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Where are the Afghan Women?


In my previous commentary, I used Cynthia Enloe’s question, “Where are the women?” to explore how gender politics are being used to ignite patriotism on the domestic front. What happens when we apply the same question to the country the U.S. is currently bombing? Where are the women in Afghanistan?

Before the Taliban took control of Kabul, many Afghan women played important roles in public life. Women constituted 40% of the doctors in the capital, 50% of the civilian government workers, and 70% of the teachers. Since 1996, when the Taliban took power, they are not even allowed to leave their homes unless they are accompanied by a male relative. They are forbidden to work or go to school.

Banned from the job market but forced to eke out a living due to the death or incapacitation of their husbands, many Afghan women turn to prostitution. A report on the web site of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (www.rawa.org) reminds us of the conundrum of an Afghan woman navigating public life, employing different identities to sustain her life and avoid death.

“The women who work in a [brothel] usually carry three types of identity cards. One ID, showing them as a widower with children, is used to get aid from UN offices or Red Cross. These IDs are not used a lot as they change place quickly and don’t want to get involved with the local officials. Another ID, showing them as a married woman, is used for renting houses and so on. If Taliban arrests them for Zena (crime of sex outside marriage) they use their third ID showing them as a single women. Being single helps them avoid being stoned to death.”

Even such ingenuity used by Afghan women to scrape together an existence may fail when it comes to avoiding impending starvation. With every passing week it becomes less likely that food for the winter will reach the necessary distribution points in the mountains — putting millions at risk for starvation. Because women have primary responsibility for their children, they are less mobile and have more mouths to feed. For them, starvation poses a particular threat.

Assuming they don’t starve to death, there is another “grave health emergency now facing Afghan women,” according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “Thousands of pregnant women are among the Afghan civilians who have fled their homes in recent days and are massed along the country’s borders. The lack of shelter, food and medical care, and unsanitary conditions pose a serious risk to these women and their infant children. Even before the current crisis, poor health conditions and malnutrition made pregnancy and childbirth exceptionally dangerous for Afghan women.”

Beyond starvation and the health risks associated with pregnancy, Afghan women will face the usual wartime weapon of rape, assuming the United States uses the Northern Alliance as its foot soldiers. Robert Fisk argues in London’s The Independent that Alliance “gangsters” are known rapists and murderers. In the nineties, they “looted and raped their way through the suburbs of Kabul. . . They chose girls for forced marriages [and] murdered their families.”

“I haven’t seen Osama. I don’t know Osama. Why when things happen in the east, the west or the north of the world, do the problems have to come here and hit straight at the people of Afghanistan?” asked Farida, a 40-year-old widow and mother of four who was begging Tuesday on the streets of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“I pray to my God that as soon as America attacks the first cruise missile hits my house and kills me and my family,” the former teacher said from behind her all-encompassing veil. She recited a long list of woes including hunger and a lack of water and sanitation in her ruined home, according to an Associated Press article (9/25/01).

Is this the female version of the suicide mission? The conditions that produced steel-willed men who choreographed their own and thousands of others’ instantaneous deaths also produce this, the wretched and hopeless Aghan mother praying for a fiery death for her and her children?

Farida and women like her have become what Cynthia Enloe calls “womenandchildren” — the West’s evocation of innocent, helpless, voiceless victims.

Yet despite pressures from sequential oppressive governments, the women of Afghanistan have not been voiceless. The pro-democracy, pro-women’s rights Revolutionary Association of Women from Afghanistan (RAWA) has worked diligently to make their plight known. Currently, Afghan women risk the death penalty for their organizing work. Yet, according to Kathleen Richter writing for Z Magazine, it has about 2,000 members, half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan. RAWA runs clandestine home-based schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan, operates underground mobile health teams in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and organizes income-generating projects for Afghan women. It also provides human rights organizations with reports about violations carried out by the Taliban and other fundamentalists, and produces educational cassettes, holds poetry and story nights, and publishes the quarterly magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message).

However victimized Afghan women are by government and religious rules, they have cobbled together a peace and justice movement even as they cobble together a fragile day-to-day existence. Yet the international attention recently turned to them doesn’t yield a picture of Afghan women as full complex human beings but rather as Third World “womenandchildren” — lump sum victims of uncivilized domestic policies and recipients of benevolent aid from the supposedly civilized west.

Previously not on the West’s radar screen, Afghan women are now showing up as “pregnant,” “fleeing,” “starving,” and “widowed.” All true, I suppose, but such adjectives reduce Afghan women to nothing more than the sum of their most desperate parts.

Afghan women and men, not western rulers, contain the seeds of their own liberation. Recognizing the humanity of all people — including women and children — is integral to addressing the worldwide injustices that give rise to terrorism of all sorts. We cannot solve the current crisis unless we ask, “Where are the women?” And not just that, but, “What are they saying?” and “What are they doing?”

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