On March 2, 2012, the Afghan Ulema Council adopted an edict which declared women to be “secondary” to men and set out a strict code of subservient conduct for the (inferior) women to follow. On March 6, 2012, that code of conduct was publicly endorsed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In response, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama and their less than ethical NATO allies said nothing. Within the United States there was silence from women’s groups and from female members of Congress. The only voice of protest seemed to be that of Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.
Last week saw an equally disturbing disclosure in the United States. The New York Times published an Editorial on March 8, 2012 entitled, “Sexual Violence in the Military.” It detailed the approximately 19,000 cases in 2011 in which female members of the U.S. military were sexually assaulted by male soldiers. This is not some new phenomena. The New York Times’ Ashley Parker reported on February 15, 2011 that a class action lawsuit had been filed against the Pentagon alleging that there was a “military culture” that permitted and condoned sexual abuse against women in the military. In response to the lawsuit, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell dismissed the issue as a “societal problem” that was not unique to the military.
In response to these concerns, Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) introduced a bill to increase the punishment for sexual assaults in the military. Congressman Braley is badly misinformed because increased punishment is not the issue but a refusal to prosecute. This author served as a military prosecutor in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1980’s. It was extraordinarily frustrating at that time to prosecute sexual abuse within the military. The primary problem during the 1980’s and today is the tepid and unprincipled leadership by the General Officer Corps, which tends to label the female victim as the criminal.
This culture of apathy toward women extends well past the U.S. military. There are 17 female U.S. Senators and 75 female members of Congress, not to mention Cabinet Secretaries and a First Lady, all of whom refuse to criticize President Obama on this issue. Presidents like to play at being Commander in Chief. They love the salutes and the attention, but the title also carries responsibilities, one of which is an obligation to protect the women who serve in the U.S. military.
Suraya Pakzad is the Director of the “Voice of Women” in Afghanistan. In a March 5, 2010 interview with The New York Times, she observed that:
“Today we have 68 women in the (Afghan) Parliament. We have a group of women high in quantity, but low in quality.”
The reason for her comment is that most of the 68 female members of Parliament are beholden to their local warlords and simply are figureheads in the lower house of Parliament (which is called the Wolesi Jirga). Ms Pakzad went on to state that it would be better to have 10 strong voices than the current 68 silent ones.
Ms. Pakzad’s characterizations are equally applicable to the United States where there is a marked lack of quality among women in politics. For example, on average there are about 81,000 reported rapes in the United States each year, with the actual number probably ten times that number, but the issue is considered taboo by female politicians and so-called women’s groups. Rape has become a much more serious crime during the past two decades due to the increase in bacterial, fungal and viral diseases that can be spread by the rapist to his victim. With the rise in AIDs, hepatitis and other fatal or permanently debilitating diseases, this crime can be life-ending or at least life-altering for the victim. Despite this growing problem, many prominent women (i.e., those who are seeking acceptance by the male hierarchy) refuse to speak out regarding rape and as a result there has been no national effort aimed at reducing the number of rapes.
In July 2011 the security contractor for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (a British firm called ArmorGroup North American or AGNA) agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine in order to end a lawsuit by the U.S. Government. That lawsuit accused AGNA of misrepresenting the skills of some of its guards, submitting false invoices and violating the “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” due to the sexual misdeeds of AGNA employees in Kabul. Despite the fine, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided that the allegations are not serious enough to warrant the cancellation of AGNA’s embassy contract in Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton has remained silent for three years regarding the whole issue of the NATO brothels in Kabul and the trafficked women who are sent there to work.
Last week, in honor of International Women’s Day, Secretary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a party to honor several “women of courage.” This is the state of women’s rights in the United States; instead of action there are society parties and superficial speeches. Mrs. Obama could have better served the country by traveling to Lackland Air Force Base (a training base with many sexual assault problems) or to the U.S. Naval Academy. She could have used either forum as the backdrop for a substantive speech about the need to protect every woman in the military. That would have been an act worthy of her and International Women’s Day.
On March 10, 2012, MSNBC broadcast an episode of the Chris Hayes show in which a group of American women pretended to speak out about women’s health issues. The show was simply a forum for Democratic activists to criticize Republicans for being insensitive to women’s issues. Mr. Hayes ignored the Pentagon scandal and the mistreatment of women in the military by the Obama Administration; he ignored the rising rape numbers and the prevalence of pornography in print and on the Internet; he ignored the silence of the Obama Administration regarding the Afghan Ulema Council, and he never mentioned the NATO brothels in Kabul. Most activists in the U.S. are selectively outraged by the abuse of women. They only raise some facet of the issue when they sense that they can use it to attack a political opponent or increase their television or circulation ratings.
What this means for Afghan women is that the U.S. Government will readily abandon them in order to conclude a deal which brings the Taliban back to power. It is called “pragmatism” and it considered noble by some in the United States to be pragmatic. Pragmatism has been used in the past to justify abandoning the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Laotians, the Hmong and Meo, the Kurds, the Marsh Shia, the people of the Southwest Sahara, the people of Tibet and countless others. The irony is that Afghan women likely fared better under Soviet rule in the 1980’s than under American rule the past decade. The Soviets knew that there was no value in negotiating with the Taliban’s predecessors (the Mujahideen). While Western values may be superior, such values are only as noble as the officials who enforce and follow them. Until Western actions begin to match Western rhetoric, American and Afghan women will remain secondary.