The Brotherhood of Men
Let's acknowledge that there are limits to what the West can and cannot do in the very different and more traditional culture of Afghanistan. Judging by what we have already done, it seems to be perfectly all right for the West—aka the US—to rain bombs upon this agrarian country, with its long tradition of moderate Sufism, and impose an ultraconservative Islamist government and free market capitalism (even at the expense of indigenous agricultural markets) through the ministrations of thousands of highly paid private American "technical assistants." But it is apparently not okay for any of those multitudinous, extravagantly paid American political and economic consultants to tweak the silken sleeve of President Karzai's chapan and say, "Hamid, my man, you've gotta get some more women in here." That would be disrespectful of Afghan traditions.
I don't buy it. What we're up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well.
Take, for example, the second most popular objection I hear from American male experts on Afghanistan when I raise my modest proposal. They call this one "pragmatic" or "realistic." Women can't come to the negotiating table, they say, because the Taliban would never sit down with them. In fact, Taliban, "ex-Taliban," and Taliban sympathizers sit down with women every day in the Afghan Parliament, as they have in occasional loya jirgas (deliberating assemblies) since 2001. Clearly, any Taliban who refuse altogether to talk with women disqualify themselves as peace negotiators and should have no place at the table. But what's stunning about the view of the American male experts is that it comes down on the other side, ceding to the most extreme Taliban misogynists the right to exclude from peace deliberations half the population of the country. (Tell that to our women soldiers putting their lives on the line.)
Yet these days every so-called Afghanistan expert in Washington has a plan for the future of the country. Some seem relatively reasonable while others are certifiably delusional, but what almost all of these documents have in common is the absence of the word "women." (There are a few tiny but notable exceptions.)
In the Loony Tunes category is former diplomat and National Security Council Deputy Robert D. Blackwill's "Plan B in Afghanistan" appearing in Foreign Affairs, which calls for the US military to flee the south, thus creating a "de facto partition" of Afghanistan and incidentally abandoning—you guessed it—"the women of those areas," as well as anyone else in the south who wants "to resist the Taliban." This scenario may call to mind images of helicopters departing the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, but Blackwill clings to his "strategy," calling the grim fate of those left behind "a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change."
In the relatively reasonable category is the plan of the Afghanistan Study Group: "A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan." Its first recommendation says, "The US should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties." Whoops! No mention of women there. And power sharing? We know where that's headed. Afghanistan, the undisputed small arms capital of the world, might easily spontaneously combust into civil war.
But what becomes of women? Even Matthew Hoh, who resigned his position in 2009 as a political officer in the foreign service to protest US policy in Afghanistan, and now heads the Afghanistan Study Group, can't seem to imagine bringing women to the negotiating table. (He says he's "working on it.") Instead, the Study Group decides for women that "this strategy will best serve [their] interests." It declares that "the worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their social advancement." Well, no. Actually, the worst thing for women is to have a bunch of men—and not even Afghan men at that—decide one more time what's best for women.
I wonder if it's significant that the Afghan Study Group, much like the Bonn Conference that established the Karzai government in the first place, is essentially a guy club. I count three women among 49 men and the odd "center" or "council" (also undoubtedly consisting mostly of men). When I asked Matthew Hoh why there are so few women in the Study Group, he couldn't help laughing. He said, "This is Washington. You go to any important meeting in Washington, it's men."
Maybe the heady atmosphere engendered by all those gatherings of suits in close quarters was what inspired Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to abandon all discretion recently and declare that the promise of equal protection in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution does not extend to protecting women against sex discrimination. If states enact laws discriminating against women, he opined, such laws would not be unconstitutional. (You can be sure some legislators have gotten right to work on it.)
That opinion puts Justice Scalia cozily in bed with former Chief Justice Shinwari, President Karzai's first appointee to head the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who interpreted Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution, which calls for men and women to have equal rights and responsibilities before the law, to mean that men have rights and women have responsibilities to their husbands. (Could this mean that the United States is a traditional culture, too?)
Women leaders in Afghanistan complain that their government does not see them as "human," but merely uses them as tokens or symbols, presumably to appease those international donors who still rattle on about human rights. George W. Bush used Afghan women that way. Obama doesn't mention them. Here in the US you take your choice between cynical exploitation, utter neglect, and outright discrimination.
In Afghanistan, Karzai names a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban. Sixty men. The usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahideen, long-bearded and long in the tooth, but fighting for power to the bitter end. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network reports that among them are 53 men linked to armed factions in the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s including 13 linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami, currently allied with the Taliban. An additional 12 members of the High Peace Council held positions in the Taliban's Emirate government between 1996 and 2001.
Under some international pressure, Karzai belatedly added 10 women, the only members of the High Peace Council with no ties to armed militias past or present; they represent the interests of civil society, which is to say the people who might actually like to live in peace for a change and do their utmost to sustain it. The US signed off on this lopsided Council. So did Hillary Clinton, a woman who, as Secretary of State, has solemnly promised again and again never to abandon the women of Afghanistan, though she never remembers to invite them to a conference where international and Afghan men decide the future of their country.
Okay, so my modest proposal doesn't stand a chance. The deck is stacked against the participation of women, both there and here. Even I don't expect men in power to take seriously the serious proposition that women must be equally and fully involved in peacemaking or you don't get durable peace. Too many men, both Afghan and American, are doing very nicely thank you with the present traditional arrangements of our cultures. So, searching blindly for some eventual exit and burdened by their misbegotten notions of "peace," US and NATO officials busy themselves repeatedly transporting to Kabul, at vast expense, a single high-ranking Taliban mullah to negotiate secret peace and power-sharing deals with President Karzai. American officials tout these man-to-man negotiations as evidence that US strategy is finally working, until the "mullah" turns out to be an imposter playing a profitable little joke on the powers that be. Afghan women, who already suffer the effects of rising Taliban power, are not laughing.
Consider this. We're not just talking about women's rights here. Women's rights are human rights. Women exercising their human rights are simply women engaging in those things that men the world over take for granted: going to school, going to work, walking around. But in Afghanistan today—here's where tradition comes in again—almost every woman and girl exercising her rights does so with the support of the man or men who let her out of the house: father, husband, brothers, uncles, sons. Exclude women from their rightful equal decision-making part in the peacemaking process and you also betray the men who stand behind them, men who are by self-definition committed to the dream of a more egalitarian and democratic future for their country.
The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have already figured out their own exit strategy. Like generations of Afghans before them, they will become part of one of the world's largest diasporas from a single country. Ironically, I'll bet many of those progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States, where women appear to be free and it's comforting to imagine that misogyny is dead.
Ann Jones is the author most recently of War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010) on the way war affects women from Africa to the Middle East and Asia. She wrote about the struggles of Afghan women in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan 2006). She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Jones discusses why wars never end for women and girls, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
[Note on further reading: The HRRAC report on "Women and Political Leadership" can be found online in .pdf format by clicking here.]