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Fear for the Women of Afghanistan

As the United States begins to tidy up its affairs in Afghanistan, I have a bad feeling about the women we'll leave behind.
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As the United States begins to tidy up its affairs in Afghanistan, I have a bad feeling about the women we'll leave behind.

We're already confronted with reports -- and horrific images -- of attacks on women and girls: noses and ears sliced off, acid-ravaged faces, beatings, whippings, honor killings. Just this month comes the story of 15-year-old Sahar Gul, tortured in a basement for months by her new husband and in-laws, apparently because she refused to become a prostitute.

Injuries and mutilations that shocked even the battle-hardened military surgeons are punishments for any number of affronts to patriarchal sensibilities -- from fleeing an abusive husband to refusing a forced marriage to pursuing an education.

If these outrages continue to happen while we're there, what happens when we're not?

The brutalities that rivet world attention for a news cycle or two are extreme examples of a wide and ongoing problem. The rights organization Oxfam International reports that 87 percent of Afghan women have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence, as well as forced marriage, which Amnesty International says account for 80 percent of all marriages. According to the UK-based charity, Womankind, more than half of all girls married are not yet 16.

The threat-level for females is elevated by a government that is pursuing a policy of reconciliation by courting of the same Taliban that waged a campaign of gender apartheid. President Hamid Karzai now calls them "our upset brothers."

There are early indications that the government -- even without the Taliban under roof -- is uprooting the tendrils of progress of the past ten years.

The new constitution may guarantee the rights of women. But it also says nothing can contradict the principles of Islamic law -- which is undefined and open to interpretation by whoever happens to be in power.

Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, leader of the ideologically conservative Hizb-i-Islami faction, believes that women and men should not attend the same universities, and that women should not leave the home unless in the company of a male relative. A Time Magazine article quotes his feelings: "What we want in Afghanistan is Islamic rights, not Western rights." He also happens to be the Minister of the Economy.

Recently passed by a Parliament we hoped would enforce constitutional protections is a law that allows husbands to withhold money and food from wives who refuse sex, limits female inheritance, curtails female custody in divorce, and denies women freedom of movement unless sanctioned by their families. The mandated 25 percent of Parliament seats held by women could do nothing to stop it -- in part because many of the 68 women vote with the men who put them in power.

There are those who say that none of this means the days of wanton Taliban brutality and repression will return. The world is now watching.

As we toss the keys to a government duct taped together out of parts of convenience and already limiting female freedoms -- suppose the all-out cultural attack on women resumes. What exactly could the world do other than watch? Perhaps a strongly worded statement.

Women could be beaten in the streets on live TV, and their suffering would never give cause to a return to the $300 million America spends every day in Afghanistan not to mention the prospect of losing more American lives.

Recent history is a lesson in the relativity of women's rights. Russia's occupation was ugly. But life for women under the Communist government was a modern high point. Reforms provided real political roles, economic opportunity and social freedoms greater than women have today.

All of that was swept away by the Taliban in the five short years between 1996 and 2001. Then it was restored piecemeal by Western occupation and investment over the past ten.

The clear lesson is that the safety and dignity of the country's women are hostage to the beliefs of the men who carry the guns. We saw in Vietnam and, possibly in Iraq, the convenient futility of propping up a government and its military just long enough to get out of town. As we pack up our guns and go, who and what will pick up the ones we leave behind?

It's possible that guarantees for women in the Afghan constitution will withstand the power vacuum in the wake of our departure. It's possible that the Taliban as part of the government will think differently than the one that brutally repressed human rights, and was perfectly happy to sacrifice health, economy and modernity in the name of purity. It's possible that the new government will be strong enough -- and the army loyal enough -- to allow the Taliban to join the government without consuming it.

For the sake of the long-suffering Afghan woman, let's hope that all comes to pass -- because there is little we can do but watch in horror if it doesn't.

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