Protest against 'violence against women and informal trial of women'. This demonstration was being held in Kabul on 24 September 2012 (photo: Hossain Sirat/DW)
Human Rights in Afghanistan

The Power of Women

In order to attain a just peace, inhumane structures should be dismantled, not tolerated. But anyone campaigning for human rights on the Hindu Kush finds themselves abandoned by the West. A commentary by Monika Hauser

Horrible crimes are committed against women and girls in Afghanistan every week. Recently, a 20-year-old woman was beheaded by a relative. The young woman is said to have refused to obey her mother-in-law's demand that she turn to prostitution. Only a tiny fraction of the many similar cases ever come to the attention of the international media. The fact is, however, that 80 percent of all Afghan women, regardless of their age, face violence on a daily basis, administered in most cases by their husbands, brothers, or uncles. Yet, they are also hit even by their mothers and other female relatives.

All this should come as no surprise. After decades of war, terror, and being uprooted and dehumanized, Afghan society is deeply traumatized. It will not only take a great deal of time for the society to recover, but, most of all, elaborate assistance in order to build up external structures and foster the internal strength necessary for a post-war society to find its own autonomous path that includes equal rights for all. But what happens when those offering assistance are primarily interested in their own agenda, rather than in promoting development in line with the local population's needs?

Sima Samar 2011 in Kabul (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Untiring service for human rights: Sima Samr served as Minister of Women's Affairs of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003. She was forced into resignation from her post after she was threatened with death for questioning conservative Islamic laws. She is currently the Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission

​​Nonetheless, not everything was and is bad in Afghanistan. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, there are women (and even a few men) who have shown much courage in working towards a true peace. They are hardly visible, yet one of them is now in the spotlight – the Afghan doctor and women's rights activist Sima Samar.

In early December, she will be awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in Stockholm for her "courage and decisiveness in the struggle for human rights and the rights of women." As a doctor and women's rights activist, she knows very well the suffering of Afghan men and women. During the time in which she served as Minister for Women's Affairs, she experienced the rigidity of her corrupt, backward-looking, and power-hungry colleagues in parliament.

New murders

As Chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHCR), she has fought for years against those attempting to prevent the disclosure and prosecution of war crimes committed over the past three decades. These individuals would stop at nothing to keep from being incriminated, even if it meant committing new murders.

Since the mid-1980s, in whatever activity she undertook, Samar dedicated herself to working for the improvement of living conditions for women and girls in Afghanistan. Eleven years after the invasion of Afghanistan by NATO forces, they are still suffering under repressive structures, and are being tortured, raped, and suppressed.

It is therefore all the more vital for the international community to finally show cohesion and decisiveness by condemning violence against women and by supporting women's right to participate in the Afghan peace process as members of civil society. This is particularly relevant, as NATO has repeatedly used the issue of the "liberation of Afghan women" as a main argument for their policies in Afghanistan since 2001.

Liberation only on talk shows

Even here in Germany, politicians have shown no hesitation in repeatedly referring to "the girl schools and the poor women in burkas" on an endless number of talk shows in order to justify the costs of the Afghanistan expedition to the German taxpayer. Yet, a closer examination of these costs reveals contradictions. German expenditures for civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan until 2010 consisted of only a quarter of the total costs – far less than military expenditures and only one percent (!) of these funds were invested in women's projects.

An Afghan woman, holding a placard which reads 'why just women are victims?', marches during a protest against the recent public execution of a young woman for alleged adultery, in Kabul on July 11, 2012. Dozens of Afghan women's rights activists took to the streets July 11 to protest the recent public execution of a young woman for alleged adultery, which was captured in ahorrific video (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Forsaken by the West? Monika Hauser is critical of the German government's new strategy, and says Berlin is apparently less interested in exporting democracy and more intent on observing local traditions and power structures. "In order to attain a just peace, inhumane structures should be dismantled, not tolerated"

​​Instead of revising its previous policies and, although somewhat belated, at least now begin to address the necessary priorities of promoting and protecting human rights in Afghanistan, the German government has instead reached a completely different conclusion. According to its new general guidelines, which since September now determine how all government agencies should deal with what are defined as "fragile states" such as Afghanistan, more consideration will be given to local traditions and power structures! This is what I call a truly grandiose tactic of renewed obfuscation.

From the very start, efforts towards building a real democracy in Afghanistan were laughable and half-hearted. In the final analysis, this merely served as the justification of a policy of maintaining loyalty to the NATO alliance, which had to be sold to the electorate in most attractive package possible. And now this is the time for more democracy and not less, as only democracy can solve the problems. Yet, we are instead presented with nebulous new guidelines.

NATO's lack of success

Berlin will now rely on local notions of legitimacy and on traditions to help stabilize fragile states. What will this mean, however, for Afghan women, who until now have been dramatically underrepresented in all government bodies, and whose desire for political participation is openly met with insult, persecution, and violence? These women suffer daily under the strict conservative and patriarchal structures of society. In the name of a just social peace, it should be a matter of fighting against such structures rather than accepting them.

Monika Hauser (photo: DW)
Monika Hauser: "It is time for something new. Afghan women are ready. Are Western politicians ready as well?"

​​Who, of all people, need the return to old tradition? Perhaps those who do not wish to assume responsibility for the new? More important than anything else, though, is to provide support for those in Afghanistan who have already long been courageously working for changes and offering alternatives – smart, self-aware women like the prize-winner Sima Samar.

Yet, what chance do women like Samar have with their ideas of equal rights for women in a this society, when, at the local level and even in the international community, existing power structures are not only accepted as a cultural given, but are being consolidated as well?

The eleven years since the start of this unsuccessful NATO mission have clearly proven one thing. The form of assistance offered to date has not proved helpful and existing conceptions with respect to political legitimation and roles for the various parties involved have not brought about a sustainable peace. It is time for something new. Afghan women are ready. Are Western politicians ready as well?

Monika Hauser

© TAZ/ 2012

Monika Hauser is a gynaecologist and founder of the women's rights organization medica mondiale. In 2008, she was the recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize. On 19 November, Hauser will be awarded with the North Rhine-Westphalia State Prize. editor: Lewis Gropp

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