In President Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo, he spoke out against the subjugation of women and conveyed his belief that "a woman who is denied an education is denied equality." The speech comes two months after the Karzai government was forced by international obloquy to rescind a controversial law that would have all but legalized rape within Shiia marriages. And just one month after 90 Afghan teenage girls were hospitalized by a poison gas attack as punishment for their enrollment in school -- the third such attack in as many weeks.
Starkly disparate appraisals of the conditions for women in Afghanistan continue to paint what is, at best, a rather blurry picture. Determining whether the overall situation has improved since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 can be difficult. And, as demonstrated by reports from sources who have recently returned from the war-ridden country, this determination is no less intractable now than in the past.
The primary reason is that conditions in Afghanistan are acutely compartmentalized into what is, in some regions, a muddling patchwork. Reports from one tribal village can be bright and optimistic while another locale only a few miles away will be rife with atrocities towards women and girls. "Problems in Afghanistan tend to be local in nature, not nationwide," says Stephen Brown, a humanitarian aid worker with the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club in San Diego, California who has been in and out of both Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2002.
For his part, Brown sees the situation for women in Afghanistan as being wildly better overall than in 2002. He has spent the past months assisting his Rotary Club colleague Fary Moini in opening the first women's dormitory at Nangahar University in Jalalabad. The idea is to bypass the requirement that women be accompanied by a male family member if they commute (which they all must, as there is never on-campus housing). Moini, like Brown, has worked intermittently in Afghanistan -- in Kabul and Jalalabad, and in a number of smaller villages, including Surkhrood, Barabad and Laghman -- and she supports his claim that conditions for women are markedly improved.
However, the fact that most of Moini and Brown's work has been in the more developed Jalalabad area may account for their rosy outlook. "Jalalabad is totally different. It's a prosperous town, and more secure," says Fahima Vorgetts of Women for Afghan Women, who runs women's shelters in Afghanistan's more rural and treacherous areas. Overall, according to Vorgetts, "the cities are better, women can go to work and school...in rural areas though, things haven't changed."
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), 80 percent of Afghanis earn their living through agriculture, in rural areas. Moreover, the Afghan urban population is generally overestimated, the United States Farming and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concludes.
By Vorgetts' account, the prospects for Afghan women were thought to have improved in the years following the Taliban's fall, but hope quickly dissipated when the Bush administration's priorities shifted to Iraq. The little aid directed towards Afghanistan in the following years was allocated to the military, leaving almost nothing for vital improvements in education and infrastructure, laments Vorgetts.
But, according to USAID, the number of children now enrolled in school has increased six-fold to 6 million children -- one-third of whom are girls -- since the Taliban's fall. Moini and Brown, who previously opened a co-ed elementary school in Jalalabad that now enrolls 2,000 students, tell a similar story of expansive improvement in women and girls' education.
However, the same criticism that these gains are exclusively in urban areas reemerges. Ann Jones, a women's rights expert and author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, spent four years in Afghanistan as a journalist and aid worker, from 2002 to 2006, and has more recently been involved with Rethink Afghanistan, filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald's latest Brave New Films documentary. She applauds the successes in developing areas such as Jalalabad, and even notes improvements in some rural localities where non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as Vorgetts' Women for Afghan Women and the National Solidarity Project have a strong presence. But overall, she is less sanguine than Moini and Brown. "All the positive changes are still insufficient to produce something like critical momentum, and all could be reversed in a moment by laws such as the Shiia family law Karzai was ready to implement until international pressure gave him pause," writes Jones in an email to the Huffington Post.
One often-highlighted tangible improvement is that women's rights protections are now codified into law. The Constitution of Afghanistan, ratified in early 2004, explicitly guarantees "equal rights and duties before the law" between men and women. But according to Jones, "although there have been improvements on paper in the Constitution and international treaties, for most Afghan women life has stayed the same, and for a very great number, life has gotten much worse." She attributes much of the deterioration to misappropriated development aid, government corruption and to NATO's war with the Taliban that rages mostly in the countryside.
According to the State Department Human Rights Report for 2008, violence and the unequal treatment towards women, rather than being the exclusive behavior of Taliban militants, actually runs rampant among Afghan police and security officials as well, including the wanton rape of women prisoners by male police. Moreover, "authorities imprisoned an unknown number of women for reporting crimes perpetrated against them or to serve as substitutes for their husbands or male relatives convicted of crimes," reports the State Department.
