Afghan women and the Taliban--over to you, Hillary

Note: The following blog was posted today as an op ed in the Guardian.  I have already been asked if I oppose bringing US troops home.  I don't; I want an end to the war.  But there is going to be a considerable period of drawdown in which the US and other countries which have been propping up the Karzai government should do whatever is necessary to protect what democratic opposition exists.  Women are central to this opposition and to the future of Afghanistan.  And let's not be naive here.  Even if troops come home, the US is not going to disappear from the region.  According to a recent visitor, the base at Bagram is still being enlarged.  
The US is negotiating with the Taliban! What will happen to Afghan women?

They have enough problems already, since the Karzai government is easily as misogynist as the Taliban.
But not to worry. Hillary Clinton is US Secretary of State. A feminist will determine US policy in the “reconciliation, reintegration and transition process.”
Surely the women of Afghanistan can rely on Hillary.  
She told them so in London in Feb. 2010, when Karzai and Afghan ministers met with Western and regional diplomats, who agreed to set up a fund to reintegrate “disaffected Taliban back into society,” as long as they swore to uphold the constitution. The London conference was planned by the British government and the UN, which seemed to have no problem overlooking its own Security Council Resolution 1325, mandating that all peace and post-conflict negotiations include a gender perspective. Only one Afghan woman was even invited—not their Minister of Women’s Affairs—and she was there to represent civil society in general, not voice the demands of women. 
But the Afghan Women’s Network, a fifteen year old coalition with 84 member groups and 5000 individual members, could teach the rest of us a thing or two about organizing. Despite the fact that they were not invited to London, four of them showed up, demanding “that the proposed reintegration process is not undertaken at the expense of women’s hard-won human rights.” They did intensive lobbying, worked with the press, and did their best to convince those present that “women are central to bringing peace and stability.”  In recognition of their work, Hillary invited them to her press conference and made a commitment to involving women in every stage of the peace process. 
But that was last year. Now Osama bin Laden is dead and the American people are sick of the war. They want out and so does the Obama administration.   Last year Hillary made protection of Afghan women’s rights a principle; today the principle appears to be negotiable.
In March, the Washington Post revealed that US AID was backtracking on a $140 million project to help Afghan women own land. Though most Afghans live by farming, only men are landowners. The original US AID request for bids called for specific measures to increase women’s access to land ownership, including legal aid, public education on women’s rights, and incentives to register land in the name of both spouses. But after intervention by the State Department, US AID put out new guidelines with no teeth, requiring merely that the project study inheritance laws to see if they could be amended to include women, and then only if the Afghan government supported the initiative.
When questioned, a “senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” said, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. . . .There's no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."  
Of course, US AID contradicted the story, saying how much money it was spending on Afghan women and, when put on the spot in Congress by Nita Lowey, Hillary told the House that US commitment to Afghan women was undiminished.  But she didn’t say the old US AID regulations would be restored. That’s a pretty clear indication of how the wind blows.
Women in the Afghan Women’s Network made a lobbying trip to Washington this June to try to convince officials that the only way to get stability in Afghanistan is support women’s human rights. They brought specific recommendations on how to reintegrate the Taliban fighters, while at the same time protecting women and civil society. Their program can be downloaded here.
The AWN recommendations are brilliant. According to Gita Sahgal, former head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, they “are an example for all UN agencies dealing with post-conflict situations because they are family-oriented rather than fighter-oriented” and “deal with inclusion of women in monitoring and many different processes rather than just in peace negotiations.”
Ann Jones, an American writer who has spent years working in Afghanistan, says the US calls the shots there and could put such measures in place to protect women’s rights if it insisted, but people in Washington don’t get it. “They regard women’s rights as an add-on that’s unimportant and won’t face the implications of backing the same old warlords they have been backing since 1979. These guys are a disaster for both Afghanistan and us, because you can’t establish a stable country with leaders who have no regard for the welfare of their own people.”
The choice is clear: The US can either keep on with the same old policy of making deals with warlords, or try something new—empowering women and civil society. Official Washington apparently thinks the only realistic thing to do is what we have done before, even if it doesn’t work. 
This is not really a choice between pragmatism and idealism. We have tried the warlords option for many years, and it has not brought stability or prosperity or peace. Half the population of Afghanistan is female, with many households headed by women. These women are capable of farming, doing business, promoting education, safeguarding local people, stabilizing their communities. They have lived with war, and they know what works and what doesn’t. The AWL program proposes concrete measures to strengthen the position of women; such measures, embedded into local and national political processes, are a better foundation for security and peace than anything the US has tried so far. Why not support them?
Is Hillary willing to fight for the principle of including women? She understands that it is a principle; as Secretary of State, she is in a strong position; and she has enough political skills and support to do so effectively—if she is willing to stand up to the guys and take the risk of being branded a feminist rather than a realist. 


Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.