How does Afghanistan treat women? Here’s what I saw

An Afghan woman clad in burqa holds her child as another woman buys coconut at a cemetery in Kabul
REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
An Afghan woman clad in a burqa holds her child as another woman buys coconut at a cemetery in Kabul earlier this week. A new law for Shiite Muslims has prompted an international uproar.

In western minds, the blue burqa stands as an icon for the oppression of Afghanistan’s women because the Taliban forced women to wear the full body and face cover while they were in public.

But the misery of millions of Afghan women goes far beyond the confines of the burqa, and it predates the Taliban rule a decade ago.

Women and their supporters worldwide took heart after the Taliban were toppled in 2001 and the new government in Kabul declared a high priority on improving women’s lives and rights. Girls went to school; their mothers, to work — most of them trading the burqa for the more traditional scarf draped loosely around their faces.

Now comes news that Afghanistan’s Parliament has passed a law forcing Taliban-style restrictions on women in Afghanistan’s Shiite minority.

The law reportedly would restrict when and how women could leave their homes. In the case of a divorce, it would grant child custody to the father. And it would force healthy women to have regular sex with their husbands — a provision denounced around the world as a sanction of marital rape.

When I heard the news, I couldn’t help but personalize it, remembering faces I had seen while reporting stories in that country in 2004.

There were the tiny faces of baby girls in a hospital ward for malnourished children. Flies swarmed on the listless body of one six-month old girl who weighed just eight and a half pounds. The mother at her bedside was as gaunt as she was. Doctors explained why: When food was scarce it went first to the men and boys in a family, and the women all too often were too malnourished to produce milk for their babies.

There were the eager faces of girls in classrooms that had been forbidden to them under the Taliban rule. These were the faces of bravery because some other girls were shot on their way to schools and some of their schools were bombed, burned and raided by hardliners who to this day oppose the education of women. These girls were trailblazers in a country where three in four women were illiterate.

There was the sad, frustrated face of a rural public-health nurse who saw many young girls die in childbirth. One patient she lost had walked for eight hours while in hard labor seeking the help her family could not provide at home.

One in nine Afghan women die in childbirth, according to the World Health Organization, giving the country one of the highest maternal mortality rates on Earth. The upshot is that life expectancy for Afghan women is 46 years.

The reasons are set deep in a complex culture guided by tribal codes of honor, pockets of Islamic law and the common rule of the Kalashnikov.

In some rural provinces girls are given to older men to settle legal disputes.

In many provinces, parents arrange for their daughters to be married at age 12 or 13. A year or two later, they give birth before their pelvic bones are fully formed. When such a young a girl’s labor is obstructed, her uterus ruptures and she dies a horrible death, health workers told me.

Even older women are vulnerable because so many are malnourished, according to a recent Reuters report. Hunger leaves many pregnant Afghan women severely anemic, Karima Mayar of the Afghan Ministry of Public Health told Reuters.

“If they get post-partum hemorrhage, they will die 100 percent of the time,” Mayar said.

Credit then, politics now 
Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be given credit for trying. After he took the leadership of a transitional government in 2001, he created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs as a cabinet level position. He opened school doors to girls and launched public health programs aimed at improving care for women.

One of the results I saw was an ambitious program for training midwives to serve rural areas where most women give birth at home.

But Karzai also is a pragmatic politician, cutting deals with warlords and former mujahedeen in efforts to hold together his country’s disparate regions.

Now the pragmatic Afghan president must balance both ends against some shaky middle because his power also depends on outside support.

Outrage from around the world is bombarding the government in Kabul — including President Obama’s declaration that the new law is “abhorrent,” the New York Times reported.

On the one hand, Karzai said the law would be reviewed and amended if it violates freedoms granted under the country’s constitution. On the other hand, he defended it and blamed the furor on a “misinformed” Western news media,” the Times reported.

“The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it,” Karzai said at a news briefing in the presidential palace on Saturday.

But UN officials and some women in Afghanistan have said the legislation is real. 

Shaken support
Meanwhile, worldwide anger over the law is not helping Obama’s efforts to bolster support from other countries for his stepped up mission in Afghanistan.

NATO’s secretary general questioned why the alliance was sending men and women to fight in Afghanistan when discrimination against women was condoned by law, the Times said. Italy’s defense minister said his country was considering a temporary withdrawal of the women serving in its force in Afghanistan to protest the law.

Canada called in the Afghan ambassador for an explanation. And news reports in Canada this week said this development was making it increasingly difficult for that government to maintain its commitment to keep combat troops in Afghanistan until 2011.

“Canadians’ tepid support for the combat mission in Afghanistan would turn icy should the Afghan government proceed with a law allowing marital rape, a new poll suggests,” said a report on The Canadian Press.

What support there has been in Canada was “based — at least in part — on a belief that Canada is helping to improve the lot of women, whose rights had been severely restricted under the oppressive Taliban regime,” it said.

Now the challenge for Obama — and, presumably, for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — will be to convince the West that prospects for the women are even worse if everyone pulls out of Afghanistan.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/10/2009 - 10:55 am.

    Unfortunately, this is traditional Abrahamic religion (read your Q’ran or Torah/OldTestament).
    This attitude towards women as second class chattels is neither new nor unique; the problem is broader than Afghanistan or Islam.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 04/11/2009 - 11:15 pm.

    Paul B.; Your statement may be “technically” correct. However; you fail to mention the fact that in modern society, the Islamic fundamentalists are the only ones remaining that embrace this. The rest of the world and civilizations have abandoned it. This speaks volumes to the direction the Taliban wish to go and ultimately where the Islamic fundamentalists want to see the entire world as. You can hide your head in the sand all you wish on this, but most of us recognize what is going on here, and are willing to not only speak up about it, but fight against it.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/26/2009 - 07:21 pm.

    Ironically, Afghanistan would have been better off if the Marxist government that took over in a coup in March 1978 had been let alone.

    As the Soviets had in their Central Asian possessions, the new Marxist government banned the burqa, decreed secular education for both boys and girls, and otherwise gave women equal rights.

    This infuriated the men in some of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. Most of them didn’t know Communism from Consumerism, but no daughter of theirs was going to go to school, especially not with boys! No wife of theirs was going to go around with her face showing! And so the Mujahedin rebels were formed.

    In those Cold War days, the U.S. ignored the fact that these were ignorant men fighting for the right to be oppressive. All they saw was peasants fighting “international Communism,” so as early as the summer of 1979, six months before the Russians arrived, the CIA began arming and training the rebels.

    After feeling overwhelmed by the increasingly effective rebels, the young Marxist government asked the Soviet Union for help in December 1979. That’s when the Soviet Union moved its troops into Afghanistan.

    Most people in the States didn’t know what had happened between March 1978 and December 1979, so when our government and media told us that the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan for no reason other than a desire to take over territory, most of us believed them. However, I was in grad school at the time and knew people who were specialists in that region, so they gave me the background.

    That’s why it was so frustrating for me to see the Reagan administration praising the Mujahedin. It was especially sickening when Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke so highly of them, because I just knew that her “freedom fighters” would have put her in a burqa and confined her to the house.

    Anyway, Afghanistan is one of the saddest casualties of the Cold War. Women there are worse off than they were in 1979, and the country has been completely trashed by thirty years of continuous warfare.

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