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Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn’t Be)

A modest proposal for the immodest brotherhood of big men.

| Thu Jan. 13, 2011 4:44 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Looking for a way out of Afghanistan? Maybe it's time to try something entirely new and totally different. So how about putting into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?

Passed on October 31, 2000, more than a decade ago, that "landmark" resolution was hailed worldwide as a great "victory" for women and international peace and security. In a nutshell, SCR 1325 calls for women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction. Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and durable peace could be achieved anywhere.

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"Durable" was the key word. Keep it in mind.

Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing agreement. The big men from most or all of the warring parties—and war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn't noticed—shoulder in to the negotiating table and carve up a country's or region's military, political, and financial pie. Then they proclaim the resulting deal "peace."

But as I learned firsthand as an aid worker in one so-called post-conflict country after another, when the men in power stop shooting at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians—especially women and girls. It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they've gotten the hang of it. From Liberia to Myanmar, rape, torture, mutilation, and murder continue unabated or even increase in frequency. In other words, from the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it's "over," and the "peace" is no real peace at all. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious "rape capital of the world," where thousands upon thousands of women are gang-raped again and again although the country has officially been at "peace" since 2003.

In addition, power-sharing agreements among combatants tend to fray, and half of them unravel into open warfare again within a few years. Consider Liberia throughout the 1990s, Angola in 1992 and 1998, Cambodia in 1997, and Iraq in 2006-2007. At this moment, we are witnessing the breakdown of one power-sharing agreement in the Ivory Coast, and certainly the femicidal consequences of another, made in 2001, in Afghanistan.

It is this repeated recourse to war and the unrelenting abuse and neglect of civilians during fleeting episodes of "peace" that prompted the Security Council to seek the key to more durable solutions. They recognized that men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth—notably control of a country's natural resources—while women included at any level of negotiations commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. Women are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, health care, education, and the like—all those things that make life livable for peaceable men, women, and children anywhere.

The conclusion is self-evident. Bring women to the table in decision-making roles in equal numbers with male participants and the nature of peace negotiations changes altogether. And so does the result. Or at least that's what the Security Council expects. We can't be sure because in more than a decade since SCR 1325 was enacted, it has never been put to the test.

At the time, at the exhilarating dawn of a new millennium, the whole world applauded SCR 1325 as a great achievement of the United Nations, pointing the pathway to world peace. Later, when men in war-torn countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the U.N., they forgot all about it. Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed being more important than justice or durability or women. At critical times like that, don't you know, women just get in the way.

Peace? Not a Chance

My special concern is Afghanistan, and I'm impatient. I'd like a speedy conclusion, too. It's been nine years since I started doing aid work there, and in that time several of the young Afghan women who were my colleagues and became my friends have died of illnesses they would have survived in better times under the auspices of a government that cared about the welfare of its citizens. Even its women citizens.

Yet now, whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of SCR 1325 to American big men—thinkers, movers, and shakers—who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but practice is something else again, and they are precluded from throwing their weight behind SCR 1325 by delicate considerations of "cultural relativism." Afghanistan, they remind me, is a "traditional" culture that regards women as less than human. As Westerners, they say, we must be particularly careful to respect that view.

Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this "tradition" seems excessive, and their tenderness for the sentiments of bearded men who couldn't clear airport security in Iowa City strikes me as deliberately obtuse, especially since very few of the Afghan men who actually governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their sentiments.

Afghan culture is—and is not—traditional. Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of internal Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women's complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy, cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as "bad and evil persons" who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Afghans still remember Amanullah and his modern, unveiled Queen Suraya for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared King Amanullah's modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But at least since 1979, when the United States and Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan in promoting the ideology and military skill of Islamist extremists who sought to return the country to the seventh-century world of the prophet, Afghanistan's liberal modernists have taken flight for North America, Europe, and Australia.

Last summer in Afghanistan I talked with many progressive men and women who were running for parliament, hoping to push back against the inordinate power of the Afghan executive in the person of President Hamid Karzai. To them, he seems increasingly eager to do deals with the most extreme Islamists in opposition to all their progressive dreams for their country.

