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Afghan Democracy is Flat-lining--And Only Women Can Save It

Posted on: Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Keywords: Afghanistan

By the time the first ballot is cast in Afghanistan's August 20 election, hopes for a democratic outcome will already be dead. The Obama Administration is billing Afghanistan's second Parliamentary election in 30 years as a milestone in that country's march towards democracy. But there can be no democracy in a place where half the population is considered the property of the other half. That's why some of Afghanistan's toughest, most tenacious pro-democracy activists are women. They understand that democracy is more than a procedural election; women's rights and genuine democracy are interdependent.

A July United Nations report about violence against women in Afghanistan grimly confirms what women there have been telling us all year: public assassinations of women are on the rise. Most at risk are those who dare to hold jobs, speak out for their rights, send their daughters to school, or simply appear in public without a male chaperone. The killings are inherently political, aimed at creating a society in which women have no rights and no role in public life.

On April 12, 2009, Sitara Achakzai was gunned down in front of her home. The motive was clear. As an elected leader in Kandahar's provincial council, she used that position to fight for women's human rights. Just the previous month, she helped organize a national sit-in of thousands of women for International Women's Day. Fundamentalists took her life to send a message: that women have no right to speak out, to act and to be heard.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killings of numerous other women this year. We don't know exactly how many because the government isn't keeping track. That's precisely the problem, say many women's rights activists: government inaction amounts to complicity. Any policy wonk can tell you that without the data to illustrate a social problem, you can't push for a policy remedy. And a remedy is what governments are supposed to provide when their citizens are being hunted down and killed for exercising basic human rights.

Even President Karzai, whom the US hand-picked in 2001 to lead the new, "democratic" Afghanistan, has displayed no real commitment to women's rights. In April, he signed a law that allows marital rape and forces women to ask their husbands' permission to leave the house. The law was revised only after Afghan women risked their lives to wage street protests in Kabul, generating an international outcry that Karzai could not ignore.

When pressed, Karzai admitted that he hadn't actually read the bill before signing it. Clearly, his concern was not for the women who would be bound by the reactionary law, but for the ultra-conservative proponents of the law who can make or break him in this election. That's always been the status of women's rights in Afghan politics: a mere bargaining chip. Just as young girls are traded to resolve disputes between families, women's rights are traded between leaders hashing out what Afghan society should look like.

The US, too, is guilty of horse-trading in Afghan women's rights. From 2001 to 2005, the most powerful man in Afghanistan was US Special Envoy and then Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. His approach to Afghanistan's fundamentalists and warlords was sheer appeasement, which he prefers to call "cooperation through cooptation."

It was Khalilzad who made sure that brutal militia leaders, including war criminals, were appointed as cabinet ministers, judges and regional governors after Afghanistan's first US-sponsored election in 2004, and that the country's new Constitution tethered Afghans to arbitrary and reactionary interpretations of Islam.

Like their counterparts in all religions, Afghanistan's fundamentalists wanted state institutions that would ensure the subordination of women. What Khalilzad wanted in return was enough stability in Afghanistan to pursue the Bush-era goal of permanent US global dominance. Women's rights--and with them Afghanistan's prospects for real democracy--were apparently an easy trade for him to make.

The result was a government riddled with warlords whose track record on women's rights is hardly better than the Taliban's. In 2003, when 25-year-old MP Malalai Joya stepped up to the microphone and accused her warlord colleagues of committing atrocities and oppressing women, they physically attacked her and threatened to rape her. She has since survived four assassination attempts.

Other defenders of women's rights have not been so lucky. Malalai Kakar rose through the ranks to become a leading police officer in her province, focusing on crimes against women. Safia Amajan devoted her life to teaching and promoting girls' education. In June, a midwife named Narges, who was the only health worker in the community, was murdered along with her husband and seven-year-old son. All of these women were brutally killed for the very acts that made them inspirations.

These women are all part of the beleaguered but vibrant Afghan women's movement that confronts both US air strikes and Taliban death threats to secure food, housing, healthcare and education for women and their families, defend women's shelters, hold peace demonstrations, demand women's full participation in public life and fight for interpretations of Islam that support women's rights. No foreign military occupation is going to do this. The US may be able to produce an election in Afghanistan on August 20, but it can't produce a society based on human rights. It's the women of Afghanistan who will secure their own rights and enable genuine democracy in the process.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Policy and Communications Director. For more information about how you can support Afghan women human rights defenders, click here to learn about MADRE's Afghan Women's Survival Fund.

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