The new constitution of Afghanistan formally grants equal rights to women and men. The government has also endorsed the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which, according to development agencies, is significant progress on gender equality "policy advocacy". The first time I arrived in Kabul the women I saw on the streets were wearing scarves on their heads and those wearing full chador were a minority. Maybe, at a superficial glance, the situation had improved for the women of Afghanistan?
The propaganda of the NATO occupation forces made the "liberation" of women synonymous with the "liberation" of the country from the Taliban. The ministry of women's affairs was set up and much publicised for international consumption as the changing face of a "liberated" Afghanistan. The ministry has become the pet project of many development agencies. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush are patrons of the US-Afghan Women's Council, which supports women's "leadership" training and micro-credit projects.
But the situation outside Kabul and the heavily guarded zones of the development agencies, whose staff are penned in day and night due to tight security provisions, is extremely unstable and volatile. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness that the situation could explode at any moment, including in Kabul itself. During my stay there was a mortar attack on Jalalabad Road, one of the main highways and army convoy routes out of Kabul. There are reports of Kabul airport coming under frequent gunfire attack. The plane that was flying me out of Kabul taxied down the runway ready for take off, then suddenly slowed down, U-turned and returned to the terminal. The pilot explained that there were some "technical difficulties", which we found out later was a broken windscreen. "Maybe someone took a shot at us", said a UN security officer, wryly. But no-one was laughing.
The government has no influence or control over the country and President Hamid Karzai is laughingly referred to as the "mayor of Kabul". Almost half the country is deemed high to extreme risk areas, i.e. in UN parlance "volatile" to "hostile environment". This includes almost all of the southern and eastern parts of the country along the borders with Pakistan. These are war zones where there is ongoing fighting between NATO troops and Taliban forces, drug lords and other Afghan-style criminals and gangsters.
According to some workers I spoke to, the resistance is widespread and not only limited to the Taliban, due to the inability of the government to deliver any improvements to the lives of the vast majority of the population. Poppy production linked to the drug economy has resurfaced with a vengeance, and many government officials are implicated. Some development agencies are reluctant to set up banks as these could be used for laundering drug money.
Afghanistan ranks 173 out of 178 on the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index (2004). Life expectancy today is approximately 44.5 years. One out of five children dies before the age of five and maternal mortality is among the highest in the world. Some 90% of adult women are illiterate. Some 75% of girls attending primary school drop out before grade five. Newly re-opened girls' schools are closing down due to violence against women and girls. Stories are told of how young women today are less educated than those belonging to their grandmothers' generation. Sexual violence against girls, institutionalised through "traditions" such as child marriage, continues to be rife. Suicide among young women is said to be increasing. A May 2006 United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) survey on violence against women in Afghanistan indicates that it's widespread, extreme, systematic and unreported.
Women development staff working outside Kabul frequently receive death threats. Some have even been killed. In September 2006 Safiye Amajan, the provincial head of the women's ministry in Kandahar and a respected women's rights advocate, was shot repeatedly outside her home as she was leaving for work. It is a well-known fact among development agency circles that Afghan women staff are targets and routinely put their lives on the line as a result of their work.
The Taliban used the "women's question" to enforce its own agenda. The imperialist occupation forces have also used the agenda of gender equality to ultimately pursue their own interests: the occupation of Afghanistan for strategic geo-political reasons. In the eyes of many people, the ministry of women is associated with the occupation. A meeting with the minister, referred to by the title "Her Excellency", who sat behind an enormous, glittering desk accompanied by an entourage of some half-a-dozen minions, was like an audience with royalty — clueless and out of touch. Meanwhile, life for a majority of the women and girls in Afghanistan is one of desperate suffering under extreme forms of oppression.
Gender equality can only be meaningful when the cause is championed by a politically independent movement of women. This is the hard-learned lesson of the international women's movement, the militant sections of which have campaigned for the autonomy and independence of the movement since its inception. The cause of gender equality that aligns itself with the imperialist occupation, whether clothed in development or some other pseudo-democratic rhetoric, is bound to harm the interests of the majority of women in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere. And, as the situation in Afghanistan indicates, it's a failing strategy.