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Afghanistan’s forgotten
second war

Battling intransigent male chauvinism that deprives women of even the most basic rights is the less highlighted second war that is neither being fought nor won.

By PATRICIA LEIDL
Kabul, January 2011

In Afghanistan the battle for gender equality is the forgotten second war, Afghan women in burqas

The battle for gender equality is the forgotten second war in Afghanistan. Women in bright burqas huddle against the wind. - Photo: Getty Images

ONE brilliantly clear day in November 2009 I had the privilege of sitting down and interviewing a young Afghan woman by the name of Hossai Setarah. Small, intense and very brave, she had just returned from Spin Boldak, a dusty border town huddled against the Durand line that nominally divides the Pashto speaking population of Afghanistan from their cousins living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. A hotbed of insurgency, extremism and violence, Waziristan is among the worst regions in the world to be born a female.

Every time Hossai made the long trip from Kandahar city by bus she feared not only for her own life, but the lives of the 200 women who she was teaching to read, write and calculate simple sums. If their fathers, sons, brothers or any other male kin discovered that their daughters, mothers or sisters were learning how to read and write they would kill them.

“I do this for no other reason than because I believe that the only hope for my country lies in its women” Hossai told me. “I am very afraid but my anger is greater than my fear. No one should have to live as we live. This country will never have peace and it will never have security if women and girls die for no other reason than wanting to be treated equally to men and boys. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair.”

Patricia Leidl

Patricia Leidl


Every time Hossai made the long trip from Kandahar city by bus she feared not only for her own life, but the lives of the 200 women who she was teaching to read. If their male kin discovered that their daughters, mothers or sisters were learning how to read and write they would kill them

Despite her youth and her inexperience, Hossai knew instinctively what academics, researchers and development experts have argued for decades, and what mainstream media pundits, the military and politicians on all sides continue to disavow: Without gender equality there will be neither peace nor security in Afghanistan or in Pakistan; and without peace and security in both countries there will be no security anywhere.

The evidence is both irrefutable and massive. A survey of the most recent research undertaken by conflict experts Hudson, Caprioli, Ballif-Spanville, McDermott, and Emmett (2009) finds that states with higher levels of violence against women are less peaceful internationally, less compliant with international norms, and less likely to have good relations with neighbouring states.

Indeed, violence against women is a better predictor of violence than the level of democracy, wealth, or the prevalence of Islam. Moreover, researchers of almost every political stripe have found that high levels of gender inequality and violence against women and girls correspond to higher levels of authoritarian rule (Betzig and Fish), the willingness to use force (Marshall, Ramsey, Caprioli, 2000) and the severity of the force deployed to resolve international disputes (Caprioli and Boyer).

Research indicates that the degree to which women are able to access political power can predict the likelihood of that state engaging in interstate disputes and war while states with high levels of gender inequality are more likely to be the aggressors and to initiate the use of force in interstate disputes. There is also a strong link between gender inequality and Islamic suicide terrorism.

Indeed, one only has to pick up a copy of the UN Development Programme’s annual Human Development Report to note that, the most unstable and conflict-prone countries in the world are also those that score highest for gender inequality. The obverse is also true. The countries that score lowest for gender inequality also score highest for participatory democracy, transparency and development.

Pretty persuasive stuff but why is it being ignored? And why on earth did the US and its allies see fit to put a gaggle of warlords, kleptocrats and human rights abusers in charge of a country that poses such a threat to their own national security—men moreover, whose dubious human rights record are outstripped only by a misogyny so virulent that it renders them barely distinguishable from the Taliban?

Although the US now sees the error of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach, it is now stuck. Gone are any delusions regarding the overall intent of the Karzai administration and gone too is an opportunity to bring about real change—the type of societal transformation that would put ordinary Afghans—including women—in the driver’s seat and bring about the kind of just society outlined in a constitution that promised to make the country one of the most progressive in the Islamic world.

But it didn’t start out that way. In 2001, the administration of George W Bush warbled that the first post-invasion photos of Afghan girls heading to school and of unveiled Afghan was tangible evidence that conditions were improving in that benighted land. A few months after the invasion, in his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush announced, "The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government."

But, that was then and this is now. For despite its female Secretary of State, the current administration is ditching the women of Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the security of women in Afghanistan. Gone is one of the justifications for invading Afghanistan in the first place and gone too are the fine actions that brought about one of the world’s most inclusive constitutions in the world—now rendered utterly toothless by the exigencies of maintaining good relations with war criminals and engaging in talks with so-called ‘moderate’ Taliban.

In July of last year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a report that represents the most stinging official condemnation of the Karzai administration's abysmal track record on women to date. The report concluded, "The current reality is that ... women are denied their most fundamental human rights and risk further violence in the course of seeking justice for crimes perpetrated against them."

Last year Karzai pardoned well-connected political thugs who— before witnesses—gang-raped a woman with a bayonet. Her husband, who had battled for redress, was assassinated soon thereafter. Women who dare to speak out against the widespread trampling of their rights face almost certain death while their murderers face 100 percent impunity.

