Afghanistan: Raising Hope for Women

Publication Date: 
October 6, 2011
The Guardian
Afghan girls attend lessons on the outskirts of Kabul in Afghanistan. Photograph: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Ten years ago, a massive feminist experiment began in Afghanistan. But can the advances in education and women's rights be sustained, even when the troops leave?

For the past 10 years we have watched a giant social experiment in , an experiment in in one of the most misogynist cultures in the world. It may only have touched a minority in the big cities, but an entire generation of girls were born and raised with a widely promoted idea: that they had a right to an education, to vote, to hold paid employment, to stand for elected office and even to live a life without domestic violence and forced marriage. If you are an Afghan woman under 20 today, there's a chance you got schooling and encouragement, from western NGO-led programmes with military security support, to be more like "us".

to mark Friday's 10th anniversary of US and British forces' intervention in Afghanistan cited "2.7 million girls in school, compared to a few thousand in Taliban times". Action Aid claimed in its report that women's rights "were slowly but steadily improving after the fall of the Taliban", adding that this improvement had stalled in 2005-6 with the growing insurgency. The charity commissioned a poll of 1,000 women from different tribes, regions and social backgrounds across the country, which found that 72% believe their lives are better now than 10 years ago; 37% think the country will become a worse place if international troops leave, and 86% fear a return to Taliban rule – many naming their daughter's education as their main concern. Homa, 50, a teacher from Mazar-e-Sharif, says: "Women are the most vulnerable if the Taliban come back. Women will be back in their homes like prisoners."

Western feminists may have been sceptical about politicians and their spouses (notably Laura Bush) claiming women's rights as a key justification for launching the military campaign after 9/11, but the hatred of women apparent in many aspects of Afghan society is undeniable, helping to make it one of the less controversial feminist causes of our age. A celebrity-backed campaign, Green Scarves for Solidarity, launches on Friday to ask world leaders to keep their promises to Afghan women made 10 years ago. Yet the situation is not a cut-and-dried one to everybody.

Two arguments stand out. First, the cultural relativism argument, which leads to 15-year-olds at one of Britain's leading girls' schools asking me whether domestic violence wasn't different in Afghanistan. Then there's the imperial arrogance argument. By this argument, opening up schools and enterprise schemes is tainted by the fact that it was done with military support.

Much of the news analysis to mark the 10th anniversary has rightly pointed out that women and children have suffered disproportionately in the drone attacks increasingly used by Nato commanders. There have been those who argue that this destruction outweighs the benefits of community projects such as schools, banks and health centres made possible by the involvement of the military.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made an interesting feminist counter-argument while still a senator: "A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women's rights are respected is much less likely to harbour terrorists in the future."

The recently assassinated head of the country's high peace council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was no liberal softy. But he himself to countenance modifying their firm opposition to even modest liberation for women.

Certainly, there is a hideous irony in the increasing use of burqas in insurgent attacks. After the 20-hour-long attack on the US embassy in Kabul on 13 September the police found burqas alongside explosives in a van used by the attackers. Why burqas as a disguise? Well, Kabul's police chief, General Ayub, admitted that they didn't have

One of the 382 British servicemen and women who have died while serving in Afghanistan over the past 10 years was 51-year-old senior aircraftman Gary Thompson from Nottingham. The company director and RAF reservist was killed in April 2008 while on patrol around Kandahar airfield. He was the oldest British serviceman to die in Iraq or Afghanistan, and a father of five daughters. Before he went on his last tour of duty he said: His widow, Jacqui said:

It is easy to be glib about claiming a moral mission in what can seem futile or questionable military circumstances. A new survey of US veterans has found a third felt the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. But NGOs acknowledge that their schools, clinics and training for women to run their own businesses are all in jeopardy when the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) pulls out. Many aid workers have been targeted by the Taliban. Action Aid lost four workers in a single attack in 2006. While conducting the polling for its latest report, the daughter of one of its surveyors was shot.

So is what has been created in Afghanistan an unsustainable "bubble" of feminism? The country now has more female MPS (27%) than the world average (including prospective 2014 presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi), girls make up 39% of children in school and 5% of the army and police force. Many parents educated their girls in secret during the Taliban years and now one in four teachers in Afghanistan are women. Set against this, one example of how powerless Afghan women are came from a British asylum lawyer who told me her teenage clients often listed only their male relatives when first making a claim, because, in Afghan society, women didn't count. Once they had leave to remain and could bring over close family, the young men would name their mothers and sisters but the authorities would understandably refuse, as they hadn't been named from the start.

When Isaf leaves altogether, could a moral philosopher argue that all Afghan women should have a right to claim asylum in the west? It's worth remembering that the argument about security coming before women's rights was widely made in 1996 when the Taliban takeover ended the seven-year civil war.

One 17-year-old student interviewed by Action Aid, Seema, was home schooled by her father for three years during Taliban rule: "When the Taliban left I was very happy to be able to come back to school and study. Things are better now than in the past. The Taliban don't see women as human. They don't let them work or study or be in the government. I want to be minister of health and help women and children."

Who knows if military and diplomatic strategists ever try to quantify the value of hope? Nato troops are due to be phased out by early 2015. A conference in Bonn, Germany, in December this year will see delegates from 90 countries represented to discuss the future for Afghanistan. But there is concern among Afghan's women's groups that they are being kept in the dark and may not be fairly represented. Certainly the idea of removing hope completely from a generation of girls who have just been given it is too hideous to contemplate.

By: Samira Ahmed
Photo: Afghan girls attend lessons, on the outskirts of Kabul in Afghanistan.
Credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images