By Rafia Zakaria
June 27, 2018
ALL 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.
The 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.
Change, 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.
The 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.
The 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 Burqas would disappear and gender equality would prevail. The thousands of American soldiers, the thousands of American aid workers, would make it all happen.
In 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.
If 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.
There 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.
Traditional 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.
The 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.
The impact of this assumption, the ‘save Afghan women from Afghan culture’, has been disastrous.
Now 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’.
The 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.
Transforming 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.
In 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.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.