Written by Heather Wilhelm
The United States (US) led war in Afghanistan is one of the most controversial current events in today’s world. After the September 11th attacks on US soil, the government of George W. Bush declared war against the Taliban, the acting government of Afghanistan. It was their belief that the al-Qa’eda terrorist network and its leader Osama bin Laden were responsible for these attacks, and that the Afghan government was in support of and harbouring bin Laden. In an effort to justify the mass bombings of Afghanistan in the weeks (and subsequently years) to follow, the Bush administration created a publicity campaign in which they would claim to be declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against the Taliban in an effort to liberate the women of Afghanistan. They claimed that years of physical and structural abuse against women in this country finally needed to come to an end. This campaign centred around the burqa, a restrictive, all-encompassing religious dress that the Taliban forced women to wear every time they left their homes. The US media began bombarding the American public with visions of women trapped underneath these burqas, in an effort to gain support for the continuing war in Afghanistan. This US government campaign would polarize the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan into an object: the burqa, and would leave the public unaware of the true history of women’s oppression under both the Taliban and US-backed regimes. It would also effectively hurt the progress that could have been made by women after the fall of the Taliban, as little attention was paid to solving the real issues in Afghanistan: gender inequalities and structural and physical violence against women that continue to oppress Afghani women to this day.
In 1964, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the King of Afghanistan created a new constitution for his people that would modernize his country’s political and economic spheres, as well as usher in new democratic legislature that would thrust Afghani women’s rights into the 20th century . The Basic Rights and Duties of the People as listed in articles 25-40 of the 1964 Constitution gave all citizens of Afghanistan equal rights to education, healthcare, and employment. Women were even allowed to enrol with the Armed Forces if they so desired . It was a time for great change and acceptance in the country, and more specifically a time of freedom for women who had been horribly oppressed for hundreds of years. This freedom would not last. In 1973, while Zahir Shah was out of the country for medical treatment, his cousin Daoud executed a well planned out coup d’etat, which would lead to the end of the monarchy that had been established in Afghanistan in 1747 . The end of Zahir Shah’s rein would have terrible consequences for the people of Afghanistan, as only six years after he was ousted from his throne, the Soviet Union would invade the country and the effect of this on the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Afghanistan (especially women) would be disastrous.
It would be during this Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that the United States would become heavily involved with Afghani extremists who were anti-Communist and core fundamentalists . The United States provided these groups with “$30 million in 1980 and increased to over $1 billion per year in 1986-89.” By contrast, opposition groups such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose aim was “to unite and fight for the independence of our beloved country” were not provided with any funding. While their aim was to bring about a union of the people to create a lasting democracy, the US was more focused on making the Soviet Union pay a price. To accomplish this, they continued to support exceedingly violent parties who were not above imprisoning, torturing, and murdering innocent civilians in the name of their cause . Even after the Soviets retreated in 1989, the US continued to fund the Mujahideen, which was a group of seven Pakistan-based parties who were equated with Afghani resistance . Interestingly enough, these seven parties denounced the return of King Zahir Shah even though many citizens of Afghanistan felt he was the only hope for their country . After the US-backed Mujahideen government took power, the women of Afghanistan were the first to feel the changes after the ‘Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ was created. Although often attributed to the Taliban’s reign, this Ministry was in fact created under the Mujahideen and called for women in Afghanistan to immediately begin covering practices . In August of 1993, they took it a step further by imposing the following legislation:
Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home.
These decrees were almost identical to those that would be practiced by the Taliban after they came into power, however they are solely attributed to their regime by the US government. In fact, between the years of 1992-1996 before the Taliban took power, Afghanistan was embroiled in a bitter internal civil war in which brutal atrocities were carried out against innocent civilians. Thousands were murdered senselessly, and women were often used as rewards to soldiers who had done a good job for the government .
