08.04.10

The War's Women's Rights Myth

The startling image of a young Afghan girl whose nose was cut off by her in-laws—a story first reported  on The Daily Beast—has launched a new debate about America's responsibilities in Afghanistan. Despite Bush administration claims, women’s rights have never been our priority, argues Kirsten Powers.

The image went around the world: a young woman, her nose and ears chopped off by her in-laws, who were members of the Taliban.

The story, first reported here on The Daily Beast last year, was picked up by Time magazine, which put the picture of Aisha on the cover last week along with the provocative headline: "What happens if we leave Afghanistan?"

The implication was clear: Anyone who thinks the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan doesn’t care about Afghan women or the Aishas of this world. Never mind that Aisha was attacked last year, while 57,000 U.S. troops were dispersed throughout the country. Afghanistan war supporters—on the right and on the left—jumped on the story in an effort to shame their opponents and their support for withdrawal.

If we really want to help Afghan women, we should offer them political asylum.

But contrary to what some commentators have claimed, women’s rights were never a serious reason for invading Afghanistan. It was, at best, a fig leaf; a self-serving justification.

Yes, George W. Bush and others trotted out the “we need to help the women” argument to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. But did anyone really take that seriously? Prior to the attacks of  9/11, we heard nary a peep from our president about human-rights abuses against women in Afghanistan.

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And when has the United States ever engaged in military action with even the subsidiary purpose of freeing women under misogynist oppression? Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia—a country where women are segregated from men, cannot vote or travel without the explicit approval of a male guardian, and are often harassed by baton-wielding religious police who ensure they are covered—is a key ally of the U.S.

In terms of Iraq, the invasion and occupation of that country in fact had the opposite effect. Iraqi women, who previously had enjoyed relative freedom in a secular state, were suddenly living under a highly discriminatory religious law. In Baghdad, where women had once worn miniskirts, they were told to cover up. “Women lost their right to learn and their right to a free and normal life, so Iraqi women are struggling with oppression and denial of all their rights, more than ever before,” according to Maha Sabria, a professor of political science at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad.

The Obama administration has hardly been a profile in courage on the international women-rights front. Shockingly, the issue that has animated Obama is the important “right” of women to cover themselves. In his Cairo speech, Obama bragged that the “U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

The women of the world thank you.

There was only one brief mention of women’s rights in his speech, despite the fact that women in the Middle East are brutalized—raped, buried alive, stoned, and abused—regularly for minor infractions. The president also failed to mention women’s rights in his December 2009 policy speech on Afghanistan.

“There is no doubt the war has helped women in some parts of the country,” says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Daily Beast contributor who has been arguing for a withdrawal. “But in other parts it hasn’t. The truth of the matter is one thing I care deeply about in Afghanistan is what happens to the women. We should make some provisions for them, including helping them come to the United States.”

I think this is a great idea. If we really want to help Afghan women, we should offer them political asylum.

Nobody likes the Taliban. And some of us were railing against them long before war supporters discovered their abuses. But war supporters ignore an inconvenient truth: Taliban attacks against women have increased, not subsided, during these last few years of the American occupation.

Women’s rights have not in any way been a focus of the Afghan government, and it seems unlikely that they ever will be. In 2008, President Hamid Karzai pardoned two convicted gang rapists for political reasons. The following year, he signed the Shia Personal Status Law, which denies Shia women the right to child custody and freedom of movement, among other things. The law also legalized marital rape. And recent government negotiations with the Taliban of course included no discussion of women’s rights.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Afghan women are terrorized with “night letters,” threatening Taliban-authored missives usually hand-delivered or posted to a door or mosque, often at night. The women are told to quit their jobs or they or a family member will be brutally murdered. One typical letter read: “We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter.” A 22-year-old working for a U.S. development company received threats by phone but continued to work. In April, unidentified gunmen shot her dead as she left her office. Another woman ignored her letter and her father was murdered a few days later, the report says.

This is horrific. If someone could make a strong case that by staying in Afghanistan a few more years we could help build a stable country where both women and men could live free—and the Taliban could not return to power—it might be worth it. But we have been there nine years and, as the HRW report testifies, couldn’t be further away from achieving this.

It wasn’t about women then. It’s not about women now.

It’s time to go.

Correction: This article initially stated the number of troops in Afghanistan was 40,000.

Kirsten Powers is a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.