 2002 to 2005, there seemed to be a real improvement in women’s lives and expectations : enrolment in the new schools was high, new avenues to employment were opening, especially for girls who had learned English in Pakistan and other skills in Iran. Through humanitarian aid, the younger generation of rural refugees (the vast majority) had been exposed to schooling abroad they never would have had access to, had they remained in Afghanistan

Women’s associations have been set up, taking up structures that already existed in the far more progressive 1960s and 1970s: indeed the Communist era provided more opportunities for women than ever before or since.  All kinds of projects have been attempted, with varying efficiency, sponsored by aid agencies. They have allowed the new generation of educated girls in cities to find paid employment and therefore become the financial mainstay for their families. Naturally such examples of success- unfortunately limited to cities- bring out the value of schooling for families otherwise reluctant to send their daughters to school. But it is likely that these attempts will be short lived, in view of growing force of reactionary opinions.

The superficial nature of the investments in the future of the women are Afghanistan become evident as one looks at their place in politics . A quarter of parliamentarians today are women which constitutes indisputable progress. But this does not mean that human rights are a priority for these female MPs. Their solidarity goes first to their political family and the clan to which they belong. One of the problems is that they are totally untrained and are incapable of conceptualizing problems and their possible solutions. Furthermore,the female  MPs, the lawyers and activists who dare voice any opposition are continuously threatened. Murders are frequent, perpetrated by Taliban and their allies and are intended to inhibit any female ambition through sheer terror. The number of women in the civil service is steadily declining. Because of the impunity for these crimes, the government is in fact amplifying the deterrent effect of this campaign of continuing intimidation. What happens in high places reflects a trend at all levels. According to a survey conducted in 2008, some 87.2 % of women of all ages have suffered at least one act of brutality, physical, sexual, psychological [2]. Less than 15 % of the victims dare to complain, because they may be jailed by policemen always sympathetic to the male side of the story. [3]

Today, most projects for female empowerment ( a favourite catchword amongst donors) are completely insensitive to the realities of Afghan life. The notion of the individual, so typically Western, fatally collides with the centrality of the family, the institution of marriage and importance of religion. The main problem is that these ambitious schemes are developed thousands of miles away from Afghanistan. The reaction of the women themselves is a mixed one: the youngest, usually urbanized high school students, can benefit from the advantages, yet depend on approval of their own families whose dictates they have to follow. In rural areas, women’s solidarity necessarily goes towards their menfolk on whom they depend, and takes priority over individual decisions concerning schooling or health. The lack of even the most basic education ensures that they are kept unaware of other possibilities. However, through the media (TV, wherever there is even a couple of hours of daily electricity) they are increasingly ambitious for their children, a factor which is generating a measure of change.(Mann, 2010)

In the media, the country is inevitably reduced to being a primitive Muslim country thirsting for Western salvation, which has enraged one part of the Muslim-American academic community, as Lila Abu-Lughod’s aptly entitled article “Do Muslim women really need saving” ( 2002) has demonstrated.

This has been the major reason for their failure in Afghanistan which has enraged the most conservative factions as well as the Taliban who have actively fought against foreign troops as well as aid and the ideology the agencies foster.

If armed conflict shows no sign of abating, and on the contrary the Taliban are taking the country over, their main victims have been women, even though the violence being enacted against them is seen to serve society’s higher principles, which in the case of Afghanistan is a unique mix of Political Islam and pre-Islamic tribal law (Mann, 2009). A tug of war is seen to be going on between the US and allied forces and the Taliban with the issue of women’s rights at stake. What of women’s voices? A law is being debated to stop women working for foreign aid agencies which indeed will reverse any of the progress achieved.

To make matters worse, the United States are presently backing an alliance between the government, the fundamentalist former warlords already in power and their new neo-fundamentalist Taliban allies, and, amongst others, the arch-criminal Hekmattyar whose true place is at the Hague tribunal. This policy may be the only way to get out of an inextricable war, but the fate of the entire female population of Afghanistan will be sacrificed on the altar of expediency in the process. Naturally this is hardly popular with the public at large in the West for whom the war in Afghanistan is getting increasingly unpopular [4]. Rather than bring up the nature of the compromises the US is willing to make, and what the mission of the 17 000 extra men drafted into the country will be, women’s rights are brought to the forefront by the conservative media. In August 2010,Time magazine carried on its cover page the photograph of 18 year old Bibi Aisha who had her nose and ears cut off by her husband after she ran away from the continuous violence he and his family inflicted on her. What was not stressed is that Aisha and her sister were ‘given’ as compensation in a marriage through a customary arrangement called Baad, whereby frequently very young brides (under 14) are given to pay debts by opium farmers or as compensation for murder to the injured party: this generally means that the bride (in this case Aisha) is subjected to the most brutal treatment in lieu of the murderer, usually her brother or father. The increase of such marriages has less to do with ancient tradition than modern catastrophes that cannot be resolved by an impotent state.
The caption of the cover of Time magazine simply read “What happens if we leave Afghanistan”. The trouble is that this is already whilst “we” are in Afghanistan which goes to show that all these grand empowerment based projects, inadequately funded and improperly thought out, have not affected the benighted majority of women of Afghanistan who continue to hold world records in the field of illiteracy, maternal and child mortality. They have been used as an excuse by the United States to invade their country and establish a neo-colonial rule that has failed them and remain the victims of rising reactionary politics in Afghanistan that seek to confront the West, through its instrumentalization of its own female population.


[1] IAM, International Assistance Mission, August 12th 2010.

[2] Global Rights, “Living with Violence: A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan,” March 2008, ?docID=98

[3] Human Rights Watch “We Have the Promises of the World Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, New York, 2009,…/we-have-promises-world-

[4] A Gallup poll claims at 43% Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is a mistake.

Carol Mann is a Franco-British social anthropologist and art historian writer and novelist. She specialize on Gender and Armed Conflict, from a historical point of view, but especially on Bosnia and more than anything Afghanistan. A PhD in Sociology, she has been involved with aid projects in war zones since 1993. She has been involved with aid projects in Bosnia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She blogs at:

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