Let’s talk about Afghanistan. I know, I know –we’ve been talking about it for years and haven’t you noticed there are all kinds of interesting uprisings happening elsewhere? But bear with me – this year will, after all, see the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, so it’s a good opportunity for reflection.
This week also marks 100 years of celebrating International Women’s Day – another anniversary that has been elbowed into relative obscurity by recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond (despite the prominent role that female academics, activists and politicians have played in the protests) but no less important for all that.
As a British citizen, I am lucky enough that I don’t need to protest about living in an undemocratic society, though I am sure that some of the Conservative party’s more obsessive Eurosceptics would disagree. But, when we get down to the fundamentals, I am lucky. We all are.
As a British woman, I didn’t have to worry about what I ate at school because it might have been poisoned by a man who disagrees with my right to be there. Caroline Spelman may have put up with the odd Labour heckle during her apology over the forest sell-off, but she never has to endure daily screams of “kill her, kill her” from fellow MPs. And although there are concerns over how child custody arrangements are handled in UK courts, mothers do not operate within a judicial system that automatically grants custody of a child, once they have reached the “age of custodial transfer” to the father. Women in Afghanistan are not so fortunate.
I know what some of you will be saying right now – yes, the situation for women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule was horrendous. But didn’t it get better in 2001 once Western forces invaded? Yet everything that I described above has actually been taking place in Afghanistan in the last few years.
There are some promising statistics: Today, 2.4 million girls are enrolled in schools in Afghanistan, compared to 5,000 in 2001. Women currently make up 24% of healthcare workers and 10% of the judiciary. But these figures mask a somewhat more precarious reality. Nearly 20% of enrolled girls do not regularly attend. And why would you, when you run the risk of insurgents throwing battery acid in your face for daring to get an education? Why seek enlightenment when you could be killed in order to protect your family’s ‘honour’ or treated as a possession and given away to warlords to pay off opium debts.
These statistics also paper over a growing urban-rural divide in women’s treatment – with those in rural regions treated far, far worse than those in the cities. And the vast majority of experts agree that this divide is, at least in part, due to the recent resurgence of the Taliban in certain rural regions.
Which is why it is so worrying that Taliban forces have recently been gaining in strength, and that President Karzai has entered talks with leading Taliban figures, with the prospect of inviting them to share power in his government. Karzai – and his only female Cabinet member Dr Hussan Ghazanfar – may talk of the safeguarding of women’s rights in negotiations, but there are concerns that the Taliban militia (who reject the Afghan constitution and insist that no political law should contradict the laws of Islam) will continue to reject these rights. Will Karzai let them as he seeks to shore up political support?
After all, Karzai has a less than shining record on womens’ rights. It was only two years ago that he supported a Shia personal status law that would have effectively legalised marital rape. And earlier this year, he and Dr Ghazanfar accused Afghan women’s shelters of corruption, something that observers insisted was an excuse for a new law that would enable the government to seize control of this area, forcing women to undergo compulsory virginity tests prior to admittance and allowing government interference in specific cases.
In both these situations, the Afghan Government watered down these proposals in response to the international condemnation that ensued. But how long can we count on that happening?
Despite the gracious smiles that adorned the faces of David Cameron and President Karzai when they met last week, there are significant tensions emerging between the Western powers and the Afghan government. Just this week Karzai very publicly rejected an American apology for the accidental killing of children. And we have already seen how Karzai’s decisions while in power are at odds with Western values.
The best chance of a stable Afghanistan is still almost certainly through helping it to become a democratic nation with a strong civil society. But – and somewhat understandably – other pressures seem to be exerting greater influence than before. The British public lack the appetite for more casualties among our servicemen abroad. And the austerity measures mean that we simply cannot sustain these kinds of troop numbers abroad like we used to, especially not if we are considering intervening in Libya and elsewhere.
So when Coalition government rhetoric seems to become less about Britain having a “long-term relationship with Afghanistan… train[ing] their civil society” and building democracy and more about a “hard-headed” approach to the conflict with a great focus on safeguarding national security, you can understand how it might be politically astute to shift the tone of the rhetoric in this way.
But we should all be deeply concerned if this rhetorical change is indicative of an underlying shift in policy. How, as a nation that supposedly cares about the plight of people abroad, can we even contemplate leaving the women of Afghanistan to their bleak fate as possessions of Afghan men, to be abused and starved and locked away? We went into Afghanistan promising to help build a better society – helping women was a fundamental part of this. If we withdraw too quickly and without devoting sufficient energy and resources to fulfilling our promise, then we risk losing everything that our incredibly brave servicemen fought and died for – and the fine and worthy sentiments spouted by our politicians will really have been shown for the empty gestures that dictators like Gaddafi always said they were.