Women's Rights in Afghanistan: The Top Reason to Stay in the Country

More than a few op-eds these days are asking the same question: how long is the United States going to remain in Afghanistan? Right now only 27% of Americans support the war. Less Republicans back the war effort this year than last year; the same goes for Democrats and Independents. But whether you support America’s presence in Afghanistan, it is indisputable that our goal to stabilize a secular government in Kabul could restore modernity to the nation. And, that modernity could mean the restoration of Afghan women’s rights.

It’s a shame how forgetful we humans are. When America entered Afghanistan in late 2001, headlines did not mention past conflicts in the region. There was no talk of the Great Game – Britain and Russia’s century-long tug-of-war for influence in Afghanistan. Their objectives in the 1800s and the early 1900s were the same as ours are today: secure a centralized government. In those 100 years, England went to war with Afghanistan on three different occasions and still did not achieve her goal. The Russians spent a bit more time seeking control of the land, but during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Russia met defeat as well. Not only did the Soviets retreat from Afghanistan, but for many historians, the collapse of the USSR is a direct side effect of that war. If history follows a similar trajectory, then there is no telling how long the United States will be fighting. 

I say this not to arouse discontent, but to acknowledge that although our politicians have established strict timelines to leave the region, the road to withdrawal seems a bit more illegible. In his May 1st address from a base in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced a withdrawal timeline that extends into the next decade. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were there much longer. I bring this up in order to say that if we’re going to be in Afghanistan, we might as well make our time there matter.

Some of the Taliban’s restrictions are almost comical to hear. No flying kites. No playing with birds. No cassettes. No sorcery. Their ideologies are based on a strict and bastardized interpretation of the Koran, an interpretation that inspired discriminatory decrees against women during the Taliban’s rule. After the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, women were no longer allowed to attend school, wear makeup, or even leave their homes. After the American invasion in 2001, the Taliban government collapsed and women’s full rights were restored (on paper at least), but Taliban sympathizers remain throughout the nation. Just last week Reuters reported that recently “550 schools in provinces where the Taliban enjoy popular support have been shut.” And just this March Afghan president Hamid Karzai, endorsed an edict that undermines women’s rights. The Ulema, Afghanistan’s highest Islamic society, decided that women were less valuable than men. And Karzai decided that they were right.

Why is this our problem? Obama just signed a ten-year security pact with Afghanistan. We’ve been steadily withdrawing combat forces and plan to remove all troops by 2014, but monetary support will extend another decade. Shukria Barakai, an Afghan lawmaker noted that the weakening American presence has “decreased the pressure on Afghan leaders to take the status of women seriously.” This means that for another ten years after withdrawal, our tax dollars could be used to fund bigotry and oppression.

I do not mean to suggest that Afghanistan is not advancing socially;27% of the parliamentary seating is reserved for women; women are back in the workforce; girls are back in school. And I also don’t mean to suggest that Afghan women have never felt freedom. This week I read Unveiled, a small assemblage of photographs and interviews collected by London Times journalist, Harriet Logan. The most surprising shots were not of the Afghan women walking in burqas, formless like floating ghosts. The shots that surprised me were of women unveiled, their skirts were high and so were their heels. Had Logan not included the heading, “Before the Taliban,” anyone could have mistaken that Kabul street for someplace in Europe. On the following page, an Afghan twenty-something sat cross-legged among male American friends; one was even leaning on her shoulder while she smiled lovingly at him. In the last photograph, both Afghan men and women demonstrated in Kabul, holding signs that read, “Toward peace, democracy, and social progress.”

With the oppression women face today, it’s hard to believe this Afghanistan ever existed. But some years ago it did. And if America is going to be in this region until I reach my thirties, we might as well help to establish a secular state that will stand up for women again. I do not propose an American colony; Afghans must live on their own terms. But I do believe that intolerant religious fundamentalism should never be used as rule of law. In August 2010, Time Magazine ran a cover photo of a girl the Taliban had dismembered. The feature story was entitled, “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” We can’t be there forever. But as long as we are, let’s push for a government that values its women, and make our time there count.