Jones' critiques of US government aid, and USAID in particular, are enumerated in Kabul In Winter and in a lengthy Huffington Post jeremiad tellingly titled 'The Afghan Scam: The Untold Story of Why the U.S. Is Bound To Fail in Afghanistan'. "Most of what we call 'American aid' is phantom aid anyway. Either it never exists, or it goes into the pockets of private American contractors and never leaves the US. It's been calculated that 86 cents of every American aid dollar never leaves the United States," Jones tells Greenwald in Rehink Afghanistan.
Amnesty International seems to corroborate Jones' negative appraisal of the situation in its 2009 report covering the period between January and December 2008. For one, it notes the number of Afghan women in government has decreased since the initial years of the Constitution of Afghanistan. And in 2008, it is estimated that 60 - 80 percent of marriages were forced, and that a large portion were with young girls. Moreover, "the year saw increased attacks on schools, the intimidation of teachers and female students primarily by the Taleban, and greater disruption of classes because of armed conflict. In areas controlled by the Afghan government, both health and education systems suffered from inadequate funding, lack of qualified professionals, and security problems," states the report.
Vorgetts echoes Jones' frustration, insisting that Women for Afghan Women "can do a lot with very little," if only more development aid dollars reached NGOs like hers in the more marginalized and war-ravaged rural areas in the south and east. There are an estimated 20 women's shelters in Afghanistan, which has a population of 32 million people, and five of these are located in Kabul. As Jones notes, the same problem with disproportionate clustering can be said for schools. "What would Afghans have done differently, if they'd been in charge? They'd have built much smaller schools, and a lot more of them, in places more convenient to children than to foreign construction crews."
For their part, Moini and Brown recognize the importance of involving Afghans in Afghan development by making "sure they know that it's their project, not yours," Moini explains. This is, in fact, the crucial element of what has proven to be the Rotarians' winning strategy. The Nangahar University dorm was built with funds from a number of independent donors, and with the local community's full involvement. But most importantly, says Moini, it was an Afghan project, not an American one.
There is an advantage to operating in Jalalabad, which despite its propinquity to the Taliban-ridden Peshawar, Pakistan border about 100 miles to the east, is a relative oasis of modernity. But Moini and Brown's successes, and the lessons they have learned operating amidst such powerful traditional elements -- dominant even in Jalalabad to a degree -- leave them with no doubt that the same can be achieved elsewhere.
By contrast, it is no surprise that those who have seen Afghanistan's most destitute corners have their doubts about the situation for women. At one point in Rethink Afghanistan, Greenwald visits a refugee camp of mostly widows who are so deprived of basic needs that they must sell their own daughters to survive. Those who visit these places and then return to the developed areas around Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar or Herat describe two vastly different worlds.
To many, the differences appear insurmountable because of what is often described as the entrenched tribal culture prevalent in rural areas. But Vorgetts, who grew up in Afghanistan and remembers far better conditions for women just 30 years ago, promptly dismisses this argument. "It means it's not culture, it's forced by the fundamentalists," she says, adding that she believes education to be the most powerful weapon against these "root causes of terrorism."
The disparate reports out of Afghanistan suggest that the polarity of conditions between urban and rural areas is increasing. However, improvements in the former could lead the way for improvements in the latter by, if nothing else, demonstrating that improvement is indeed possible. But a key issue is the war. President Obama is shifting the US focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan with the deployment of 21,000 additional troops and a $96.7 billion bill that passed the House in mid-May. Yet many involved in humanitarian and development aid bemoan the troop increase, such as Vorgetts, who points out that the presence of NATO soldiers in villages gives men even more reason to sequester women indoors, while instituting oppressive behavioral and dress standards.
Likewise, Dr. Roshanak Wardak, one of the Afghan Parliament's few women members, tells Greenwald in Rethink Afghanistan that there are far better ways to improve the situation than fighting. She insists that a political solution exists to accommodate hardline elements into the parliament that will spur a productive quid pro quo, with each side accepting certain conditions from the other, including respect for women.
But the Obama administration's troop increase and its replacement of General David McKiernan with counterinsurgency specialist Lt. General Stanley McChrystal indicates that the US will continue prosecuting the war in Afghanistan certainly for the immediate future. The most aid groups can hope for -- especially for women -- is better disbursement channels for development dollars entering Afghanistan. And in the meantime, the activists and aid workers have no intention of relinquishing their efforts.