Afghan Women's Movements Deserve More From the West

For too long, the spotlight has fallen on the radicals, whilst women reformers and disfigured victims as depicted byhave been sidelined. But we shouldn't lose sight of hard-won gains.
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Time magazine's moving portrayal of the plight of Afghanistan's women is a tribute to their heroism and silent suffering. However, the poignant images and story fail to reflect the determined achievements of a women's movement that has battled cultural and Islamist misogyny. They deserve more from the West.

Ironically, women in Afghanistan had greater opportunities for education and employment under colonial rule, including that of the Soviets. Tribal traditions and a male-dominated reading of Islam have produced a deeply rooted ideology of women as temptresses, who must be kept under control to avoid "fitna" or social strife, thereby safeguarding the "peace of Islam." In this patriarchal society, a man's honor, bound by the behavior of his female relatives, may be defended with violence. Girls are traded to settle family disputes, and rural tribal courts dispense summary justice that can overrule central authority.

Under the Taliban, misogyny was much worse and the restrictions for women were intolerable. These memories are powerful incentives for many of those leading the women's reform movement. They have much to gain if reforms are legislated and implemented but a great deal to lose if radical extremists recapture their previous power.

Many women have died in the cause of freedom, including Meena Keshwar Kamal, founder of the Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Safia Amajan, who was head of the Department of Women's Affairs and Lt-Col Malalai Kakar, in charge of Kandahar's department of crimes against women. Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, was assassinated last year, possibly for a reward of 200,000 Pakistani rupees (about $2,500) offered by the Taliban to anyone who kills a council member.

Apart from defending these reformers on moral grounds, they should be supported for their challenge to the misogyny that represents a pillar of heretical, radical Islam.

Most reformers agree that education is the key, not only for women's empowerment but also to counter radicalism. Fatana Gailani, for one, believes education of women is the "sole means of keeping children from becoming terrorists."

The socio-economic situation is very poor with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and only 12.6 percent overall literacy for women. But poverty in Afghanistan is not wholly responsible for these deficits. They are due, at least in part, to the sequestration and subjugation of half the population. Progressives in the Muslim world have reiterated these views, for example an Arab Human Development Report attributed failure of development in the region to lack of knowledge, lack of freedoms, and lack of gender equality.

The resilience of Afghan women extends to girls. After Islamists sprayed acid on her face and eyes, a defiant schoolgirl said, "My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies."

Many projects and individual scholarships have been established to empower women, for example, the Afghan Rule of Law Project that promotes education and women's awareness of their legal rights. Women's NGOs continue to provide assistance for the basic services required in the rebuilding of society. These include RAWA, Sima Samar's Shuhada organization, Maniza Naderi's Women for Afghan Women, Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning and many other fledgling NGOs.

The future for Afghan's women will be challenging. Even the coalition presence did not stop President Karzai from introducing gender discriminatory laws for the Shia community last year, although Western pressure subsequently forced a review. Moreover, there is insidious extremist influence from Pakistan and Iran.

For too long, the spotlight has fallen on the radicals, whilst women reformers and disfigured victims as depicted by Time have been sidelined. Many Western NGOs and feminists should now be alerted to the urgency of forging strong links with reformers to help them maximize hard-won gains.

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