For the warlords and mujahedeen that make up the upper echelons of the Karzai government, the issue of gender equality was always an unwanted appendage to US involvement—but one that could easily be dispensed with through the deployment of flowery speeches and the token appointment of a lone female minister to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Indeed, just before his recent "election," Karzai felt secure enough to sign into law a series of repressive measures designed to repeal what minimal gains women have made since the Taliban ouster.

Although eventually forced to back down over legislation that allows Shiite husbands to rape their wives, Karzai successfully signed into law other legislation that denies or severely limits women's rights to inherit, divorce, or have guardianship of their own children. The Shiite Personal Status Law also legalizes forced marriage and the rape of minors. It allows men to exert almost total control over female relatives and offers them the power to prohibit women's access to work, education, and health care by denying them the right to leave their homes except for "legitimate" purposes. And if this sounds bad, just wait until the Americans leave.

However, quite apart from the fact that the rights of women have been bartered away with scarcely a peep of protest, the Coalition and its partners would be wise to consider their own long-term interests. These will remain highly compromised as long as they continue to support governments that routinely flout international declarations protecting the rights of women and girls.

The UNDP's annual Human Development Report notes that, the most unstable and conflict-prone countries in the world are those that score highest for gender inequality. The countries that score lowest for gender inequality also score tops for participatory democracy, official transparency and development

Moreover, despite protestations as to the monolithic nature of Afghan misogyny, plenty of research undertaken in some of the most conservative regions of the country, lend credence to the contention that Afghans are far more open and not nearly as conservative as many in the West would believe. While it is easy to dismiss ordinary Afghans as women-hating savages, it is simply not true.

In 2008 the Asian Development Bank report showed that the vast majority of Afghan respondents are in favour of equal educational opportunities for women (92 percent of women and 85 percent of men; 96 percent in urban and 86 percent in rural areas). The percentage of respondents strongly in favour of equal opportunities increased with educational level increases from 54 percent among those who never went to school to as high as 68 percent among respondents who have studied to grade 10 or beyond.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents (63 percent of women and 52 percent of men— 62 percent urban and 56 percent rural—think that women should decide for themselves how to vote while 62 percent of women and 40 percent of men agree that men and women should share leadership roles equally. Fifty- seven percent of respondents are not opposed to a woman representing them in the National Parliament but 40 percent expressed opposition.

These findings hardly add-up to an intransigent misogyny deeply imbedded in immutable cultural traditions. If anything, they show that education and opportunity can lead to changes in social attitudes—as attested by the historical record in Western nations.

Reams of research notwithstanding, the simple answer to why the West continues to leave women (and by extension men and boys) out in the cold can likely be attributed to a combination of ignorance and chauvinism—ignorance over the absolute relationship between gender inequality and armed violence, and chauvinism because of the widespread belief that, unlike the oppression of ethnic minorities, the repression of women somehow falls under the category of ‘culture’ and outside the rubric of fundamental human rights.

This is an important oversight—particularly with respect to Coalition counterinsurgency efforts that emphasises protecting the population and thus preventing a space for insurgents to operate. Despite this new policy women remain what one expert terms as, “forgotten players in coalition counterinsurgency efforts”.

Women play a central role in their families and are the primary care-givers for, and have significant influence over, their children. With fully 67 percent of Afghanistan’s population under the age of 25, the influence of mothers cannot be underestimated. Empowering women means empowering them to influence their children away from extremism and towards stability.

As leading conflict researcher Valerie Hudson recently noted: “democracy follows equality and not the other way around. The numbers are unequivocal. Gender inequality correlates to high levels of intrastate and international bellicosity. If the Coalition is really serious about stabilizing Afghanistan then they need to support the women and men who support the rights of women and girls”.

The bottom line is this: It is not that we have a moral imperative to help Afghan women to become more empowered or more "western". As long as violence and insecurity rule the lives of Afghan women, violence and insecurity will rule in Afghanistan. This instability creates space for insurgents and their terrorist allies to thrive, which has national security repercussions for the United States and indeed, for the entire planet.

As for Hossai, her fate was that of the many thousands of Afghan women who have tried to bring about change in one of the most profoundly misogynist societies in the world. Last August she was gunned down while exiting her workplace in Kandahar City. She was 19-years-old.


Patricia Leidl has spent 25 years with various media as an international communications advisor and journalist. During this time she has served ten years with United Nations agencies and international NGOs. She has served as Chief, Communications and Advocacy for the HIV/AIDS Department at the World Health Organisation in Geneva and has done a stint in New York as Media Advisor and Managing Editor of the United Nations Population Fund's flagship report The State of World Population. Prior to that she was Editorial Director of the Vancouver-based Human Security Report. She now splits her time between her native Canada, New York, Geneva and Afghanistan.

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Inge Brietland (1 April, 2011) – Denmark
Terrible to learn that this young girl died. Tragedies like this are enacted all over Asia daily and India now shows an imbalance when it comes to the male female ratio. This is due to social pressures against female babies. Education, education, education. When will politicians figure this out?
Margaret Wilson (30 March, 2011) – UK
It is shocking to learn that these women's plight is being ignored in Afghanistan. It is in the home where women can lead the way and change their menfolk to start generating respect. Education is the more obvious route. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have thrown up women leaders who became Prime Ministers. Maybe given the right conditions, Afghanistan can as well.

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