Are Afghan Women Really Canada’s Top Priority?

A few weeks ago, the news of a new law for Shi’a Muslims in Afghanistan was met with outrage in governments and media around the world.  This law would, among other things, force women to have sex with their husbands and obligate them to seek permission for activities outside the house. News since then has indicated that the law will be reviewed. I hope that this is a situation where the widespread condemnation will actually force a change in the law, which, from all that I’ve read, sounds incredibly violent and oppressive.

That said, I was puzzled at some of the statements coming out of Canadian media and politicians on this issue.  Focusing on the fact that the Canadian military has now been in Afghanistan for over seven years, many Canadian figures seemed to take it as a personal slight that the Afghan government had passed such an oppressive law.  The tone of many of the comments suggests that Afghanistan owes it to Canada to treat women better, and that the recent law is a sign of ingratitude.

For example, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated that, “Obviously our men and women (of the Canadian Forces) have been in Afghanistan to defend human rights and that includes women’s rights,” and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day argued that, “The onus is on the government of Afghanistan to live up to its responsibilities for human rights, absolutely including rights of women. . . If there’s any wavering on this point from the government of Afghanistan, this will create serious problems and be a serious disappointment for us” (emphasis mine.)   A member of parliament further asked, “How can we say that our soldiers are there to protect women’s rights when the Western-backed leader of this nation pushes through laws like this?”

What I find troubling about these statements is that they seem to assume that the situation of Afghan women is the primary reason that the Canadian forces are there, and that it is entirely the Afghan government’s fault that things are not as rosy as they should be.  No one seems to remember that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are there as part of the “war on terror,” and that women’s rights have been, at best, a side issue, and at worst, an issue raised only to drum up support for the mission.  The mere presence of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, surprisingly enough, is not going to magically result in improved conditions for Afghan women.  From the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, there have been various instances of leaders in some parts of the country being supported by the allied forces in their efforts to get rid of the Taliban, with little attention given to their own misogynistic policies (see here for one example.)

As James Laxer of Rabble.ca writes,

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is adept at playing to different audiences. In the West, he is an eloquent supporter of human rights and women’s rights in particular; at home, he governs under a constitution based on Sharia Law and reaches out for the political support of misogynist constituencies. As sometimes happens, Karzai’s initiatives at home can cause trouble abroad. American, Canadian and European officials have roundly condemned the reported law. And Karzai will doubtless bow theatrically to acknowledge their expressed concerns at the same time as he does next to nothing to broaden the rights of women in Afghanistan. [...]

Let us suppose the Canadian government had actually cared about the rights of women and the education of girls. Instead of entering the lists in a protracted civil war, had Canada invested ten billion dollars to provide schools for girls in parts of the world where the schools would be welcomed, we would have made an enormous contribution. This would have been the most important international development project ever undertaken by Canada.

Instead, we are paying in blood and treasure for a relationship with a regime that is no better than Taliban-lite.

In other words, it should be no surprise that the government there (even a Western-backed, non-Taliban one) doesn’t have women at the top of its priority list, or that Canada hasn’t exactly demonstrated that women are its main concern either.  Interestingly, this article even suggests that many people within the Canadian government and foreign service saw this law coming and remained surprisingly silent about it for quite a while before it was formally passed.

Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira also writes that, while this law is obviously problematic, legal constraints represent only a small part of the challenges that many Afghan women face:

This week more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country; they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality. Most women fear to leave their homes, to attend school or go to work – not because of their husbands, but because they don’t feel safe. Their rights to education, freedom of movement and action are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, but the gap between words and reality is too huge to be bridged simply by revising a few clauses in a legal document. Sure, we must fight to protect the legal rights of women. But we must also seek ways to bring about change so that legislation is relevant to the lives of women and men in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans cannot read and write; an even greater majority don’t go to the courts to resolve family and marriage problems. The few who are educated who might seek legal help are sceptical about the rule of law because of the corruption and lack of trust in the Afghan government and the judicial system.

As Pazira says, “spare me the hysteria.”  It’s all well and good to criticise this law, but let’s not pretend that we’re surprised that sexism still exists even without the Taliban, or that we really believe that Western forces in the country are there for the sake of Afghan women.

This piece also appears at Muslim Lookout.

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