Elayne Clift


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Afghan Women Fade from View as Media Touts Democracy

Elayne Clift writes about women, health and development from Saxtons River, Vt.

2 June 2005

Laura Bush flew into Kabul. Five hours later she flew out.   “Because of our recent military gains…women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.  … The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” she declared. Naturally her visit to Afghanistan made the news.  President Hamid Karzai’s recent visit to the U.S. to give a commencement speech and to meet with officials was front page material.  And The New York Times reported on May 30th that an Afghan cleric had been killed.  All of these stories are, of course, newsworthy and should have appeared in major newspapers. 

But why didn’t those major newspapers cover the woman recently stoned to death for suspected adultery?  Why didn’t we read about the three Afghan women aid workers who were raped and hanged recently?  Why don’t we know about the Afghan TV anchorwoman shot dead in May?  These are only some of the attacks perpetrated against Afghan women of late, but the mainstream media, once so eager to use such stories to highlight the Bush administration’s agenda, have since ignored women’s lives in Afghanistan in favor of prison abuse scandals and allegations of drug-related misconduct in the Karzai camp.  Why?

Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in California that funds health, education, and training projects for Afghan women in conjunction with the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA), says that aside from touting “democratic development,” the Bush administration refuses to talk about the real problems in Afghanistan now because it is no longer politically expedient.  The press follows suit, taking its cues from official briefings that never address the “life and death issues” confronting Afghanistan, and particularly its women. 

For example, the 2004 National Human Development Report for Afghanistan conducted by the United Nations Develop Programme (UNDP) points out that Afghanistan ranks 173 out of 178 countries in the world in terms of human development. (The five countries in worse shape are in Africa.) Refugees, whose return to Afghanistan was loudly praised by the Bush administration remain homeless in their own country and parts of Kabul are now squatters’ camps.   Maternal mortality, especially in rural areas, is among the highest in the world.  In one rural region of the country, one in every 15 mothers dies of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.  Life expectancy for women is 43, one of the lowest in the world. Education in Afghanistan, especially for girls -- which President Bush likes to point to as an indicator of successful American intervention -- has been deemed the worst in the world by the U.N.  Many of the shoddy schools that do exist still teach nothing more than Islamic studies.  Most women still wear the burqa (sometimes because they feel afraid in the streets), the symbol of Taliban oppression that the press liked to show being rejected by women after “liberation.”

“There is an obvious pattern here,” says Sonali Kolhatkar, recently returned from Kabul, Herat and the Farah Provinces.  “Before 9/11 the media didn’t deem Afghanistan and its myriad problems, most of which were initiated by U.S. policies in the 1980s and 1990s, worth covering.  After 9/11, when it was convenient for the Bush administration to highlight mass oppression and poverty, Bush and [now Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice have informed us that Afghanistan has been ‘saved’ by our military intervention and installation of ‘democracy’ and so it no longer needs our attention.  And the media continues to comply with the government’s wishes.” As a result, she says, “donations toward life-saving projects like hospitals, schools and training centers have plummeted.”

Lina Abirafeh worked for several NGOs in Afghanistan.  In a paper, “Burqa Politics: The Plights of Women in Afghanistan,” she says that “in today’s Afghanistan, women are struggling to be heard and to find alternatives to living in despair.  Only a fraction – and only those in Afghanistan’s cities – are accessing economic opportunities and are able to support themselves and their families.  Over two years into the reconstruction process,” she says, “conditions for women remain challenging, with an illiteracy rate of 85 percent and female-headed households living in dire poverty.”   Abirafeh says the images in the press of girls going to school are misleading.  The reality is that 80 percent of Afghans live in rural areas where schools for girls are still being burned.  Aid agencies fear increased violence if donor nations don’t continue to provide aid and oversight.

Abirafeh also sees the use of the burqa as a liberation symbol as misleading.  The burqa, she says, “must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of women’s agency.  It is repeatedly argued by Afghan women that generalizations on the ‘situation of women’ based on visible transformations such as burqa or veils are not constructive.  More important indicators exist ‘behind the burqa’,” she says, where stereotyping is less likely to occur.  As another activist, Rachel Wareham, put it, “the image of the burqa-clad Afghan woman prevents the international community from seeing Afghan women as possible active participants in their own futures.”

Many observers point to Afghanistan’s new constitution as a sign that women are achieving a new level of political participation which augers well for the future.  But when Malalai Joya, a representative from Farah Province, spoke out in the 2003 Loya Jirga (Assembly) against domination by warlords, no media reported on the death threats she received, the vicious retaliatory attacks on her home, or the fact that she must now live with round-the-clock security guards.  Although Afghanistan, unlike the U.S., has signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and women comprise 20 percent of the delegates to the Loya Jirga, the women serving in Afghanistan’s political leadership express concern for their personal safety and report regular harassment.  While women can vote in the coming fall elections, campaigns to advise them of their rights are passive and voter registration is difficult. Several female election workers have been killed.  And without education, women will likely vote as they are told by husbands and local leaders.

With women’s perceived independence, violence against females has increased, not altogether unexpected in an environment of expanding rights.  Women who attend classes, participate in women’s workshops, or attempt political involvement are especially vulnerable and they are often coerced to back away from these activities.  Some women are driven to self-immolation, which has been rising over the past year.  Yet the media present only the few women who succeed in reaching some level of autonomy while most others remain invisible victims.

In order to assist these victims, the Afghan Women’s Mission is working with RAWA to run schools in refugee camps in Pakistan and literacy courses in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They also support Malalai Hospital in Pakistan.  Fazila Mushrif, who once worked in Kabul, is a nurse midwife there.  In 1992 her four-year old daughter was killed by a rocket that destroyed the family home and business.  When the Taliban arrived in Kabul they imprisoned and killed her son.  Returning from exile to find out what had happened, Fazila’s husband was arrested and has not been seen since.  Fazila now supports her two remaining daughters, both teenagers. Neither of them goes to school although they would both like to be doctors.  One of the girls has threatened suicide but says she cannot do it because of her mother. 

Their story raises questions about what Laura Bush might have said if she’d talked to Fazila and her daughters.  It also makes you wonder why the media doesn’t tell us more about the lives of women like them.