Some believe that the legacy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton depends on how Afghan women fare following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops. E.g., Paul Richter, “Status of Afghan Women Threatens Hillary Clinton’s Legacy,” L.A. Times, April 8, 2012. Raising the issue of Afghan women in the context of Mrs. Clinton’s legacy is truly an American-centric viewpoint. From the point of view of Afghan women, it is not about legacy. Rather, it is existential, a matter of life-and-death.
It was not al-Qaeda, but the Taliban, who oppressed Afghan women from September 1996 to October 2001: requiring the windows of their homes to be blackened (so men on the street could not see them), requiring them to wear the burqa outside the home (again so men on the street could not see them), denying them any employment (other than in the medical sector, so male medical personnel would not see them), requiring them to leave their homes only in the company of a male relative (though many women, after continuous war, had no living male relatives), denying them an education, denying them work, denying them the ability to drive, subjecting them to lashes and execution. (See, for example, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe (2011)). The Taliban placed half of all Afghans basically under house arrest.
What segment of Afghan society has the most to lose should the Taliban exercise power in any part of Afghanistan? Girls and women. Environmental studies uses the term “indicator species,” defined as “A species whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is indicative of the health of its ecosystem as a whole.” I suggest to you that women are an indicator in Afghanistan. The well-being of women in Afghanistan is indicative of the quality of the entire polity of Afghanistan. The focus of the United States and the focus of the Afghan government should be on the well-being of women.
The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan protects the rights of women:
• Any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan are prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law. (Art. 22)
• The citizens of Afghanistan have the right to form social organizations for the purpose of securing material or spiritual aims in accordance with the provisions of the law. (Art. 35)
• Every Afghan has the right to travel or settle in any part of the country except in the regions forbidden by law. (Art. 39)
• Education is the right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be provided up to the level of the B.A. (lisâns), free of charge by the state. (Art. 43)
• The state shall devise and implement effective programs for balancing and promoting of education for women, improving of education of nomads and elimination of illiteracy in the country. (Art. 44)
• Work is the right of every Afghan. . . Choice of occupation and craft is free within the limits of law. (Art. 48)
• Any person, whose fundamental rights have been violated can file complaint to the [Independent Human Rights] Commission. . . The Commission can refer cases of violation of human rights to the legal authorities, and assist in defending the rights of the complainant. (Art. 58).
But of course, constitutional protections are only as good as the last decision by a government or military to abide by them.
It is my understanding that women in Afghanistan are flourishing – in the areas outside the control of the Taliban. They are receiving an education. They are working – including in media, law enforcement, the courts, in the Afghan Assembly, and serving as officers in the Afghan military. They are engaged in sports. They have, however, two causes for concern: (1) the ability of the Afghan military to not only keep the current territory under its control but to expand its authority to the country’s national borders; and (2) negotiations with the Taliban to bring it within the government. Will the men of Afghanistan, will the United States, throw the women of Afghanistan under the bus to obtain some semblance of peace?
In his remarks from Afghanistan on Tuesday, May 2, President Obama mentioned the Taliban just once: “[W]e’re pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We’ve made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws.” The text of the executive agreement (Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement Between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) he and President Karzai signed that day specifically mentions women’s rights in the following: Article I (the Preamble, quoting the November 2011 Traditional Loya Jirga), Art. II.4 (“Afghanistan shall ensure and advance the essential role of women in society, so that they may fully enjoy their economic, social, political, civil and cultural rights.”), Art. III. 4 (“a. The necessary outcomes of any peace and reconciliation process are for individuals and entities to:
break ties with al-Qaeda; renounce violence; and abide by the Afghan Constitution, including its protections for all Afghan women and men. b. Afghanistan affirms that in all state actions and understandings with regard to peace and reconciliation, it shall uphold the values of the Afghan Constitution.”)
It’s clear that the Obama Administration would like to see women protected in Afghanistan. I suggest it should do more. It should persuade the Karzai Administration to allow the United States to arm, train and organize the women of Afghanistan as women.
In an April 13 speech to the National Rifle Association, former Speaker Gingrich proposed that the Association advocate for a universal human right to bear arms. There is no such right in the Afghanistan Constitution of 2004. My proposal doesn’t concern itself with whether Afghanistan should amend its constitution to include this right. I assert simply that the Karzai Administration should recognize the right on a de facto basis for women.
Here is one scenario. With the Karzai Administration’s permission, one thousand members of the U.S. or NATO military, or perhaps civilian volunteers (such as members of the National Rifle Association), would set up tent camps in Afghanistan for training 100,000 Afghan women. This would allow a trainer-trainee ratio of 1:100, but the 100 Afghan women could be trained in groups of 25 at a time.
They would be trained in the care and handling of firearms, in marksmanship -- and in the martial arts of self-defense. After training, to prevent accidents and the theft of the weapons by for example male relatives or the Taliban, the women’s weapons would be placed in small (100-gun) armories. (Think of Lexington and Concord, 1775.) The armories would be protected by all-women security units to which no man, even military personnel, would be allowed access. Why such a reservation of power over the armories? Because women are not a threat to the Afghan government. Women are not members of the Taliban. Only men, or men disguised as women, could pose a security threat to the women’s armories.
If the Taliban ever threaten Afghan women, ever show their contempt for them (even in the name of Islam), let the Afghan women demonstrate with force of arms that “hell hath no Fury like a woman scorn’d” (William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697).)
Spero columnist James Thunder is a Washington DC-based attorney and a freelance writer.