How We Forget About The Women Of Afghanistan

When I was in Afghanistan six months ago, I met some women from Herat, in the west of the country, who had come to Kabul for the great political assembly, the loya jirga. We met in a stifling tent in the courtyard of the loya jirga offices. I will never forget, as long as I live, the atmosphere in that tent. For the first time in so many years, these women believed that they might break out of their terrible experiences of oppression, and although they were still tentative, bubbles of optimism constantly floated in the air.

One of the most optimistic voices in the tent came from a woman whom I will call Sima Kur. She was a middle-aged woman, dressed all in green. She told me that Ismail Khan, the warlord who rules Herat, had originally decreed that no women were to go to the loya jirga from his province. When he had been overruled by the central administration, the women had been delighted. “This is the happiest day for women in Afghanistan,” she said. “We are here and now we can defend women’s rights. The doors are opening for us.”

Despite their long history of oppression, these women were eager to taste the fruits of freedom. Sima Kur told me that in Herat no woman had yet dared to take off her burqa. “But they all say to me, Sima, when you get to the loya jirga, please, for our sakes, speak without your burqa. Let them see your face.”

Although I never supported the war in Afghanistan, when I heard those women talk I began to believe that great good could come out of the terror. Whenever I have thought and read about what has been going on in Afghanistan since then, it is those women, especially Sima Kur with her indomitable spirit, who recur to me. She became a sort of touchstone to me of the possibilities that exist in that benighted country.

That is why I read the new report from Human Rights Watch with a sense of growing horror. The report documents the current reality of women’s lives in Herat, and it tells us that the hope that those women expressed to me is being betrayed. Undoubtedly, the lives of women in Herat have improved since the Taliban left; above all for one reason – they are allowed to go to school. But, as one woman interviewed for the report said, “Everything else is restricted.”

Ismail Khan, the ruler of Herat, can count on good relations with the military forces in the area. When Donald Rumsfeld met him earlier this year, he called him “an appealing person”. Certainly, he was our useful ally in the struggle to rid that region of Afghanistan of the Taliban. But in supporting him we are supporting another regime that loathes women.

This is a regime in which women are still forced, against their will, to cover themselves from head to foot when they go out. Even young girls taking off their headscarves at school have been beaten. It is a regime in which women are not allowed to go in cars with men who are not their close relatives – or to walk with them or even talk privately with them in their own homes. If they break these rules they can be arrested, taken to police stations and forced to undergo gynaecological examinations to check they have not had sex.

Although women can go to school, they have been arrested or intimidated for all sorts of offences from driving cars to speaking to journalists or talking publicly about women’s rights. They are discouraged from taking any jobs other than teaching, especially any work that might bring them into contact with foreigners or men. Last month, Ismail Khan announced on the radio that all men “are obliged to beat” women who walk with men who are not their husbands.

There is a stony sadness in the words of some women in Herat today. One is quoted in the report, saying: “The leadership here is very bad for us. It is not much different than the Taliban.”

The West went to war with Afghanistan without a clear picture of what the country would look like after the removal of the Taliban, and now that these reports of gross violations of human rights are being published, we are washing our hands of responsibility for them. Downing Street has a website page on the war entitled “Facts”, which lists 10 “media views that were wrong”. It includes my statement of a year ago: “In the rush to do deals with the new de facto rulers of Afghanistan, it looks very likely that the interests of women will be ignored.” I wish I had been wrong.

There is no immediate answer to this situation, since there is no obvious alternative to Ismail Khan’s leadership of the western part of Afghanistan. But there is a long, slow answer – that all aid should be conditional on women’s rights being respected, that international organisations should put more pressure on local rulers to respect women’s rights, and that far more support should be given not just to women’s healthcare and education, but also to their fledgling political and advocacy organisations. A great deal more money and trust should be given immediately by the West to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the only indigenous organisation that supports full equality and a secular state, and which is still ignored by Western governments.

The fact that this report on Ismail Khan’s abuses of women’s rights has been ignored by the commentators and reporters who were so eager for war in Afghanistan has another lesson for us. It shows just how long our concern will probably last for those who will be affected by our next military adventure. The attention span of the media is so short that, despite the great promises of our leaders at the time, we are shrugging off our ongoing responsibility to the people of Afghanistan. Abuses of women’s rights in Afghanistan were headline news as we were preparing for war; now they are hardly worth a mention.

How long will we give the people of Iraq before we get bored by the reports that they have still not achieved democracy? Will it be just a year after a US invasion that some report by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, documenting abuses against Kurds or dissidents, will be relegated to a couple of paragraphs on page 15 of our newspapers, rather than being the subject of government launches?

There is much too much lazy hopefulness being expressed that the blood that will be spilt in Iraq will easily be compensated for by the flowering of democracy once Saddam Hussein has been removed. But the conference of Iraqi exiles that wound up yesterday left the post-war future of Iraq as obscure as ever. Although it is clear that the United States wants to install a government that will be more amenable to US interests than Saddam Hussein’s, it is not at all clear how hard it will work to make sure that such a government will be more accountable to its own people.

I am not in favour of war. But since it looks certain that there will be war, we should talk clearly about the ongoing responsibility that Britain will be taking on – not just to future wielders of power, but also to the powerless civilians. War may be the end of the story as far as we are concerned, but for the people most affected, war is only the beginning of the story.

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