Afghan Women: Enduring American “Freedom”

In January 2002, George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address,
“The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters
of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from
working or going to school. Today women are free…”

a year later (October 11, 2002), Bush again congratulated himself:
“We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe
in freedom. We believe every life counts.Every life matters. So
we’re helping people recover from living under years of tyranny
and oppression. We’re helping Afghanistan claim its democratic

U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was called “Operation Enduring
Freedom.” With all this talk of freedom, it is important to
ask the question, how are Afghan women enduring American-style freedom?
When we think of women’s rights in Afghanistan, we think of
the imprisonment of the burqa, the traditional Islamic head- to-foot
covering that the Taliban forced women to wear.

George Bush certainly seems to subscribe to this view. But many
Afghan women wore the burqa before and after the Taliban. In the
rural areas of Afghanistan, the majority of women covered themselves.
Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, the problems
facing Afghan women run far deeper than clothing. Food security,
access to healthcare, and safety from physical violence are key
aspects of women’s rights that the U.S. intervention has largely
ignored or even jeopardized.

Winter Brings Starvation

This winter thousands of Afghans,
devastated by 3 years of drought and 23 years of war and civil unrest,
will be facing starvation. Take the Badghis province of Afghanistan
for example—one of the poorest. Roughly 50 percent of Badghis’s
approximately 400,000 population cannot obtain enough food this
winter. Fatema, a resident of Bagdhis, doesn’t know how she
will feed her six children this year. Her 15-year-old son is the
only one in the family who can earn any money and he does it by
selling grass for fuel and food. They are among the millions of
refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the
Taliban, the millions who have been counted as a measure of success
by the UN of the U.S. Operation “Enduring Freedom.”

What good is an uncovered face if it is starving to death? Women’s
rights are human rights: survival is more important than clothing
and survival has been the most difficult challenge facing women
both before and after the U.S. action in Afghanistan.

Health in Crisis

A recent report released by
the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) entitled “Maternal
Mortality in Herat Province: The Need to Protect Women’s Rights,”
said, “The rate of maternal mortality in a society is a critical
indicator of the health and human rights status of women in a community.”
The report documented 593 maternal deaths in every 100,000 live
births, with the majority of the cases in rural areas. This maternal
mortality rate is far worse than in all of the countries neighboring

The second worse neighboring country is Pakistan, with 200 deaths
per 100,000 births. A researcher with PHR concluded, “What
appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province…speaks
of the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights
in Afghanistan.” Today one of the most vulnerable groups of
women in Afghanistan are widows. In Kabul there are an estimated
40,000 widows who have lost their husbands in the decades of war
in Afghanistan. Nationwide, the number of widows is estimated to
be in the hundreds of thousands, since about 1.5 million Afghans
were killed during the ten year Soviet occupation and the cross
fire from warlordism that followed in the early 1990s.

“While the plight of Afghan widows has improved psychologically,
the main problems of finding shelter, food and income remain the
same,” says Awadia Mohamed, the coordinator for CARE International
in Afghanistan. “Indeed, in some cases they have worsened.”
Widows have very limited access to food and health services despite
the absence of the Taliban. In fact, “51 percent of widows
surveyed reported being unwell, of whom 57.6 percent had fever,
13.6 percent had diarrhea and 10 percent leish- maniasis wounds….
Furthermore, calorie intake was insufficient, with most of the women
and their children subsisting on little more than bread and tea,
resulting in malnutrition problems and micro- nutrient deficiencies.”

Warlords Threaten Security

Practically speaking, since
the Taliban fell and warlords of the past returned to their old
fiefdoms, they resumed fighting one another, exactly what they were
doing when the Taliban first came to power. According to Agence
France-Presse, “Northern Afghanistan remains plagued by factional
and ethnic rivalries despite loose allegiances between warlords
controlling the area, most of whom have offered pledges of support
to the central Afghan government” (“Violence in northern
Afghanistan deterring refugee returns: UN,” Agence France-Presse,
October 20, 2002). Such clashes are frequent and deadly, in the
northern and eastern part of Afghanistan.

The media fail to report prominently that many of these warlords,
now members of the Northern Alliance, were first empowered by the
United States in the 1980s to repel the Soviet invasion and again
during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
spelled out last year what empowering war lords will do for Afghanistan:
“The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will be eliminated, but the existence
of the NA [Northern Alliance] as a military force would shatter
the joyful dream of the majority for an Afghanistan free from the
odious chains of barbaric Taliban. The NA will horribly intensify
the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan
the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain
 power” (“RAWA’s appeal to the UN and World
community,” November 13, 2001).

