By Carol Mann
26 Dec, 2012
As the departure of US troops approaches and negotiations with Taliban gain respectability, violence against women has been on the increase in Afghanistan.
A recent UN Report dated December 12th 2012 attempted to monitor the effect of the legislation passed in 2009 that criminalized recurring acts of violence against women including child marriage, rape, the selling of little girls or young women in payment of debt. Certainly, some cases have been brought to court, but they remain a tiny fraction of the crimes that occur, most of which still are under-reported. Tradition and shame (on the part of victims) serve to explain this, but the truth of the matter is that violence against women, however heinous, is not considered a crime, at best an inconvenience. Not just by the perpetrators, but by the police and legal institutions generally. Any notion of state and collective national community is extremely weak in Afghanistan especially when it comes to domestic policies that challenge the systematic subordination of women. In fact the Afghan National Police and the prosecution offices continue to refer cases to tribal councils, jirgas and shuras which undermine any effect of the implementation of government- approved laws. And as a result, women and children face additional victimisation when a mixture of pre-Islamic law, scattered references to the Q’uran and traditional jurisdiction are applied to their case. Take the prevalent practice of ba’ad: in the case of murder, a girl is given over from the murderer’s family to that of the victim and that is meant to settle the case. The criminal remains free, whereas his sister is sacrificed and sentenced an existence of extreme cruelty often leading to self-immolation. To make matters even worse, so called ‘honour’ killings are not considered a crime.
From March 21st to October 21st, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded more than 4,000 cases of violence against women but most were not reported. This could mean a conservative estimate of 8 000 cases in a year, whereas in the 12 month period reviewed in the UN report, a mere 740 made it as far as the police records, of which nearly half were withdrawn for unspecified reasons. This tendency shows no sign of abating. Polio health workers have been targeted both in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas in Pakistan, close to the border, which goes to show that even vital health policies are seen as an intrusion on privacy and individualism. Since July, two women heading successively the Women's Affairs department for eastern Laghman province have been shot by armed gunmen. In the last few months, young women have been repeatedly beaten, stoned, shot, hung, beheaded, maimed, tortured. Modern technology has meant that witnesses have been filming this on their cell-phones and posting it on You-Tube - not reporting these incidents to the authorities or attempting to stop them. The extreme abuse of women in Afghanistan, hitherto a private act, or at least, in the case of collective stoning, confined to a narrow location, has become a spectacle for world viewing, sharing public space with other big-time, studio-produced media offering competing images of violence against women.
The sociologist and specialist on gender, conflict and peace movements, Cynthia Coburn noted in her most recent essay, the connections between war atrocities and the endemic violence in peace time. She named Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and D.R.Congo as examples to which one must add Afghanistan. It comes down to a change of scale: from kalashnikov to fist, from battle-field to kitchen. Mass, military rape transmute into domestic sexual violence.
Globalized media, advertising, toys especially video games purvey and amplify the self-same images. Consider the military language of advertising, the sexual violence of rap video-clips or any Nigerian Nollywood production, the sexist message of the most banal soaps produced anywhere on the globe all ultimately increase the abyss between the haves and the have-nots.
The trouble is that the values of one area are transferred to another, from war time to so-called peace in post-war, indeed defended by so-called peace-keeping troops, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Violence is considered a gendered fatality, i.e. eternally aggressive virility V. eternally passive feminity which amounts to recognizing the legitimacy of established patterns of domination in every field. The ruling social order, tribal claims to supremacy (eg: Pashtuns V. Hazara and/or Tadjiks and the other way round) and the subordination of women operate in the same way.
Add to that the rule of the global stock-market. Thus, the highly lucrative arms industry (as deterrents or protection in post-war) rules out any low-budget peace initiative. International finance and corporate profit have priority over collective benefit when it comes to the exploitation of natural, especially mineral resources (DRC, Afghanistan). Modernized Taliban ideology and kindred brands of political Islam fit comfortably into such a neo-liberal world view, bolstered by the upkeep of absolute male privilege, perceived as the continuation of respectable tradition.
The point is that change will only come from reversing the paradigm, reconsidering the legitimacy of patriarchal constructions in any form, however sophisticated. One of the mistakes in Afghanistan was to preach liberation to women without enlisting the men as equal partners. In 2009, I taught a seminar on gender in Kabul University. The students were mainly male and the message I kept on hammering was how much easier their own lives would be if their society afforded more rights to women. Because in an ultra-patriarchal society, men are financially, socially and morally responsible for the younger members of their family and all the women. One 22 year-old student had to look after his widowed mother, his three unmarried sisters and two infant brothers. He was the sole bread-winner and had the supplementary burden of finding enough money to pay the dowry required for a bride of his own. Like everyone else in the course, he was hoping to get a lucrative job in some NGO. For young Afghan men, there is no time to dream about personal satisfaction, whether it be to travel the world, become a rock star or save the planet. Responsibilities come first. The frustrations increase as examples of alternative life-styles become more apparent through the media. Patriarchy presented as alienation for men did momentarily cause consternation in the classroom. I only hope some of these students remembered this later.
The lack of recognition of this burden not only by Afghan men themselves but also the aid agencies has led to women being depicted as the enemies and emasculators of men, representatives of foreign institutions and the still alien notion of national government. Using women against men in the name of progress was already a tactic favoured by the British Empire.
So what do men do when they feel they are dispossessed of their patriarchal rights in a society where gendered violence is systemic? Probably half the cases brought to the Afghan police are referred to tribal courts for tradition-friendly solutions that sustain the power structure. On a daily level, in all post-conflict areas, warriors deprived of their guns and the battle-field turn to its privatized version, the home, as an outlet for pent-up anger and frustration. Likewise for men locked out of any possibility of justice through arbitrary peace treaties, let alone personal realization. Add to that the modern input of globalized media normalising every form of violence. Which is what is happening in Afghanistan.
Unless it is thought out in more holistic, societal terms, peace can be just as dangerous as war and indeed serve as a prelude to the next bout of armed conflict. The increase of violence against women may well be a significant portent of hostilities to come. With civil war threatening in Afghanistan as soon as the last of the foreign troops leave, this may just be the case.
 Cynthia Cockburn: Anti-militarism, Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements, London, Palgrave Macmillan 2012.
Carol Mann is a Franco-British social anthropologist and art historian writer and novelist.