Women’s rights advocates square off over status of Afghan women

By Allison Cross, Canwest News ServiceDecember 12, 2009

Women’s rights groups in Canada and the United States are butting heads over the planned withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, and whether it will benefit the women of the war-torn country or will simply intensify their pain and suffering.

Some advocates have come forward to express their support for a continued military presence — a departure from the anti-war stance often expressed by feminist groups.

“This is not an issue of security for the United States and Canada. We have 15 million women in (Afghanistan). If they are not secured, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions. It will be a terrible mistake and these countries will live to regret it,” said Esther Hyneman, a board member for the New York-based group Women for Afghan Women.

The group, which runs guidance and children’s centres in three regions of Afghanistan, has previously called for an increase in the number of U.S. troops and an extension of their mission. Without it, Hyneman says, she believes the country will fall easily back into the hands of the Taliban, which will destroy any progress made in improving the lives of women.

The planned withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan is set for 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama announced earlier this month he would inject 300,000 more troops into the country before also initiating a pullout at the same time as Canada.

“We would have to pull out (of the country) too,” Hyneman said. “Our local staff, about 100 local Afghans, will be in serious danger. I don’t know how they’ll protect themselves if these cities and provinces fall to the Taliban.” A Canadian military presence helps maintain a level of security that gives organizations the freedom to operate schools and increase access to health care, said Lauryn Oates.

“In essence, we think the military should definitely be there,” said Oates, a program director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. “If there are no international troops, there would be a civil war on a much bloodier scale than what we’re seeing now.”

A toppling of the Afghan government could see women return to the conditions they experienced under the Taliban in the 1990s, Oates said, which included a ban on women working outside the home, a ban on education for girls and forced marriages.

She said she is confident conditions have improved for some women in Afghanistan.

But Judy Rebick, a Ryerson University professor and social justice advocate, said life couldn’t get much worse for women in Afghanistan and it’s time for the troops to leave.

“Even though women have more access to school and there are women in parliament, the level of violence against women is much higher and the unpredictability of it is much worse,” Rebick said. “Women are just as oppressed now by the warlords in some places. My view is that you don’t liberate people by occupation.”

Rebick said she listens most to Malalai Joya, a female Afghan MP who was exiled from the country and recently visited Canada on a book tour. Joya co-wrote a book about Afghanistan with Derrick O’Keefe, a Canadian activist and co-founder of StopWar.ca, and in it calls for the end of the military presence in Afghanistan.

“The war was always waged under false pretences,” O’Keefe said. “It’s never been about women’s rights. The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the worse the eventual situation is going to be for women and people . . . in general.” The NATO-backed government led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai is misogynist, he said.

“Karzai himself signed a law legalizing marital rape and denying rights to Shia women in Afghanistan,” he said.

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, established in 1977, is also strongly opposed to the occupation by foreign troops. © Copyright (c) Canwest News Service