When the Taliban did take power in 1996, Washington was pleased to finally have a chance to end the anarchy in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, where the Mujahideen had basically reduced the city to rubble . The Afghan citizens were also relieved to have a new government in power, and they prayed that the Taliban regime would finally lend the way for change in Afghanistan. All parties were quickly proven wrong as the Taliban immediately began imposing laws that some considered even more strict than those of the previous regime. Women were immediately dismissed from work, and forced to remain virtual prisoners in their homes. Girls were no longer able to attend school . While the Majuhideen had placed severe restrictions on women, they had still been allowed to work, attend school and leave home occasionally as long as they were covered in a traditional Islamic covering. The Taliban would not tolerate such offences, and the punishment for women offenders was often public stoning and/or death. Even these egregious human rights violations did not bring reprimands from the United States . It was not until the Taliban began actively attacking US soil that they finally acknowledged the terrorist tendencies of the regime and their support of the al-Qa’eda network of terrorists who had claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Tower complex in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1999 attack on the USS Cole. These attacks finally culminated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Not since Pearl Harbour had the US felt the pain of an attack on their own soil, let alone in two of the hearts of their great nation. It was time for revenge, and the administration of George W. Bush decided that war was the only way to make the Taliban pay for their attack.
For years prior to the attacks of 9/11 the US had been unsuccessfully attempting to strong arm the Taliban into turning over Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qa’eda network . Their tactics were no different after September 11th, and the Taliban’s response was unfaltering: they would not hand over bin Laden. A war on Afghanistan was almost immediately declared, with the first bombs being dropped October 7, 2001 . Just over a month later, on November 17, 2001, Laura Bush gave the president’s ‘Weekly Radio Address’, and for the first time, the address was given in its entirety by a First Lady . On this night, Mrs. Bush essentially became the US government’s voice against the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and vowed to end the suffering and subjugation of women under the Taliban government . This fight for the liberation of Afghani women was centred around the burqa, an enveloping outer garment that is worn by women of some Islamic faiths when they are outside their own homes . A brief look at the history of the burqa will help to contextualize the arguments put forth in the remainder of this paper.
The Qur’an is the religious text of the Muslim faith, just as the New Testament is the religious text of Christianity. The Qur’an requires that both Muslim men and women dress modestly while in public, however men are only required to cover from their naval to the floor whereas women are required to cover all but their hands and face . This inequality was mutated even further with the Taliban’s requirement of all women to be burqa-clad while in public . The burqa is the most intense form of covering in the Muslim faith. While some women simply wear a hajib, which is also known as a head scarf, others wear the all-encompassing burqa. A full-length dress fabricated with metres of fabric, the burqa completely covers the wearer leaving only a small hole in front of the eyes covered with mesh to see through. It is a very constrictive garment, and the vast amount of fabric makes it very difficult to walk in, let alone communicate through .
The idea of these personal prisons is a completely shocking thought and vision for the population of the Western world, especially for women who feel they have had the privilege to grow up with equality and independence. The Bush administration used its knowledge of this shock to capitalize on the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and created a publicity campaign that centred on the liberation of Afghani women and girls . They hammered the idea of the Taliban’s mistreatment of women into the psyches of the American public, without a mention of the atrocities women had suffered at the hands of US-backed Afghani regimes in the past . In 2002, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (UAWC) was formed in what would be the culmination of the publicity campaign. Although this group looks good on paper, it has still done nothing of any major consequence to help liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead it has focused so narrowly on the burqa and the ‘unveiling’ of Afghani women that the real and still existing problems of social inequality and gender repression are ignored . The US government and the UAWC have chosen a route of educating the general public by selectively placing all of the emphasis on an object: the burqa, rather than examining the deeper, underlying problems that continue to exist in Aghanistan.
