The woman of Afghanistan are facing a crisis which threatens to roll back many of the advances in equality and human rights that the West promised after the fall of the Taliban. Brothels in Kabul continue to service NATO officials and contractors, burkas are once again becoming the norm, and Afghan women continue to be legally viewed as mere property of their families and husbands, with criminal penalties for failing to act as property.
As one of her supporters, this author expected more from First Lady Michelle Obama. While she has won praise for her excellent fashion sense and her support for healthy foods, both issues are safe and uncontroversial. The American people bestowed upon her a unique and priceless soap box on which she can stand and command attention. As perhaps the most popular and respected person in America, her powerful voice has been silent on far too many important issues. One of those issues is the Obama Administration’s failure to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. This article looks at just three of the problems facing Afghan women.
1. On June 20, 2011, the Kabul Press published its second report on the sex trade in Kabul. Entitled “Kabul Brothels Continue to Service NATO,” the report detailed the re-birth of brothels in Kabul as a result of the American invasion. As the article explained, the unofficial message from NATO’s leadership to victims of oppression is:
“We will liberate you as long as your women agree to service our officials and contractors.”
That is a sad reality of both NATO and United Nations peacekeeping missions.
This scandal in Afghanistan has been the subject of numerous investigative reports including the following:
“Women trafficked to Afghanistan to meet demand from Westerners” by Jess McCabe, “theFword.org,” (June 23, 2008).
“NATO Men Romp in Afghan Brothels,” The Sun (April 7, 2008).
“Sex Trade Thrives in Afghanistan” by Lisa Tang of the Associated Press (June 15, 2008).
“Despite Allegations, No Prosecutions for War Zone Sex Trafficking,” by Nick Schwellenbach and Carol D. Leonnig, with the Center for Public Integrity (June 26, 2010).
At the forefront of these investigations has been RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Established in 1977 by a 20-year old Afghan woman named Meena; it is the oldest and most respected women’s rights group in the country. Meena was kidnapped and murdered in 1987, but her organization continues. She was highlighted in Time Magazine’s November 13, 2006 issue entitled “60 Years of Asian Heroes.” Unfortunately RAWA representatives are apparently not welcome at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul due to the organization’s criticisms of U.S. contractors and NATO officials in Afghanistan, which include RAWA’s publication of “Lifting the Veil on the Afghan Sex Trade,” by Rajeshree Sisodia (April 9, 2006).
Despite all the publicity about the Kabul brothels, NATO, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have remained dishonorably silent. The official proclamations of Western support for women’s rights are mere window dressing because officials and foreign contractors continue to crave the presence of trafficked women. Afghan citizens and traditional elders have to deal with Western hypocrisy. There are public speeches by Western officials in Kabul about Western values and women’s rights, while privately these same officials condone the sex trade and refuse to punish their own personnel who abuse Afghan women. Such duplicity makes the Taliban look good in comparison.
As a former U.S. Air Force Captain with the First Special Operations Wing, this author’s first inclination if posted to Kabul would be to take a security police unit and shut down all the brothels, ensuring that each women or child got to somewhere safe; either back to their families or if that would not be safe, then to another country that would take them in and protect them. Anyone who would not do that has no place representing the United States overseas.
2. Another growing problem in Afghanistan is the reemergence of the head to toe covering called the burka. Rangina Hamidi is the 34-year old daughter of Kandahar’s late Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who was assassinated last July by a suicide bomber. She returned to Afghanistan from Virginia in 2003 to found a successful non-profit organization in Afghanistan’s south. Last month she recounted to Martin Kuz of Stars and Stripes that in 2003, one could travel freely in Kandahar without a burka, but now she said “you don’t go anywhere without a burka.” She used to drive herself from Kandahar to Kabul, but now cautions that such a drive is much too dangerous. Ominously, she, her daughter and her husband (an Afghan civil engineer), plan to return to Virginia this month, her view being that all hope is lost for her country. These individual stories belie the Pentagon’s fancy charts and expensive consultants who prepare dubious reports that boast of progress against the Taliban.
3. Finally, Afghan women continue to be legally viewed as mere property of their husbands, with criminal penalties for failing to act as property. The European Union issued a commission to director Clementine Malpas to prepare a documentary about human rights abuses suffered by Afghan women. The film: “In-Justice, The Story of Afghan Women in Jail” focused on women in Afghan prisons and why they were there. It turns out that 50% of the women in Afghan jails committed no crimes that are recognized in the West or in most countries in the East and South. They are jailed for moral crimes. This includes women fleeing abusive marriages (which is a crime); women who refuse to marry those to whom they have been promised (which is a crime) and those who have been raped by relatives. The latter crime is called “zina,” which is a Farsi/Dari term for adultery. The difference in Afghanistan is that a wife who is raped by a male relative is almost automatically guilty of zina as she can almost never prove her innocence. Last week the EU bowed to Afghan censors and revoked its approval to show the documentary, which is now effectively banned. It is, by all accounts, an important film and a story which should be told and screened in the West.
Into all of this is First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She successfully practiced law with the mega-law firm of Sidley Austin and later served as a Deputy Planning Commissioner in Chicago and an Associate Dean at the University of Chicago. Despite her considerable skills and talent, since inauguration day almost three years ago she has virtually disappeared from the political stage. So much was expected of this dynamic, poised and articulate woman, but it is never too late to change.
Al-Jazeera published an excellent article on October 31, 2011, by Ted Rall entitled “US Double Standard.” While not dealing specifically with the NATO sex trade or women’s issues in Afghanistan it discussed the broader issue of how U.S. officials freely negotiate away human rights for some (where the dictator is a friend of America), while expressing indignation about human rights violations where the dictator is a foe of America. Mr. Rall likened it to a company that maintains two sets of records. He concluded by stating that “This double standard is the number-one cause of anti-Americanism in the world.” That broader issue of America’s ethical flexibility is at the heart of the abuses suffered by Afghan women. Too many Obama Administration officials have become far too comfortable with their arbitrary pronouncements of morality. Hunan rights are only embraced when it is convenient to do so. Mr. Rall writes that human rights should not be negotiable.
There are things worth fighting for and worth taking risks to advance. As with any risky undertakings, the effort might fail, but it might also succeed. The more important the issue, the more it tends to become a character test for the public officials, legislators or judges involved. As it is easier and safer not to take the lead, most of these individuals unfortunately spend their time inventing reasons why they should not act. They thus fail the character test.
Mrs. Obama should begin by ignoring everything she is told by the State Department. She should meet with Rangina Hamidi and Clementine Malpas and then screen “In-Justice” at the White House for members of her Administration, Congress and the news media. Then she should travel to Afghanistan as Laura Bush did and visit Kabul’s main prison at Pul-e Charkhi in order to meet with women victims. After that she should sit down with representatives of RAWA and then she should hold a press conference in Kabul in order to speak out publicly about what she has seen and heard. That would be a good start.