The Women of Afghanistan

In a must-read piece, Valerie Hudson and Valerie Leidl recall the promise by coalition forces to liberate the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. It hasn’t worked out that way:

But the current administration, despite its female secretary of State and its new Office of Global Women’s Issues, appears to be ditching the women of Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the security of women in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially since last year’s Afghan election, those fine words from a sitting president have all but disappeared. Many of the fine actions are gone, too. Push local shuras into including women in 2002? Yes. Push local shuras into including women in 2010? Forget it.

Yes, we are trying to win a war. But we were supposed to be winning hearts and minds, too. It’s hard to see how that is happening:

[W]omen have taken a back seat to realpolitik and the exigencies of a coalition exit strategy. But their suffering is real, as Afghanistan’s poverty and chaos affect women possibly most of all. Maternal mortality in Afghanistan still makes the world’s top three list, nine years after the U.S. invasion, resulting in a life expectancy for women of 46. In the countryside, Taliban zealots spray acid into girls’ faces for going to school — and only 27 percent of them do so in the first place. According to a recent survey by the U.N. Development Fund for Women, 87 percent of Afghan women report being beaten on a regular basis.

The writers suggest that Obama “instill in all military personnel and senior diplomats the necessity of fully protecting women’s rights. Key to that is educating them about how gender equality furthers Western interests and security.” They argue for a full-court press:

[T]he coalition needs to support “regime change” through the building of democratic institutions that will groom a moderate, educated middle class of young women and men to eventually take over. Over two-thirds of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, which is either a real opportunity for social change — if they are educated and given a chance to shape their society in a progressive way — or a major obstacle, if they find themselves without jobs, unable to marry, and burdened with retrograde attitudes of what it means to be male and female.

And most important, we need to stay in Afghanistan: “Withdrawing at this critical juncture would doom Afghanistan and the entire region to instability and effectively consign one half of the population to premature death and an existence not fit for animals.”

The recommendations are hard enough to implement with an administration dedicated to and enthusiastic about human rights, but one can’t help but be glum given the Obama team’s utter lack of regard for human rights and reticence to speak out on behalf of the oppressed women and girls of the “Muslim World.”  It was a heavy lift to get Obama to commit troops for 18 months, and now he needs to start speaking forcefully about the abuse of women in the “Muslim World”? Yes, there is reason for pessimism. Nevertheless, there is no more productive or necessary undertaking.

A sage observer wrote earlier this year:

If through the good offices of our military—especially our women soldiers—we could help Afghani women unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.