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Plight of Afghan women prompts fresh debate

Controversial rape law exposes debate in Canada over whether mission has helped bring about equality

Globe and Mail Update

Farah Mohamed can't forget the searing images of women protesters in the dusty streets of Kabul, surrounded by angry men with contorted faces and raised fists.

“Whores!”

“Dogs!”

“Death to the slaves of the Christians!”

That scene, scrolling across television screens around the world earlier this week, struck her – and scores of other women – like a physical assault: What sort of men would pelt women with rocks for protesting a law that legalized rape?

“I grew up in Canada in a Muslim home where respect and the advancement of women are normal and I was horrified by this law. How can you think in this day and age that a man can have that kind of control over a woman and her body?” she said, with her voice shaking with emotion.

“This is not a woman's issue. To me this is about human rights. My male Muslim friends are equally outraged and horrified.”

Once that intractable problem over there, Afghanistan is now a seething issue on our streets, around dinner tables and in meeting rooms in Canada.

What started eight years ago as a military operation to deprive terrorists of a safe haven from which to launch attacks on the West morphed, in the eyes of many, into something much grander: an exercise in nation building and bolstering human rights.

From smoking out al-Qaeda and routing the Taliban, the focus shifted to building schools and roads, vaccinating children and creating an effective judiciary. And with that, those with a reflexively anti-war disposition found themselves torn between their opposition to military intervention and their concern for the plight of Afghan's most vulnerable: its female population.

“It's impossible not to have a conversation about this in my circle,” Ms. Mohamed said.

The hopes for an improvement in the lives of Afghanistan's women have been sorely challenged recently by a series of events, from the horrific acid attacks on schoolgirls in Kandahar and the targeted assassinations of female politicians and police, to what is seen as the ultimate betrayal: the Afghan government's endorsement of the family law bill that appears to legalize rape in marriage.

Should we stay, fighting a potentially un-winnable war, which has already cost the lives of 117 Canadian soldiers, in a pre-Industrial tribal society where the rule of law is not even a concept, let alone a functioning system? And yet, after Rwanda, Ethiopia and Darfur, can we turn away from the suffering of other people?

Some people think there are better ways of improving the lot of women than pouring in guns and soldiers.

“How has the war helped women in Afghanistan? It hasn't,” Judy Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, asks. Instead, she argues, life is worse for women since the occupation. “Never have women achieved equality by somebody coming in and giving it to them. We can't bomb our way into equality.”

Rather than sending in troops to intervene in a society “that doesn't want them,” she thinks countries such as Canada should have supported existing groups like RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which has been organizing non-violently against the Taliban and struggling to establish women's rights since 1977. “We should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place, and we should leave.”

That point is academic to Margaret Atwood for the simple reason that we are already on the ground. “It is easy to march into Afghanistan and hard to march out,” she said, quoting Alexander the Great. She knows that ground herself, having visited in February, 1978, on the way to the Adelaide Literary Festival. “I wanted to see why the British army was annihilated there in the 19th century,” she said, explaining that the answer was obvious when she saw the “switchback road” through the mountains, which made marching troops easy targets for snipers from above.

Six weeks later, Mohammed Daoud Khan, the first President of Afghanistan, and a progressive politician who was known for supporting women's rights, was assassinated in a revolution led by the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). And it's been a mess ever since, Ms. Atwood said, pointing out that the Soviet Union collapsed largely because of its massive expenditure trying to subdue Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Although she continues to question why we were there in the first place, she doesn't feel we can just pack up our kit bags. “We have mucked with traditional cultures around the world and the results have not been happy, but is it happy to leave things the way they are?”

To cut and run after encouraging people to change their lives and demand more rights from a repressive regime would be “like the first war in Iraq, in which the U.S. promised to support people rising up against Saddam Hussein, and then they didn't do it and the people were slaughtered.”

This is an interesting moment, which is posing some very difficult questions for feminists, says historian Margaret MacMillan, because feminists, “who tend to be on the left,” have always had trouble trying to separate their distaste for Western imperialist intervention and the way in which women were treated.

“They were pretty bloody quiet about the Taliban when they were in control of the whole of Afghanistan,” she said, “but it seems to me that this is a moment for women on the left, who support women's rights at home, to ask themselves, ‘What do we do about Afghanistan?'“ Pulling out is not an option for Prof. MacMillan. “This is a regime that depends very heavily on western backing and the Canadian government and others should bloody well use their influence over President Karzai,” she said. “They have been timid and they don't want to appear like they are telling him what to do, but I think they jolly well should.”

Humanitarian intervention is not new, she said, citing the move against the slave trade in the 19th century as only one example of powerful outside forces intervening in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. What you have to do, she says, is stay, use what leverage you have in positive ways and encourage those groups within Afghanistan fighting for improvements in society and changes of norms.

Horrifying as it was to watch women being pelted with stones, seeing them march with their faces uncovered and their veils pulled back to show some hair was a hopeful sign that women are feeling strong enough to protest an unjust law.

“If that wasn't a tipping point, it was darn close,” said Sally Armstrong, author most recently of Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women. “That the women could march, that they could make their demands, this is how you make change,” she said. “And that is how we made change.”

Even acknowledging the brutality of domestic life in Afghanistan, the comparison is apt, for as Ms. Armstrong pointed out, in Canada a man was legally allowed to beat his wife until 1968 and to rape her until 1983. It wasn't so long ago that women were expected to say “I obey” in their marriage vows and were unable to open a bank account or take their children to hospital without their husband's permission.

All of that changed in Canada only because “women did the studies, prepared the cases, marched and demanded change,” Ms. Armstrong said, admitting we haven't reached the finish line yet.

“In Afghanistan, it is the women who are the reformers,” she said. “They are the ones taking on the corruption of the government, the law, the judiciary,” doing national studies of cultural practices such as polygamy and “uncovering the data you need to change a society.”

In her view, Canada has been playing a significant part, not only militarily, but also in humanitarian aid, reconstruction and support for women's groups. Last April, for example, the Canadian government gave $5-million dollars through Rights and Democracy for the reform of family law in Afghanistan. “A women's movement has finally started. It is small, but it is moving.”

Knowledge is power, but it also incites hatred and fear in oppressors. That is why the Taliban has been targeting women reformers – journalists, human-rights activists, lawyers and members of parliament – over the past 18 months, according to Ms. Armstrong. “They kill them in a ritualistic style, murdering them in public in front of their children by shooting them in the face. That is terrorism, and these guys get away with it by claiming they are doing it in the name of God.”

Ms. Mohamed, who came here as baby when her family was expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, says that turning away now would mean abandoning these women. She feels it is “our obligation and responsibility” to stay in Afghanistan and see that things change, not just militarily but through mentoring and education programs.

“Our presence allows us to speak up in a positive way and to bring a sense of what is right and what is wrong – and this is wrong.”

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