Did the US Liberate Afghan Women?

After 9/11, USA politicians and figures including George Bush’s wife Laura Bush brandished the cause of liberating Afghan women. TV news would present clips ranging from the Talibs beating women in the streets of Afghanistan for not being appropriately dressed to the notorious clip of a female executed for murder by the Taliban in Kabul’s football stadium. With the US mission winding down to its inevitable end in Afghanistan, let us then examine the US ‘cure’ for Afghanistan and how Afghan women have fared.

So how have women fared in the new democratic order that the USA promised to bring to Afghanistan? Have Afghan women been elevated from the perceived oppression of the Taliban period or not?  Let us judge how women fared by reviewing the progress under the US protégé President Ashraf Ghani, presently ruling Kabul. Indeed, Ghani is the blue eyed boy of US imperialism, having served as an academic in the US before joining the World Bank in 1991. In 2014 the incumbent to the Afghan Presidency Mr Ghani was elected to lead his country. Prior to that, from January 2005 to 2009 Ashraf Ghani was Chancellor of Kabul University. In 2010 The Times reported that Afghan professors were sexually harassing their female students. Female students were forced to have sexual relations with their professors, who used the threat of otherwise failing the female students in their exams.

In 2015 a 27-year-old Afghan female named Farkhunda was barbarically murdered in the centre of Kabul by a group of up to 50 men, as Afghan police officers who were at the scene simply failed to take adequate steps to protect her. Farkhunda had been falsely accused outside the famous Shahe-du-Shamshira Mosque by a taweezgar, the maker of a  religious amulet inscribed on paper, of having burnt the Quran. The reason for this false accusation was because the taweezgar had been publicly challenged by Farkhunda over his sale of these amulets, which she deemed unIslamic. The taweezgar promptly retaliated by loudly accusing Farkhunda of burning the Quran. Farkhunda was attacked by a mob with wooden staves and viciously beaten, and in the apex of the repugnance of the murder, even her hijab was ripped off. The inhumanity of the mob was such that a car was driven over her body which dragged Farkhunda for 300 yards under the car. Large stones were then dropped on her bloodied body by the mob. However, the mob’s blood lust was not satiated until Farkhunda’s body was set alight beside the Kabul River.

The murder of Farkhunda illustrated the lack of respect for human dignity, the lack of respect for a female, lack of respect for the rule of law and a lack of understanding about the rules of evidence or even an ability to understand the need to hear out the accused before punishment. Indeed, Farkhunda was ignored by the mob when she protested her innocence and they simply acted as judge, jury and executioner. The misdeeds of the fifty or so strong mob that assaulted that solitary young lady were far worse than the false accusation that had been levelled at Farkhunda. As per the hadith, or saying of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the blood of a Muslim is more precious than the Ka’ba and its surroundings.

In many respects the savage slaughter of Farkhunda in 2015, represented the reality of Afghan women’s status. Afghan women had not advanced in society to being respected as full citizens. Rather they lived under the oppression of a society which cannot be changed by mere window-dressing that the Americans had imposed through a change of Government. Norms are deeply ingrained and take time to change. The behaviour of the murderous Kabul mob illustrated a profound lack of understanding of women’s rights under Islam or even the understanding that a man should not be touching a non-mahram (unrelated female), let alone brutally assaulting her and ripping off her hijab.

So, what sentences did the murderers receive for this exceptionally barbaric execution, the inhumanity of which had not been since Ahmed Shah Massoud was calling the shots in Kabul in the dark days of the mid 90s? None of the mob who killed Farkhunda were sentenced to death. Sentences ranged from a mere 10-20 years. It is inconceivable that such a scene could have occurred in a village in southern Afghanistan ,where locals know one another, and are bound by ties of kinship and mutual co-operation. Rural people look out for each other.

After Farkhunda’s death, no Afghan minister resigned from their post, nor did Ashraf Ghani step down in the face of this abysmal atrocity. In fact the status of women or their oppression was par for the course under the enlightened Ghani, who wrote a book entitled ‘Fixing Failed States’. Regretfully, the book does not provide a remedy for respecting the rights of women. In today’s Kabul women walking on the street are routinely sexually harassed or ogled at. An Afghan female friend has stated that she prefers to travel in a car even if it a short journey of a few blocks rather than run the gauntlet of sexual harassment in the streets of Kabul.  A society that seeks to progress must learn to respect women. Ironically in a 13 November 2017 CNN interview Laura Bush had alleged that women were not allowed to walk outside alone in the Taliban period, which was simply not correct. Under US occupation things had in fact regressed in Kabul for women walking alone.

According to a 13 November 2017 interview given by President Ghani’s wife Rula to CNN, Rula Ghani stated that women had progressed tremendously and that “you start seeing women in government organizations, you start seeing them in the private sector… many more girls studying, so women are a little bit everywhere.” So, how well have women progressed in Government? In 2019 a sex scandal rocked the Arg, after Habibullah Ahmadzai, a former Presidential adviser, stated that senior politicians were “promoting prostitution”. Women who applied for jobs with the Government would routinely face demands for sex in return for a job. One of the men involved was a close aide to Ghani. A culture of impunity exists amongst these Government officials. To date, no one has been punished for such unlawful sexual harassment.

Afghan women did, ultimately, get to play the beautiful game of football competitively in the international arena after the fall of the Taliban. However, one of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s cronies, Keramuddin Keram, coach of the female football team, sexually harassed and abused the young female players. Keramuddin has not faced any criminal penalties from the Afghan state, with all attempts to bring him to trial thus far failing. It appears that in Ghani’s Afghanistan the honour of women is footloose and fancy free, prone to be preyed upon by middle aged men who cannot control their lust. We are seeing a new dark age of oppression of women in Afghanistan. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, since the new Afghanistan was inaugurated at the hands of the Bush family. George Bush Snr too was a man noted for not being able to keep his hands off women and had numerous accusations against him of having groped women.

Imperialist adventurers have long projected themselves as saviours of Muslim women. The US took advantage of this theme to present itself as on a civilising mission to ‘save’ Afghan women. Yet all that the US has done is drone, murder, and bomb Afghan women, whilst allowing women to become prey to the unscrupulous. At a time when we are seeing the end of the US adventure in Afghanistan, there are those who say the progress achieved for Afghan women cannot be abandoned. The question is whether what has been done under Ghani’s watch to Afghan women can qualify as ‘progress’.

In Kabul we can see blast proof walls depicted with paintings. One of these paintings often featured on the walls is a pair of eyes in black silently watching but not seeing, eyes that are mute to the spectacle of Kabul before them. This is precisely the condition of those in power in Kabul today, who watch yet do not comprehend ongoing injustices taking place against women.

Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain is a history researcher and author of ‘Afghanistan in the Age of Empires’ (2018)

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