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Have the Taliban Changed their Tune on Women’s Rights?

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Dispatch blog

I find that the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a difficult one to engage with. To some, the shocking standard to which women were treated under the Taliban represents a key reason for our presence there. To others, the goal of gender equality is a PR front for the actual reasons we intervened. To still others, modest improvements are a positive bi-product of a complex mission.

While on my trip in Afghanistan, we had five briefings that focused on women and gender issues. Each left me with a different feeling, from disgust to frustration to awe. There is no doubt that the lives of many have been improved by our presence. And as I felt in Northern Iraq several years ago, it is tremendously difficult to argue with the logic of someone who has been liberated. But the fact that one group in one region has been freed, should not blind us to the consequences of this liberation for others. With this in mind, these were my five encounters.

First, one evening we had a formal dinner at the Serena hotel, one of the few international hotels in Kabul. Our group was seated along one side of a long table, and a delegation of various Afghan think tankers and university professors were on the other. Seated across from me were an Afghan woman and a young male Afghan, who worked for NATO HQ. For the first half hour or so, the woman was very quiet. Her English was not very good, and the men around her, particularly one who was a cousin of Karzai, were dominating. But when we figured out a way for the young Afghan man beside her to translate, she opened up, and her story was incredible. She was 20 when Taliban fell. Until then, she had spent her teenage years being taught in secret schools for girls. One of her teachers had been killed by the Taliban. In 2001, she went to law school, got the best marks in the school and now is a law professor at Kabul University. I’m sure there are many women with similar stories, and I feel somewhat hesitant recalling it, as if I’ve been had by NATO TOLA planners, but she really was nothing short of remarkable. Watching and listening to her and the young guy both helping to translate and telling his own story, which was impressive in its own right, I saw pretty clearly that there is a new generation waiting in the wings in Afghanistan. They are frustrated, impatient and when they get a chance, it’s hard to see how they will not do better than the current crowd in charge. I only wish we could empower them sooner.

Second, when we were in Mazar e Sharif, we had a meeting with the Gender Engagement Team. Led by a young female Swedish soldier, the team was made up of three Afghan women in their twenties. It’s hard to overstate how courageous these women were. They are essentially conducting psi-ops for RC-N, coming in and out of the base on a daily basis and reporting on what people think about ISAF. What is particularly amazing is that their friends and family now know that they work for ISAF. As insurgent violence picks up in the north, they are at significant risk. At one point during our two hours with them, they got very angry with the German and American commanders in the room over the night raids. I will post on this issue separately, but the strength with which they rebuked the ISAF line that night raids are essential because they reduce civilian casualties was remarkable. Even if the raids do reduce casualties, the team argued, they also are a humiliating experience. Men descend on their villages at night, breaking down doors, and see them, particularly the women, at their most vulnerable. The disconnect between the cold rationalism of the ISAF argument and the aggressive push back from those actually affected was bracing.

Third, in Herat, we met with two Provincial Councilors, both of whom were female. The meeting was clearly intended to demonstrate the progress being made in local governance, in particular the mandated 50% female quota. What we got was both tragically and wonderfully different. With the Italian PRT contingent watching on, and the more jingoistic members of our party somewhat disgruntled, the two women clearly and articulately disagreed with virtual every assessment we had heard of Herat to date. For two hours they made it abundantly clear that, while considered the most secure and developed region of the country by ISAF, the west has a very long way to go. They spoke of villages that support the insurgents in order to get NATO aid (if considered safe, they are ignored), of the problems with narcotics trafficking, particularly the widows created by arrested or killed husbands who took up trafficking to make a living, of the rising violence levels, of how even elected women remain shut out, and of the power of the mullahs. They were confident and impressive. I was left hoping but doubting that the rest of the councilors compared.

Fourth, immediately following the meeting with the councilors, we were escorted to the Italian PRT’s signature project in Herat, a women’s center. When we pulled up to the modern three story building, we were greeted by a shocking display of Italian military force (I know there is a joke here). There were three armored trucks each with a high caliber gunner on top, a couple of dozen fully kitted out soldiers, and our escorts, another half dozen men. They had closed part of the street, the heavy guns were pointed at the neighbouring buildings, and there were soldiers guarding the door of the center. We were rushed into the building to find 20 or so visibly stunned Afghan women. For the next hour, we were paraded around what can only be called a model of tokenism. The women were selling textiles and saffron in a series of brand new shops. It was entirely unclear who might shop there, other than PRT guests, as there are few tourists in Herat, and surely locals don’t need a gift mall to buy Afghan textiles. In fairness, the center does function as a community center of sorts for women, with a gym, and classrooms. But there was no mistaking the reason we were there, and it made me sick.

Finally, on our last day in Kabul, we had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with a senior UNAMA official. When asked about the status of women in the country, he got visibly frustrated. The idea that women lead significantly better lives in most of the country, he said, needs to be dismissed. Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Islamic state. It has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. And in wide swaths of the country, women are treated in a brutally oppressive fashion. The Taliban, he argued, were particularly appalling, because they codified this treatment, but it is still occurring on a widespread scale.

Coming back to the future, and to the Taliban, the same UN official made an interesting point, which I hadn’t heard before. The Taliban, he stated, have recently softened their position on women. More politically savvy than when they were in power, many Taliban leaders now recognize the political importance the international community places on the rights of women, and wanting to be part of the political process, their views are evolving. This is a fascinating quirk in what is too often portrayed in a simplistic narrative – the Taliban are bad because of their treatment of women. Now this softening of doctrine may not be true, but if we are welcoming them back into positions of power, as our reconciliation policy would suggest, then let’s hope the Taliban find it politically expedient to treat women in a less brutal fashion. In many ways, these small victories may become big markers of the mission’s lasting impacts.