The women of Afghanistan have had a window of freedom for ten years but now they are facing possible betrayal and abandonment during U.S. talks with the Taliban. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, must make every endeavor to safeguard Afghan women's rights. The outcome may ultimately define her term in office.
There is a misconception that Afghanistan is impervious to change. No doubt, Afghan society is very conservative and women have been suppressed on and off for centuries, but currently, the vast majority of Afghans want women's human rights in addition to transparent government and jobs. They also want to see an end to thirty years of war that have brought social chaos, poverty, unemployment and post-traumatic stress.
Many Afghans fear the exit of foreign troops will leave the field open to the Taliban, who will flow into the vacuum, capture regions and resume the restrictions and punishments of severe sharia law. The Taliban's long-term aim is not a negotiated settlement but total power, including the brutal authority over women that characterized their rule.
In the past ten years, significant progress has been made by women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose staff in Afghanistan are mostly locals. Of the 220 staff members of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), all are Afghan and their numbers are increasing. They are dedicated to human rights work and are willing to risk their lives.
WAW organizes Jirgas or tribal gatherings to address local problems, and in spite of schools being burnt down by the Taliban or acid thrown on the faces of girls going to school, parents have used meetings to plead for their daughters' education. There are now 6 million children in school, of whom 35% are girls, and WAW will open three more schools by the end of 2011.
Shelters for women have been established where none existed previously. They offer safe haven to girls who were raped or forced into prostitution, and to women like Bibi Aisha, whose mutilated face on the cover of Time magazine in the summer of 2010, horrified the Western world. Workers in NGOs have been appalled by Karzai government plans to take control of shelters and force women to leave if their families (from whom they fled) want them back.
In the southern city of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, women have died in the service of reform. Lt-Col Malalai Kakar, head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women was murdered by the Taliban in September 2008, and in April 2009, Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, was shot dead outside her home. Her killers probably received the equivalent of $2,500 that had been offered by the Taliban to anyone who executed a council member.
Women in the southern region have continued to advance their rights in spite of intimidation and fear that talks with the Taliban will lead to the sacrifice of women in the south in exchange for an honorable U.S. exit.
Furthermore, if the Taliban take control following troop withdrawal, any guarantees they might have provided to protect women's rights would be worthless due to lack of U.S. leverage.
Activists also fear that a premature exit of troops would be catastrophic for the women's movement. Without reconstruction and a U.S. or coalition presence, the country could slip back into the chaos and violence that followed U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, and gave rise to the Taliban and a training ground for jihadists.
Malalai Joya, feminist and former member of the Afghan parliament, has campaigned for complete withdrawal of coalition forces, against the views of nearly all women on the ground. Although she courageously lambasted some of her colleagues as war criminals and misogynists when she was a member of the Afghan parliament, Joya has become a threat to the women's movement.
The Taliban is not the only source of discrimination against Afghan women. Endemic cultural practice gives men the power of life and death over women. Girls are still bartered and given away as household slaves to settle family feuds or redress crimes, rape victims may be charged with illicit sex, and wives blamed for giving birth to daughters. Although transformation of society is occurring from within, there is great need for outside assistance and considerable patience.
Democratic changes require more than elections. Basic freedoms of speech and association, an independent judiciary, a loyal opposition, tolerance, pluralism, minority rights and community projects are the bedrocks of a civil society, but women's rights represent its litmus test.
An inherent problem in the Afghan constitution is the stipulation that no law should conflict with Islam. This system of government could be exploited by extremists to institutionalize misogyny, justified by religion and law, and would make the important tasks of de-radicalization and de-Talibanization difficult.
In order to prevent the loss of hard-won women's rights, there is a need for massive grassroots lobbying of governments and international bodies, as well as measures to ensure that U.S. aid is contingent on Afghan women's human rights. The greatest hope for the country lies in the dormant kernel of women's freedom. If this seed were allowed to take root, the social, economic and political resources could transform a dysfunctional society.
In this context, the bewildering silence of the West's feminist movement has been a grievous disappointment.
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has a central role to play in mobilizing international women's support for policies to secure Afghan women's human rights and, in the process, secure her own legacy.
Ida Lichter is the author of 'Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression,' published by Prometheus Books, New York.