Happy Women’s Day, Afghanistan

Women listen to President Hamid Karzai's speech on the occasion of International Women's Day, Kabul, March 8, 2011

My health club gave me a rose; the organization where I teach journalism had cake and tea. Perhaps more to the point, President Hamid Karzai gave a rousing speech promising that “women’s rights will never be sacrificed in peace talks” with the Taliban.

I’ll stick with the cake.

I have long since ceased to pay attention to official rhetoric on women’s rights in Afghanistan – no matter which government is blowing the smoke.

A few years ago I interviewed an American diplomat about women and the Taliban. The United States was just starting to thaw a bit on the issue of negotiations with the insurgents, and I wanted to know how much of an obstacle the feminist lobby in the United States would be in any potential peace deals.

The diplomat shook her head.

“We will never sacrifice any initiative in the name of women’s rights,” she said. “We talk a good game, but that is for domestic consumption. We have to placate Barbara Boxer and the rest.”

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has been an outspoken advocate for Afghan women, and has gone on record as saying that any reconciliation with the Taliban is a danger to the progress that has been made.

There has, of course, been progress. More girls are school now than under the Taliban, but given the state of affairs in those tumultuous years, it could hardly be otherwise. However, only one in five ever completes high school, and human rights group warn that the number of girls receiving an education is now dropping due to insecurity and poverty.

There are women in Parliament – 69, to be precise. But only a small number of those actually won their seats – the rest were ushered in under a law reserving 68 seats for women.

This means the women have little actual power and can be bullied, threatened, and ridiculed at will, as witnessed by a recent event in which one female MP was told to “sit there and be quiet.” A few years ago another woman in Parliament was pelted with water bottles for criticizing the warlords; more than one female MP has been threatened, and several have faced domestic abuse.

The problem for Afghan women was not the Taliban; it was, and remains, the traditions and attitudes that the Taliban represented. These are by no means confined to insurgents.

I was once at a conference on forced marriages where a mullah sought to justify the practice by saying: “It has been scientifically proven that women’s brains are smaller than men’s.”

This was in my early days in Afghanistan, when I was still ready to beat my head against a wall.

I stood up.

“Can you give me a reference?” I said. My translator was mortified. The mullah looked at me blankly.

“You have said that it has been scientifically proven,” I persisted. “Where? When? By whom? Can you tell me?”

He snorted, and my translator refused to convey any more of my words. I sat down, fuming.

Some young girls came up to me during the tea break and thanked me for standing up to the mullah.

“We cannot say things like that,” said one lovely young girl, who looked about 12 years old. “My father would beat me.”

But the older women had a different take.

“Arguing with a mullah,” sniffed one. “That’s just proof that her brain really is smaller.”

She may be right.

There is, of course, a Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA), but it has no budget and no executive authority. It can do almost nothing, except discuss endless plans to better the lot of Afghan women.

It was, however, able to cause one unholy ruckus when it threatened to bring all women’s shelters in the country under government control, in order to cut down on the alleged corruption and immorality that thrived at such places.

Deeply ingrained attitudes cannot be changed overnight. And they certainly do not yield to boots on the ground. Those who think that U.S. troops will serve as a guarantor of women’s rights are sadly mistaken.

What can a soldier do when the legal system will not enforce the law? The Constitution clearly states that no girl can be forced into marriage against her will. Furthermore, the law specifies 16 as the minimum legal age for girls to be wed.

According to the United Nations, close to 50 percent of girls marry under the age of 16. That means that an enormous number of people in this country are technically criminals. But how many fathers or husbands of nine-year-old brides have been sent to jail? I have not heard of one.

Domestic violence is epidemic, and almost never prosecuted. Even murder – the so-called “honor killings” that occur when a girl is seen to have disgraced her family --often go unpunished. It is only when the abuse reaches the headlines, such as the stoning of a young couple in Kunduz not so long ago, that action is taken. And then only when it can be blamed on the Taliban.

So Karzai can waffle on all he likes about women’s rights. He can promise that their concerns will be give due consideration in any negotiations with the Taliban. Senator Boxer can pass as many resolutions as she has time for.

It will have very little effect on Afghanistan’s beleaguered females.

When Afghanistan becomes a country where rule of law has some meaning; when corruption is not longer pandemic; when education is a right rather than a privilege – only then can we start looking for real progress for Afghan women.