For all the people who see the war in Afghanistan as an imperialist U.S. adventure, the default position is: withdraw. The more sophisticated line is: negotiate. Peel off the wavering elements of the Taliban and work out a deal. Well, everyone got a glimpse of what such deal-making might look like this past month, when Hamid Karzai called for a government takeover of the shelters for battered and endangered women and girls in Afghanistan.
From the beginning of the war, the international outcry over the Taliban?s treatment of women ensured that whoever took power had to demonstrate at least a minimal commitment to sex equality. Karzai did that, and there?s no reason to think that his commitment violated his own beliefs. Karzai has a foot in both the West and the Pashtun South, but his basic instincts are liberal and modernizing, however compromised he?s been by the war and Afghanistan?s warlord politics.
But Karzai is in a tough spot, as pressure has increased for peace negotiations. The situation of Afghan women is a high card to play with conservatives; across the world and certainly in Afghanistan, cracking down on women is certain to appeal to reactionaries, if you?re looking to deal with them. Those who care about Afghan women, both inside and outside the country, have always been cynical about Karzai, and suspicion came to a boil when he made a deal in 2009 with the Shia clergy to reimpose restrictions on Shiite women, sanctioning sexual coercion and rape in marriage and making women?s movements outside their domiciles a matter of male permission. You could argue that in the miserable world of Afghan realpolitik, it wasn?t the worst concession, because it affected only a 10 percent minority. But it turns out that the Shiite deal presaged more to come.
At issue is the perceived difference between the local Taliban and the big players, and the possibility that the former could be drawn back into the government by handing them back uncontested prerogatives over women. The local Taliban are the Afghan field commanders and grunts who have done the lion?s share of the fighting, taken the brunt of losses, and seen first hand what the continuing war has done to their home regions, if not their whole country. The big players are the commanders sitting far away, in the mountains of Helmand Province and the slums of Islamabad, directing strategy. They are concerned with the big picture of jihad and Islamist successes. The idea that the little guys could be peeled away has been knocking around the American Left for a while. I recall having a violent argument about the strategy back in 2007 with a well known left-wing journalist, who dismissed what would happen to women in such a deal-making process with an arrogant wave of the hand.
Then, two weeks ago, Karzai announced that the government would take over women?s shelters. These are sanctuaries for battered women and endangered girls, formed on the Western model and run by NGOs like Women for Afghan Women, an Afghan-run organization with international support. The shelters are a drop in the bucket, protecting at most several hundred women and girls at once, but they represent an unprecedented (at least since 1996, when the Taliban took power) challenge to the terrifying power of conservative families to force girls into marriage and women into staying in marriages on pain of beatings, mutilation, and murder. True, for every girl ?rescued??like the now-famous Bibi Aisha, whose photo ended up on the cover of Time after her family had cut off her nose and ears as punishment for her running away?there are a thousand without recourse, especially those far away from the cities where the shelters are located.
But the shelters are the face of deeper changes precipitated by the war: the return of female exiles who?ve lived elsewhere in far better circumstances, and the new (though sporadic) opportunities for women in Afghanistan to get an education. The shelters, with their mix of Western and Afghan ideas, girded by human rights ideology, are both an easy target and, to fanatics, a harbinger of things to come. The Afghan equivalent of Glenn Beck has called the shelters brothels; Karzai?s rationale for their takeover was that the government would instill proper order?which meant girls would be subjected to virginity exams, and anyone would be released if her family demanded her return. In other worlds, his proposal was a return to a policy of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
An international outcry from women?s groups, human rights NGOs, and, it now seems, the U.S. State Department turned back what looked like a done deal. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry kept quiet, but it?s no stretch to imagine that the Clinton State Department put the heat on Karzai, given the Secretary?s statement last May that ?it is essential that women?s rights and women?s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process.?
For the moment, the shelters retain their autonomy. But you can be sure that the issue of women?s freedoms will turn up again in attempts to bring the Taliban to the table. The right of men to govern ?their? women as they see fit, unhindered by perfidious ?Western? influences, remains crucial to the otherwise bankrupt program of religious conservatives, with their spurious nationalist claims.
Image: A woman working at a domestic violence shelter in Herat, Afghanistan (U.S. Embassy in Kabul/Flickr creative commons/2009)