While for some women the practice of covering in a burqa may be a demeaning historical practice, for many others the burqa is a religious symbol or a symbol of how hard women in Afghanistan have fought for the freedom that still eludes them . In the religious sense, Muslim people are thoroughly faithful to the Qur’an and that does not end with Muslim men. Muslim women have been raised with the scripture of the Qur’an and just as Westerners have a strong belief in the teachings of the religion they choose to follow, so to do Muslim women. The idea of modesty in clothing and behaviour is what these women believe, and their choice to wear a hajib or a burqa, is just that: a choice. While many Westerners argue that they only make this choice because they ‘don’t know any better’, it is dangerous ground to tread on to assume that one’s culture or religion is superior to another one. There are American Muslim women who choose to cover themselves even after being exposed to a multitude of different cultures, so one should not assume that the women of Afghanistan would choose to change their religious beliefs simply because of a change in government. Alternatively, there were also women who chose to use their confinement in the burqa to further the efforts of organizations attempting to achieve democracy in Afghanistan. Women took to hiding important documents under their burqas, which could easily conceal books, newspapers, and other items due to their masses of fabric . This contraband could then be delivered to others who were part of the resistance to the Taliban. For these women, the burqa became a form of strength, power and resistance, rather than a government imposed personal prison. Many female Afghani activists still believe the burqa is a powerful symbol and are therefore less concerned with the garments they are forced to wear, and more concerned with the democratization of their country, and the hope of equal rights for all . These women do not need to be saved from their oppressors, they need to be given the tools to create a better future for themselves and their families.
It is hard to believe that after six years of US occupation in Afghanistan there have still been very few changes in the social conditions for women and girls in the country . The new puppet government the US imposed upon Afghanistan is still practicing Sharia law, which has an extremely detrimental effect women. Afghan prisons are now full of women who have been convicted of crimes that range from refusing to marry the man their family has chosen, to simply running away from home . There have also been cases of sexual abuse and torture in these prisons. In 2005, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) collected statistics on Afghanistan for the first time, and the results were less than favourable. The country was ranked 173rd of 178 countries in the UNDP human development index, and statistics provided on health, literacy, employment, and lifespan showed that little has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban . The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world with 1,700 deaths in every 100,000, and if a woman is lucky enough to survive childbirth she will likely not live past the age of forty-five. An average Afghan woman cannot read or write, and even after the fall of the Taliban only 1% of children in school are girls . The question we must ask ourselves however, is not why have there been no changes, but how can we ensure that there will be changes in the future.
The best possible chance for change in the future, is to first open a dialogue about the real history of Afghanistan. This will certainly not be favourable to the United States, but at some point people need to be told the truth about their government’s actions and how those actions have affected other nations negatively. Also, relying on women in the US to run an effective campaign to save Afghani women is not a realistic expectation. There are many capable, experienced Afghani women who have spent their lives dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow female citizens . This is an extremely risky venture to undertake, and many women have been murdered for their involvement in the Afghani women’s liberation movement. Meena, the founder of RAWA, has been touted as a martyr for her work in starting the movement, and she was the first of many assassinated by both the Taliban and US-backed governments . These women have worked on the front lines for decades, and have lived through the constant fear of retribution for speaking out against the government, so who better to ask than them? The difficulty in asking them rests in their total knowledge of the United States’ history in their country. They know of the atrocities carried out by US-supported groups dating back four decades, just as well as they know about the current warlord government of today. The chance of this information getting out is too much for the US to risk, but this truth could truly set the women of Afghanistan free.
Individual activists are also becoming more prevalent in Afghanistan. One of the most famed Afghani women to speak out in recent years is Malalai Joya, who has chosen to tell the true story of the US ‘libertation’ of Afghanistan. She points out that the only success the US has had in their occupation of her country has been to replace one brutal, misogynist regime with another. Joya raised the unspoken topic of the post-9/11 warlord regime and their ruthless abuses of the Afghani people, but was silenced immediately. To date there have been four attempts on her life, as the US-imposed Afghani puppet government continues to try and silence those who speak out for democracy .
A complete attitude shift is required here on the part of the American public. People need to believe that these horrible crimes against humanity are occurring every day. They need to understand that not everyone wants to be an American or live the life of a Westerner, and that we need respect the cultures of others in order to evoke change. It is time for the American public to realize that their government keeps them under a dark cloud of lies and deception, and to start asking the questions that will finally bring truth and democracy to Afghanistan.