Yet in August, when President Karzai flagrantly stole the presidential election, President Obama telephoned to congratulate him and the US officially pronounced the fraudulent election results "good enough." We might ask: In this contest between entrenched Islamist extremists and progressives who favor equality and democracy, why is the United States on the wrong side? Why are we on the side of a mistaken notion of Afghan "tradition"?

Our Big Man in Kabul

In 2001, the US and by extension the entire international community cast their lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after one of those power-sharing conferences in Bonn, Germany, to which, by the way, only two Afghan women were invited. We paid hundreds of millions of dollars to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai's men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we're stuck with him and his misogynist "traditions," even though a growing number of Afghanistan watchers identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the US faces in its never-ending war.

We could have seen this coming if we had kept an eye on how President Karzai treats women. George W. Bush famously claimed to have "liberated" the women of Afghanistan, but he missed one: Hamid Karzai's wife. Although she is a gynecologist with desperately needed skills, she is kept shut up at home. To this day, the president's wife remains the most prominent woman in Afghanistan still living under house rules established by the Taliban. That little detail, by the way, should remind you of why you ought to care what happens to women: they are the canaries in the Afghan political coal mine.

And what has President Karzai done for the rest of the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.

That's the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan, including such highly respected non-governmental organizations as Oxfam, CARE, and Save the Children. The Afghan researchers who did the study conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders, and female leaders locally, provincially, and nationally.

The report notes that President Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the "Taliban-style" Shia Personal Status Law, enacted in 2009, which not only legitimizes marital rape but "prevents women from stepping out of their homes" without their husband's consent, in effect depriving them of the right to make any decisions about their own lives. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in the Afghan Constitution, which was passed in 2004 as part of a flurry of democratic reforms marking the start of Karzai's first term as elected president. The democratizing spasm passed and President Karzai, sworn to defend that Constitution, failed to do the job.

In fact, Karzai's record on human rights, as the HRRAC report documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done. He holds extraordinary power to make political appointments—another indicator of the peculiar nature of this Afghan "democracy" our troops are fighting for—and he has now had almost 10 years in office, ample time to lead even the most reluctant traditional society toward more equitable social arrangements. Yet today, but one cabinet ministry is held by a woman, the Ministry for Women's Affairs, which incidentally is the sole government ministry that possesses only advisory powers. Karzai has appointed just one female provincial governor, and 33 men. (Is it by chance that Bamyan—the province run by that woman—is generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?) To head city governments nationwide, he has named only one female mayor. And to the Supreme Court High Council he has appointed no woman at all.

Karzai's claim that he can't find qualified women is a flimsy—and traditional—excuse. Many of his highest-ranking appointees to government offices are notorious war criminals, men considered by the great majority of Afghan citizens to have disqualified themselves from public office. The failure of many of his male appointees to govern honestly and justly, or even to show up for work at all, is a rising complaint of NATO commanders who find upon delivery of "government in a box" that the box is pretty much empty.

If fully qualified women are in short supply, having been confined and deprived for years thanks to armed combat and the Taliban government, isn't that all the more reason for a president sworn to uphold equality to act quickly to insure broad opportunities for education, training, jobs, and the like? The HRRAC report sensibly recommends "broad sociopolitical reform" to provide "education and economic opportunities for real women's leadership." Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance, former president of Kabul University, and presidential contender, spoke in favor of such a "sensible and regular process." As he noted, however, "Our government is not a sensible government."

Flimsy, too, is the argument that Afghanistan's cultural traditions eliminate women from public service. Uzra Jafari, the mayor of Daikundi, reports that the city's inhabitants did not believe a woman could be a mayor, but they soon "accepted that a woman can serve them better than a man." "Social obstacles can be overcome," she says, "but the main problem is the political obstacles. We have problems at the highest levels." The problem, in other words, is President Karzai, the only person in Afghanistan who has the power to install women in political offices and yet refuses to do so. In short, the president is far more "traditional" than most of the people.

Without the support of male leadership, women leaders (and their families) become easy targets for harassment, threats, intimidation, and assassination. When such threats come from the ultra-Islamist men who dominate the Afghan parliament, they prevent women parliamentarians from uniting in support of women and, in most cases, from speaking out as individuals for women's rights. Death threats have a remarkable silencing effect, disrupting the processes of governance, yet President Karzai has not once taken a stand against the terrorist tactics of his cronies.

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