Staying Honest About Afghanistan

Ann Jones' claim in the Nation that she "know[s]" Bibi Ayesha (after conducting a single interview with her) is a somewhat disingenuous attempt to cast doubt on the veracity of statements by Time magazine and Women for Afghan Women (WAW) that Taliban were responsible for the monstrous crime perpetrated against this young woman. During the nine months when WAW cared for Ayesha in our shelter, devoted staff members developed a deep connection with her, helped her regain a measure of mental stability, and arranged for her treatment in the U.S. I myself saw her almost daily for five months and was present when she described her life with the family she had been handed over to years before like a sack of potatoes--as payment for a crime her uncle committed against them. The crime was murder, and of course her body and her labor bought his freedom. She said the family were Taliban.

In fact, Time could have chosen from untold numbers of documented cases of similar atrocities committed by the Taliban, including dozens of women and girls physically and mentally scarred by Taliban "justice" who have been cared for by WAW. A quick search of news articles brings up many stories and photographs of women and girls mutilated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are just the ones that have made it into English language media. Thousands more have been collected by Afghanistan's women's shelters and frontline organizations; many record other Taliban tactics, such as burning down girls' schools, throwing acid in little girls' faces, assassinating teachers and women NGO workers, committing "honor" killings, beatings and public floggings.

The world once knew about these horrors but seems to have forgotten. The point of the photograph of Ayesha, one single photograph, was to remind them, to shock them into recall, and to encourage them to consider what would revisit Afghan women and girls, 15 million of them, if the Taliban regain control of the country. Therefore, Jones is correct to say that we were trying to influence public opinion in favor of continuing the military presence in Afghanistan although we take strong exception to her description of this intention as shameless and manipulative.

Ironically, although WAW and Jones disagree on that point and on the presence of troops, we agree with much of what she says in her otherwise insightful article. We want to tell readers our perspective, the credible perspective of a grassroots, women's human rights NGO that has been working on the ground in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban, that since 2007 has opened five Family Guidance Centers and five shelters for women and girls suffering egregious rights violations: domestic violence, torture, rape, imprisonment for being raped or running away from abuse, trafficking forced/underage marriage, violations such as being sold, given away as restitution for a crime (as in Ayesha's case), denied an education.

Jones is also correct in pointing out that the Taliban are not the only demons perpetrating heinous crimes against women in Afghanistan. Fundamentalist warlords, many of them members of Parliament, and ordinary male citizens can be as misogynist and cruel. And she is correct about the "creeping Talibanization of Afghan life" under the U.S. supported Karzai government, the "neglect of legal and judicial reform," and the silence and lack of real action that implicates the Afghan government in crimes against women.

But Jones fails to draw distinctions between the Taliban and other misogynous forces, lumping all demons as coming from the same hell; she stops short of describing what will happen if the Taliban take over; and she trivializes the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since 2002.

It is naïve to believe that the Taliban who are flocking in from Pakistan will settle for a role in the Afghan government, a euphemism of Karzai and other proponents of appeasement. Taliban have a far bigger fish in mind: control of Afghanistan itself. The subjugation of women is their strategy to that end. We believe that if they succeed, the region will be destabilized, Al Queda will have a foothold from which to launch further attacks, another civil war in Afghanistan will very likely happen, fought by the armies of the fundamentalist warlords the U.S. once bankrolled. In other words, the cost in money, lives, and the security of the region and the West will far exceed anything we have witnessed so far. "Reconciliation" will lead not to peace but to mayhem.

The current Afghan government may be in the hands of venal men, but there are forces in and out of Afghanistan that can now curb them even if slightly, forces like other governments, the international aid community, the voices of local and international feminists and human rights advocates, and especially local Afghan women's organizations. Once in power, the Taliban will turn a deaf ear to their cries of outrage as they did before 9/11. Jones mentions the Shia Family Law signed by Karzai but doesn't say that global pressure forced the revision of at least a few of its most odious provisions. Nor does she bring up the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, written by Afghan women's groups and signed by Karzai, which WAW lawyers have been using with success to defend women in court. Under the Taliban, international human rights organizations in Afghanistan will leave, and local ones like WAW will have to close their counseling centers and shelters. The sole bulwarks against the permanent persecution of women will be gone.

Jones refers to the "little progress" that has been made for women in Afghanistan since 2001. Instead of criticizing, we should congratulate Afghanistan and the Afghan people that any progress has been made at all, in such a short time, in a country suffering from severe post traumatic syndrome caused by thirty years of war and from dire poverty, massive illiteracy, a corrupt government, and close to lowest human development index in the world. Let's try to remember that women in healthy, prosperous, educated Switzerland didn't get the vote until 1971 (and even then cantons resisted!) and that Mississippi didn't condone the right of women to vote until 1984, long after Afghanistan enfranchised women, or that the U.S. still refuses to sign CEDAW, the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The glass is definitely half full--with women in Parliament, facing obstructions to be sure but still there, with thousands of women and girls saved from unimaginable horror by women's organizations, with the slow but steady reach of services into the countryside, with a decided increase of women's access to justice, with the marriage registration requirement in place to stop underage marriages, with millions of girls in school and parents in barely accessible rural areas begging us to open schools for their daughters. This extraordinary progress, which has been achieved by local Afghan and international men and women risking their lives, tells us what is possible in Afghanistan. But it will swirl down the drain into the Taliban sewer if troops withdraw. The momentum will be reversed and we will never see it again in our lifetimes.

Obviously, if you're the victim, it doesn't matter who stones you to death or cuts off your nose, your husband under Taliban orders, your husband the warlord, your husband the farmer deciding for himself. But if you're on the outside watching when the Taliban take over, the flood of horrors will be convincing evidence that there were choices and we made the wrong one, that we should have known "reconciliation" was a lie, that we knew but didn't care, that those who might have protected this person and millions of others can no longer intervene, that the West is now in danger, and that withdrawing the military from Afghanistan was not the route to peace many insisted it would be.

Esther Hyneman sits on the board of directors of Women for Afghan Women, which housed and cared for Bibi Ayesha, the young Afghan women featured on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. Hyneman spends about 6 months a year in Afghanistan.