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In Afghanistan, a woman's place is at the peace table

Let women play a bigger role in the country's affairs and see what happens to the peace process.

January 13, 2011|By Ann Jones

Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it's time to try something totally different, like putting into action, for the first time in history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325.

Passed on Oct. 31, 2000, the resolution was hailed worldwide as a great victory for both women and international peace. In a nutshell, it calls for women to participate equally in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking and reconstruction.

The resolution grew out of a recognition that while men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth, women who are included commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. They are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, healthcare, education — the things that make life livable for peaceable people.

It's been nine years since I started doing aid work in Afghanistan, and I am frustrated by the lack of progress toward a peaceful and livable society.

Yet whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of 1325 to American big men who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but they are precluded from throwing their weight behind the resolution by delicate considerations of "cultural relativism." Afghanistan, they remind me, is a "traditional" culture when it comes to women. Westerners, they say, must respect that.

Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this "tradition" seems excessive, especially since few of the Afghan men who actually governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their sentiments.

Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women's complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy and the burka and banished ultraconservative mullahs who undermined the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Amanullah and his modern, unveiled queen, Soraya, are remembered for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared Amanullah's modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But in 2001 the U.S. — and by extension the entire international community — cast its lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after a power-sharing conference in Bonn, to which only two Afghan women were invited. We paid millions to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai's men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we're stuck with him and his ultraconservative, misogynist "traditions," even though an ever-growing number of Afghanistan watchers now identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.

And what has Karzai done for the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.

That's the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan. Afghan researchers conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders and female leaders at the local, provincial and national levels.

The report notes that Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the " Taliban-style" Shia Personal Status Law, which not only legitimizes marital rape but prevents women from stepping out of their homes without their husbands' consent. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed all citizens in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution.

In fact, Karzai's record on human rights, as the report documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done. He holds extraordinary power to make political appointments, yet today, after nearly 10 years in office, only one Cabinet ministry is led by a woman: the Ministry for Women's Affairs, which has only advisory powers. Karzai has appointed only one female provincial governor among 33 men. (Is it by chance that her province, Bamian, is generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?) Among Afghanistan's city governments, he has named only one female mayor. And to the Supreme Court High Council, he has appointed no women at all.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Karzai named a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban, its members initially consisted of 60 men and no women. They were the usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahedin, all fighting for power to the bitter end. Under international pressure, Karzai belatedly added 10 women to the group. The U.S. has signed off on this lopsided "peace" council.

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