Afghan women need more than our outrage

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The execution of a woman called Najiba, the assassination of politician Hanifa Safi and Lal Bibi and her family’s struggle to get justice after she was raped has again brought the plight of Afghan women into the headlines.

But it’s important for those of us living outside of Afghanistan to consider what we do with our outrage or despair.

It was women who once were going to benefit from the invasion of Afghanistan, don’t forget. But as the CIA ‘Red Cell’ memo leaked by WikiLeaks shows, the fact that many Europeans are concerned about the plight of women is something that can be exploited to shore up support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory.

Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission

Conversely, the memo showed a keenness to avoid concern over the conflict to manifest itself as a challenge to government policy, as was the case in Holland.

When the photo of an 18-year-old Aisha who had her nose and ears cut off appeared on the cover of Time magazine it was accompanied by a headline that said – What Happens if we Leave Afghanistan.

Of course, the terrible mutilation of Aisha, which was carried out her husband and brother in law and allegedly sanctioned by the Taliban, took place while troops were in Afghanistan.

These days the focus is less on winning support for troops’ presence in Afghanistan or defeating the Taliban but on securing an honourable withdrawal and shaping up Afghanistan for after that – which is why world leaders were in Tokyo recently to discuss an aid deal for the next four years.

But as the choreography of withdrawal continues, there’s one issue about women’s rights that governments have not heeded – the demand that women from the grassroots – and not just government stooges – be included in negotiations deciding the future of their country.

As Horia Mosadiq told me shortly before she went to the Bonn Conference last year, part of the problems is that the story doesn’t really change – women want to be included in peace talks to ensure that their rights aren’t bargained away as part of a deal with the Taliban.

It may not be a headline grabber, but it’s crucial if women are going to challenge President Hamid Karzai who, according to Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi, told her may have to take a hit when it comes to loss of rights, freedom and mobility but that was the price of peace.

How much is such complacency shaping the response of our governments’ to the issue of women?

Calls for safeguards to be put in place to ensure that a proportion of the $16 billion of civil aid pledged to Afghanistan over the next four years is spent on measures that will improve women and girl’s security and access to justice and education went unheeded at the Conference, which makes pledges by the likes of Hillary Clinton, sound increasingly hollow.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the murder of Najiba and called upon the Afghanistan government to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But in the case of Lal Bibi, it has been suggested that allegations against the police accused of raping her have not been pursued to avoid tarnishing the image of the American funded Afghan Local Police network that is central to plans for withdrawal and the handover of security to Afghanistan.

If she fails to get justice, her family, who live in the northern province of Kunduz, has suggested that they may have to kill her to restore the honour of her family.

Again, we could all decry the fact that Afghan culture is unjust and brutal towards women, but at this time we could be more effective if we focused on demanding commitments to including women in peace talks and ensuring women’s interests aren’t sacrificed for the sake of a deal.