Socialist Worker

Will the war free Afghan women?

by Talat Ahmed and Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1777

We may never know how many women have been blown to pieces in Afghanistan by B-52s and cluster bombs. That has not stopped Laura Bush and Cherie Blair proclaiming that their husbands' war in Afghanistan is motivated by the high ideals of women's liberation.

That will be news to the rulers of the West's traditional ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Women there are forced to cover themselves, and are restricted from public activity in much the same way as Afghan women under the Taliban. The Taliban's religious police were an identikit version of the Saudis' monstrous Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. All that may be true, say pro-war commentators. But don't the images of Afghan women lifting off their burqas (all-encompassing veils) show that some good has come to women from this war?

Many women in Kabul and other cities do have hopes for the future. But they are also deeply fearful. Observer journalist Chris Stephen described two weeks ago how foreign photographers were paying women to take off their burqas, only for them to put them back on again a few moments later:

'The fact remains that the Northern Alliance feels the same way about women as the Taliban did-they are chattel, to be tolerated but kept out of real life.' The suffering of women in Afghanistan is far deeper rooted than the five years of the Taliban regime.

The Taliban themselves and the many ways in which Afghan women are terribly oppressed stem from decades of war and economic regression. The West has been party to that devastation, and has now made it worse-opening the way to further suffering, not least for Afghan women.

The Taliban's oppressive view of women is not some 'orthodox Islam'. Khadijah, the first wife of the founder of Islam, Mohammed, was a wealthy businesswoman in her own right, and his daughter, Fatima, is highly revered in Islam.

Living in the 7th century, he laid out rules governing social behaviour, including relations between men and women. They were an advance on the arbitrary oppression of women, the poor and outsiders practised by the dominant tribes he challenged in the Arabian peninsula.

They were also better than the way women were treated in the neighbouring Christian empire of Byzantium. Those rules do fall short of the limited freedom and equality that working people have won in advanced capitalist societies today. But they do not reduce women to non-people.

Even today women in Iran are not equal and must wear the headscarf in public, but they do work, vote and sit in the national assembly. The Iranian government slammed the Taliban's treatment of women in 1996, at precisely the time figures in the US establishment were backing the then new rulers in Kabul.

As with any movement, making sense of the Taliban means understanding the society which produced them. The Taliban could not have existed but for the wars which have devastated the country for the last quarter of a century.

Those years of war left probably two million people dead. Most of the Taliban were young orphans taken into Saudi-financed religious boarding schools, madrassas, in Pakistan. They came from areas where village life had remained almost unchanged for centuries. Journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Central Asia, writes: 'The Taliban leaders were all from the poorest, most conservative and least literate southern Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan. In Taliban leader Mullah Omar's village women had always gone around fully veiled and no girl had ever gone to school because there were none.'

The war turned boys from these villages into refugees. In the all-male madrassas their only sense of security came from the traditions they brought from their villages, and religious instruction. The rival warlords who are trying to carve out fiefdoms in Afghanistan today were in power in 1994. They brought chaos. Gangs of armed men inflicted arbitrary punishment, and their leaders enriched themselves. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996 they were seen by many in the country as an alternative to that chaos and carnage, and the years of war that preceded them.

Rashid writes, 'Twenty years of continuous warfare have destroyed Afghan civil society, the clan community and family structure which provided an important cushion of relief in an otherwise harsh economic landscape.' The Taliban believed that imposing their model of behaviour could bring some order to the country.

Part of what the Taliban imposed was the burqa, banning women from public activity, as well as highly regulated behaviour for men. Rashid writes, 'Omar and his colleagues transposed their own milieu, their own experience, or lack of it, with women, to the entire country.' They believed that the traditions of a stagnated rural society could produce stability across a large broken country. There was an immediate motivation too. The seizure of cities by Northern Alliance fighters in the early 1990s had brought systematic rape of women and young boys.

Such rapes are one terrible feature of modern wars. The barbarity of the Eastern Front in the Second World War led to one of the most appalling incidences of mass rape in history when Russian troops entered Berlin in 1945. Taliban leaders feared their troops would behave as the Northern Alliance did. The brutality of Afghanistan in the 1990s produced a brutal way of avoiding this-the most rigid confinement of women.

This does not excuse or justify the Taliban's treatment of women, but it does help to make sense of Afghan society under their rule.

The idea that women's liberation, or any other real social change, can be something imposed from above is misguided. Even in the best of conditions such a 'top down liberation' rarely produces real and lasting change. It is, however, a recipe for utter disaster if it is attempted at the same time as making people's lives worse.

This was what was tried by Russian-backed regimes in the late 1970s. The result was the series of revolts that produced the Mujahadeen. One of the first protests against the Russian invasion of 1979 was by students from the girls' high school. Yet now we are told that Western troops can do what the Russians dismally failed to do 20 years ago, after bombing and maiming just as they did.

Liberation for women in Afghanistan depends above all on bringing immense material progress, and creating conditions where the mass of poor women begin to fight for their rights themselves. This is the very opposite of what all the powers which have been involved in the devastation of the country have brought. How can there even be talk of liberation when in Afghanistan:

  • 1,700 women out of 100,000 die giving birth-the highest figure in the world.
  • No contraception means many women have eight children-two of whom will die before the age of five.
  • Life expectancy for women is about 45 years.

The war has torn apart the social bonds that at least alleviated the suffering. Solving these things is not on offer from the US and Britain. Instead, we are told, if some women feel free to dress more openly then they are liberated. But more equal relations between men and women cannot come in a society carved up between rival gangs where ordinary people have no power. And they cannot be imposed by outside forces from above. The history of Afghanistan is testimony to the fact that free relations for women and men come only from free development from below.

The very best the West can pretend to offer Afghanistan today is the kind of chaotic integration into the world economy that has occurred in some developing countries. Women and men in many parts of the Third World have been pulled away from the countryside (and traditional social roles) and into sprawling cities where they live a precarious existence.

Cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Jakarta, Mexico City and many others are full of women, girls and boys who are driven by poverty to prostitution. Some women are lucky enough to find work, but only in sweatshops or special enterprise zones where they are exploited by multinationals and subject to the sexual harassment of foremen and managers.

And a global advertising industry tells them they must twist their lives and bodies to conform to sexual stereotypes, which women in the advanced capitalist world are supposedly happy with. This is a 'modern' alternative to traditional village life. It is not liberation, but market-driven oppression. And it is the best that the global warlords have to offer.

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Sat 1 Dec 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1777
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