A decade after the West shut down the debate on Afghanistan with stories of oppression, the reality as it stands is far more complicated than it appears. A conflict that lasted a whole lot longer than both the First and Second World Wars combined- the war in Afghanistan had a conservative estimate of casualties ranging up to 40,000.
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Today, states are planning an attempt to draw their troops out of the proxy battleground that Afghanistan has become. When the war began, Afghanistan was the subject of plenty of attention, as the world scrambled to study and discern the inner side to Afghanistan’s history as a country crippled by decades of war and conflict. Movies hit box offices with a frenzied speed, tolling high in the cash registers. Books were churned by the dozen. Afghanistan was the poster country that needed assistance, and needed it bad. Afghanistan then, was the popular war.
As the war began, the thirst was for revenge. An insatiable appetite to wreak vengeance that originally coloured the ideologies that peppered the war itself, soon whittled down to being a war for human rights in Afghanistan, particularly the rights of women. The cause was an easy narrative, sufficiently powerful to justify the war that was slowly drawing criticism. The rights of women in Afghanistan was evidently not something the women themselves had the benefit of enjoying. When a stadium full of people in Kabul witnessed the execution of a woman was filmed by the RAWA and submitted to the BBC and CNN in vain, it was subsequently taken up by the Pentagon and (ab)used extensively to fuel the war in a bid to offer justice. The Taliban treated its women brutally. Girls were kept from going to school. Women were subjected to downright unacceptable treatment. And all of this- instead of garnering the right kind of attention to sufficiently attend to the cause of women and to ensure the guarantee of their rights- was used to justify the war that the West had indulged in.
Laura Bush, the erstwhile first lady, proclaimed the clarion call, while her weekly White House radio talk broadcast her speech that conflated the battle for women’s rights and the war on terror. The basis? That civilized people had an obligation to speak out across the world against the situation that threatened women in Afghanistan and the world that the “terrorists” would like to impose on the rest of reality. The speech pandered to the ignorant- the fight against terrorism was not a war in pursuit of their ulterior motives and unmentioned goals, oh no, not at all. It was a fight for the rights, for the dignity of women.
For ten years, the story dragged on, not as one that the international community must act upon with the right attention and aid, but as a situation that mandated the elimination of terrorists with the tool of war. Wielding the trump card of women’s abuse did do its job for the war- it bolstered their cause for war, allowing it a firm foundation to build upon. That the plight of Afghan women in reality was not far from the projected image only added credibility to the theory that war would weed out the evils the women of Afghanistan faced, was enough to silence any doubt.
While little has been done to understand Afghanistan, its social stratification and its history, there have been hackneyed attempts to bring progress to Afghan women. Many of these had met failure, remained efforts in vain and largely futile. Resistance burgeoned in waves, since these attempts were foreign, an anathema to the traditional Afghan identity that was inherent in the women themselves. Imported modernization was too foreign an element to be accepted in the fabric of Afghan society. Powerbroker elements appealed to traditional values and kept conservative rural areas tightly wound in their fists. Education and the dissemination of modern ideas to girls were not acceptable to certain kinship groups. Social systems that were so intricately woven into the weft of the Afghan social set-up were not to be reorganized, much less by foreigners. No matter what their intention. Sexual violence in Afghanistan during the 1990s had become a major issue that needed to be addressed. Many of the warlords, mostly backed by the US had particularly bad records to their credit. While the Taliban sought to reduce it, the means they used were hardly appreciable, brutal, even.
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Besides Afghanistan’s history, the nature of the continued conflict’s impact on gender roles in society has also to be understood. Women are, no doubt, the primary victims of the war in Afghanistan, as is the case with war of any kind in any place. Women experience violence from all quarters, be they enemies or friends. Conflict itself is known to polarize gender roles. The sheer magnitude of violence meted out against a society sends men into more aggressive forms, while the women are sent in the other direction of sheer docility, as the representatives of their social structure, as the bearers of a cultural identity, as the WHO puts it. Just as in any other war, the bodies of women are the new battleground. The war shifts to their bodies- whether it be waged by the weapon of rape and sexual violence as in DR Congo, or with the weapon of physical violence as is the case in Afghanistan. Foreign intervention with military force is worthless in putting a plug in this battle.
There’s plenty Afghanistan needs right now. The recognition of its sovereignty by the international community, and the fact that women need to be protected needs to be worked upon on a more proactive level. As difficult a fact as it is, a certain measure of security in Afghanistan is likely to come at the cost of the rights of women, something like it was in the early 90s- to the Afghan woman, it could perhaps appear like a necessary evil.
But can we, the rest of the world, watch while that happens?