the laws are in place. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Convention for
Elimination of Violence Against Women. Article 22 of the Afghan constitution
sets out equality of
men and women, equal duties and treatment
before the law. A national law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
was passed in 2009. Then this year, the 2018 Penal Code included an entire
chapter devoted to the elimination of violence against women. It prohibited the
use of women in cases of badal, where feuding families exchange brides to
settle a dispute.
code also eliminated the particular provision, passed in 1976, that stipulated
that men who killed wives or daughters or sisters in 'honour' killings could
only be punished for two years. Under the reformed law, honour crimes would be
punished like all other murders.
however, has not come. According to a report released by the United Nations
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Afghan women still have minimal
access to justice, often fail to get redress and honour crimes, even when
reported, are rarely punished. In particular, the report details how mechanisms
such as 'mediation' and pressure not to file actual cases end up treating
criminal matters like sexual assault, domestic violence and attempted (or
actual) murder as 'family matters'.
The Afghan women are paying the price of an invasion
that was never about them in the first place.
consequences, unsurprisingly, hit women hard. One after another, women
interviewed for the report spoke of how cases were never filed, mediators
openly sided with men, and the general trend continued to be in favour of using
traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms, few to none of which involved actual
punishment for the men who were to blame.
war in Afghanistan, at least if you bought some portion of the propaganda that
preceded it, was fought for these women. The plan, in Laura Bush's famous words
following 9/11 and before the bombing began, was to liberate Afghan women. The
burkas would disappear and gender equality would prevail. The thousands of
American soldiers, the thousands of American aid workers, would make it all
the first months, it may even have seemed that the money and bombs strategy for
equality would work. Large grants existed for any and all projects involving
Afghan women. There were projects to sell what they made abroad, projects that
trained them in this or that craft, projects to build domestic violence
shelters, schools and health clinics.
the numbers of these projects, along with the efforts to enact laws, were
proof, change seemed imminent. At the end of all the misery, after the Afghan
Taliban were gone, after democracy reigned, a new Afghanistan would be born - one where women were no longer leftovers, to be traded or tortured as their
male 'owners' wished.
was an assumption at play in all of this. As the army of aid workers and
soldiers and policy workers plodded onwards, trying to make up this new Afghanistan,
they relied on a central division, one that justified their presence.
Afghan culture, whose tenets were inevitably wielded by Afghan men, was
intrinsically inimical to women. Afghan women were hence not simply the victims
of the Taliban reign of obscurantist religious interpretations; they were also
the victims of their culture. Saving Afghan women meant rescuing them from
their culture. The consequences of this assumption were visible in the
implementation of nearly every programme.
administrators and funders and inhabitants of domestic violence shelters, for
example, saw themselves as a wall between the women who wanted to be safe and
independent, and an Afghan culture that wanted their servitude and submission.
Afghan women were supposed to buy the premise that their Western liberators
(and their local agents) would stand between them and the patriarchal practices
of their culture.
impact of this assumption, the 'save Afghan women from Afghan culture', has
that the Western powers that be, the United States principal among them, are
busily wrapping up the loose ends, done with the pretence of trying to save any
Afghans from anything, it is the women who believed the false promise who are
left behind. Cultural forces that always saw the supposed liberators as
interlopers are even more intransigent and stubborn in their refusal to change
their anti-women practices. Indeed, in some cases, the most patriarchal
practices (the ones most criticised as misogynistic) have become stand-ins for
Afghan refusals to bend to their bombers. They have become indicators of 'Afghan-ness'.
results are visible in the UNAMA report. It laments the continued persistence
of 'traditional practices' that impede women's access to justice. The
conclusion is correct; 'traditional practices', honour crimes, and badal all
involve female subjugation of one sort or another. If they were considered
essential before, they are imagined as even more crucial now, the parts of
Afghanistan that no one could change, that no one will change. The cruel price
of this is to be paid by Afghan women, particularly those who put their faith
in the promise that a new Afghanistan was on its way. These leftover and left
behind women, who were promised a different culture, will pay the price of an
invasion that was never about them in the first place.
culture, particularly misogynistic practices within culture, requires the
co-option of those who are part of it. In other words, castigating a culture as
inherently flawed, utterly incapable of ever being egalitarian or good to
women, a force from which women must be 'rescued,' provides no impetus for
change at all. Instead of 'rescuing' women from this flawed and inherently
women-hating culture, the project of cultural reform must empower women within
the culture to lead, give them the material, the time, the support and the
monetary ability to set up the sort of small and slow challenges that can
eventually produce a transformation.
other words, the goal must not be to 'rescue' women from their own culture, but
to ensure that they attain power within it, wage all the insurrections that
expose how crucial and integral they are for the future of the country, for its
present and for its past.