Rather than heed the words of RAWA and others, the U.S. engaged
the services of the Northern Alliance, with the CIA paying warlords
$100,000 each to gather armies (“Caught Off Guard, the CIA
Fights to Catch Up,” Cloud, D. S., April 15, 2002, Wall
Street Journal

Today, the three vice presidents of Afghanistan are all members
of the Northern Alliance—General Mohammad Fahim, Karim Khalili,
and Haji Abdul Qadeer. Moham- med Qasim Fahim, a former Mujahadeen
warrior, is now Defense Minister of Afghanistan. The Uzbek warlord
Abdul Rashid Dostum, who received a plaque of appreciation from
U.S. forces for help against the Taliban last year, can add ethnic
cleansing to his achievements. Dostum’s troops recently forced
180 Pashtun families (people who are the same ethnicity as the Taliban)
from villages in northern Afghanistan in early October. Some of
the women said they had been raped by his men and had their homes
looted (“Pashtuns driven from northern Afghan villages,”
October 7, 2002, Reuters).

While Afghan women are desperate for security and for the International
Security Armed Forces (ISAF) to be expanded from Kabul to all of
Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to deny this. Even Hamid Karzai,
the president of Afghanistan, a puppet of the U.S., has asked for
the ISAF to be expanded to all of Afghanistan, so that warlords
can be disarmed and a transition to peace can begin. Instead the
U.S. has been focusing on training a national army of Afghans which
is undermined by the fact that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed
Qasim Fahim has a private army of 18,000 men (“Afghans ask:
‘Whose army is it?’” David Buchbinder, October 17,
2002, Christian Science Monitor).

the U.S. empowering warlords, and undermining the ISAF expansion,
there is little hope for peace and security in the country. Afghan
women will pay the highest price as they have always done.

In March of this year the Washington Post happily ran a story
headlined “The Girls Are back in Afghan Schools.” One
could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across America.
But are the media reporting the recent spate of attacks against
schools in Afghanistan? Schools have been burned down in Kandahar,
Wardak, and Sar-i-Pul. In the seventh incident in a series of attacks
on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, gunmen forced a school in
the Wardak province that served 1,300 girls to close. In recent
weeks girls schools have been burned and bombed (“UNICEF denounces
violent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, October 17, 2002, UN
News Service).

 “Saving” Afghan Women

It is crucial for us to understand
that women’s rights are always politically manipulated by the
powerful, to justify almost anything. In the late 1970s, the Soviet
Union invaded Afghanistan and claimed to be saving Afghan women.
Then, they began assassinating men who opposed the invasion, leaving
thousands of women widowed. The U.S.-backed Mujahadeen (many of
whom now comprise the Northern Alliance) claimed to be saving women
from the “godless” communists. Then, they raped women,
forced them into marriages, and tortured their husbands. The Taliban
took over from the Mujahadeen, claiming to save Afghan women. Then
they forced them to stay at home (for their own good), stop going
to school, and be denied access to medical care. Finally, George
Bush came riding on a white horse to save Afghan women. Perhaps
it is time to rethink promises made by powerful men to save Afghan

Afghan women don’t need saving. They know perfectly well how
to save themselves. The brave work of RAWA in the fields of education,
health care, political agitation and demands for secularism, democracy,
and women’s rights is a testament to this. The West does not
hold a monopoly on these issues. What Afghan women need is for the
U.S. to stop imposing freedom through bombs, stop backing human
rights violators and warlords, and stop hindering the security forces
from expanding to the rest of the country.

To express solidarity with Afghan women, we need to understand what
affects them, starting with what we are responsible for and have
the power to change—the use of bombs and warlords as tools
of U.S. policy. We need to begin treating Afghan women with dignity
and not reduce them to a piece of clothing. Afghan wo- men’s
rights are a crucial part of the equation of Afghanistan. One year
later, it is clear that Afghan women are not “free”—
they are enduring American freedom

Kolhatkar is vice president of the Afghan Women’s Mission.
She hosts and co-produces the “Morning Show” on KPFK Radio
in Los Angeles, part of the Pacifica Network.