Afghanistan: NATO’s 10 year feminist experiment

Afghan airforce servicewomen (March 2011) photo: NATO

This is some of the further detail from my feature for today’s Guardian that was not in the final edit. It makes reference to two major  reports on women and Afghanistan put out this week by Action Aid and  Oxfam.

It has been the obvious feminist cause of our times. We may have been sceptical about politicians and their spouses (notably Laura Bush) citing women’s rights as a key justification in launching the military campaign after 9/11. But the ingrained hatred of women apparent in many aspects of Afghan society is undeniable. Now, like the horrific details of a brutal crime, it seems journalists and politicians would rather look away, or at best, describe the gory detail of self-immolations, child marriages to powerful local drug lords, and bemoan the hopelessness of it all.

Neither attitude will do.

Filming my Channel 4 documentary Islam Unveiled about Islam and feminism shortly after the launch of the Afghanistan campaign, the global power of women hating clerics stunned me. In Egypt, Iran, Nigeria and Malaysia I found plenty of such influential men who would for my camera, happily justify female genital mutiliation, wife beating, and stoning for adultery. It would be easy to write off all those societies too.  But then I met the other side: Pakistan’s only female high court judge, who had helped fund a women’s refuge in Karachi, where doctors, lawyers and businesswomen all donated their services for free. In Malaysia, the Sisters in Islam group used lawyers and clerics of their own to challenge politicians and police who were arresting poor women for supposedly “unIslamic” behaviour, that had more to do with impressing male voters. So it is in Afghanistan, where brave trailblazing women, such as MP and prospective 2014 Presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi are trying to make those first steps.

Afghanistan brings all the ethical dilemmas of feminism together. First, the cultural relativism argument – (15 year olds at one of Britain’s leading girls’ schools asked me if domestic violence wasn’t quite the same in Afghanistan). There’s the imperial arrogance argument. By this argument opening up schools and enterprise schemes with military support is like the British empire’s abolition of sati in India – ritual burning of Hindu widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. They cannot be seen in isolation as a “good thing”.)

Much news analysis to mark the 10th anniversary has rightly pointed out that women and children have suffered disproportionately in the drone attacks increasingly used by NATO commanders. Does it taint the value of civilian projects enabled by ISAF’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams? They have opened schools, banks, health posts and trained local paramedics. Five members of the Gereshk Council in Helmand are female. There are many who say it does.

So is what has been created in Afghanistan an unsustainable “bubble” of feminism?  The country now has more female MPS (27%) above the world average, girls make up 39% of children in school, and 5% of the army and police force nationwide, if not necessarily in the frontline. Political quotas are praised for changing entrenched cultural attitudes in such liberated bastions as Norway. Do they have no role in the future of Afghanistan?

And what is the alternative?

When the trail of young Afghan men making it overland to seek asylum in the EU was at its peak, little was asked about the women left behind. A British asylum lawyer told me her teenage clients often listed only their male relatives when first making a claim, because, in Afghan society women, didn’t count. Once they had leave to remain and could bring over close family, the young men would name their mothers and sisters but the authorities would understandably refuse, as they hadn’t been named from the start.

When ISAF pulls out altogether, could a moral philosopher argue that all Afghan women should have a right to claim asylum in the West?

Further reading:

British Army involvement in civilian projects MOD website

September 13th attack on US Embassy in Kabul in which attackers dressed in burqas

MOD obituary of RAF reservist Gary Thompson,51, who cited women’s rights as the reason he was fighting in Afghanistan.He was killed in 2008.

ISAF mission on the NATO website

Afghan women serve in the Air Force

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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