In the ten long years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, during which we hoped to sow the seeds of democratic governance and equal rights for women, what have we achieved? The government we installed, virtually at gunpoint, has blossomed into the world's second-most corrupt state, after Somalia (our other project, Iraq, ranks fourth-most-corrupt). U.S. Marines, apparently trying to one-up the photos of the torture-and-humiliation games played by Army troops at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, are video'd urinating on dead bodies. The video of the smiling, jokey Marines not only disgraces the uniform and mocks the American commitment to human rights, it hands the Taliban and Al Qaeda a potent propaganda tool.
And women's rights? Take the case of young Sahar Gul, the Afghan teenager who was imprisoned in her in-laws' cellar toilet for months while being beaten, starved, and brutally tortured for refusing to become a prostitute. Her case is extreme, and once it became public the Afghan government was forced to act, arresting the girl's father-in-law, mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Sahar's husband headed for the hills -- maybe the hills of our "ally" Pakistan, safe haven for an assortment of bad actors -- and at last report had not been found. An extreme case, to be sure, but one that draws the world's attention to the condition of the rest of Afghanistan's women whose habitual subjugation has remained largely unchanged by our "enlightened" presence.
My friend Dr. Sharifa Sharif, an Afghan woman who as a child was sexually abused by her family's cook, has published a book that bravely details not only her own experiences as an Afghan female but the horror stories that other Afghan girls and women have shared with her. "On the Edge of Being: An Afghan Woman's Journey" documents the stories that have become all too familiar to us through our involvement in Afghanistan: the forced marriages of young girls to old men; the beatings and rapes; the imprisonment and even deaths of women for pre-marital or extra-marital sex. True, the new Afghan Constitution guarantees women's rights, but those guarantees are honored more often in the breach than in reality. And did not President Hamid Karzai approve a law giving the country's Shiite men a virtual "right of rape" if their wives refused to have sex every fourth night?
But the Afghans are not alone in their relegation of women to inferior status, are they? Witness the current controversy in what is commonly referred to as "the Middle East's only democracy," Israel, where ultra-Orthodox men and boys spit on an eight-year-old girl and called her a whore for dressing "immodestly" as she walked to school. Where a professor of pediatrics was not allowed to accept a prize for her work at an awards ceremony, because women were not allowed on stage due to the presence of ultra-Orthodox men; she was told that a male colleague would accept the prize for her (she was also not permitted to sit with her husband in the audience). Where a woman who refused to sit at the back of a public bus, behind the male passengers -- she's been called "the Israeli Rosa Parks" -- has received death threats. These incidents have been condemned even by the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel has been compared, fairly or not, to the rise of extreme Islamism in the Muslim world, and it seems to be gaining strength.
My friend Dr. Sharif now lives in Canada where she is a cultural adviser and an activist for women's issues. It's comforting to know we have women like her speaking out on behalf of injustice -- but we all need to do our part to speak up if we are to make progress for women around the world.