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Women's Groups Split By Afghanistan Policy

First Posted: 08/30/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:45 PM ET

Women

The Feminist Majority Foundation and the Afghan Women's Mission are locked in a bitter controversy over what's best for the women of Afghanistan.

The two groups are natural and historical allies. But the Feminist Majority has now endorsed President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- arguing that the administration's new strategy is necessary to prevent the return of the brutal oppression of women by the Taliban regime.

The Afghan Women's Mission, along with an associated Afghan feminist group, contends that more troops and more fighting will only result in further casualties on both sides and fuel the already-flourishing insurgency.

Sonali Kolhatkar, founder of the Afghan Women's Mission (AWM) and Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) wrote last month on AlterNet:

[C]oalition troops are combat forces and are there to fight a war, not to preserve peace... Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women's rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté.

Kolhatkar, in a subsequent interview with the Huffington Post, added that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would actually "take away the rationale of the Taliban: the foreign occupiers."

Feminist Majority founder Ellie Smeal and board member Helen Cho responded in turn, writing that "recently these terrorists have destroyed hundreds of girls schools, killed journalists, local women's leaders and killed women teachers in front of their students."

"If the U.S. was to pull out of Afghanistan," they warned, "the United States would be once again breaking its promise to the Afghan people, and the country would likely fall under Taliban control."

A Long History With Afghanistan

The Feminist Majority boasts that they were the first American organization to call attention to the plight of women under the Taliban -- back in 1996 -- when they circulated countless images of burqa-shrouded Afghan women.

Their campaign culminated in pressuring Unocal to withdraw its support for a pipeline, slated to be run through Afghanistan, which would have furnished the Taliban regime with handsome royalties.

The group also sponsored the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), one of the Afghan feminist groups now opposed to troop escalation, to give a speaking tour in the United States.

The View From Afghanistan

When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the plight of oppressed Afghan women was one of the public justifications. But eight years later, RAWA's Kolhatkar argues, "Women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions" as they did under the Taliban, "with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war." Despite the presence of a few women in public office and the enrollment of some women and girls in schools, many argue that these changes are little more than cosmetic.

RAWA's 2,000 active members live in Afghanistan and in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. They are "totally underground, they're constantly moving around... they change their names and they don't stay in one place long," explains Kolhatkar. "They are marked women." Those caught even reading their magazine have been locked up by both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

On their website, their main platform, they are very clear, "RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can't be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values."

So far the U.S. has not done much to help their cause.

"[W]e put some of the worst [warlords] back in power. Karzai's law [legalizing marital rape] was not an accident," said Kolhatkar. The drug war only makes things worse. "The drugs are the lifeline for the Taliban and the cash crops of the misogynists... Poor families that have gone into debt with the warlords have had to sell their daughters to pay off their debts."

And despite the Obama administration's refocusing of regional goals, the abysmal 8-year legacy in the region gives little reason to hope that a safer, less militarized day-to-day existence for Afghans with emerge anytime soon.

RAWA and the AWM call for UN peacekeepers, the initiation of a disarmament process, the building up of justice and educational institutions, a war crimes tribunal and an Afghan Human Rights commission

"The UN won't do it," warned the Feminist Majority's Smeal. Though she says that she too would like to see such changes in Afghanistan, "we made this mess and we have an obligation to do something about it."

This past June was the bloodiest month in Afghanistan since the war began.

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