Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban ought to be hoping for the revival of the communists.
By Stephen Gowans
While worries are expressed about “women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan … seeping away”  there was a time when the rights of Afghan women were much stronger, and stronger still among the people who shared a common culture with Afghans but lived in Soviet Central Asia. While US journalists draw attention to worry that a US troop withdrawal, and the possible return of the Taliban to government, will imperil the few rights women have gained, US establishment journalism expressed few concerns about the loss of women’s rights when Washington backed the misogynist Mujahedeen in its fight against a progressive government in Kabul that sought to free Afghan women from the grip of traditional Islamic practices.
Here’s New York Times’ reporter Alissa J. Rubin.
Women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls’ schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home. As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. 
Rubin’s report is part of a propaganda offensive being played out in US newspapers and magazines to drum up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its NATO allies. The campaign is perhaps most blatantly revealed in the July 29 issue of Time, whose cover, to quote the newsmagazine’s editors,
is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.
There is nothing good to be said about the prospect of a Taliban revival. The conditions for women will indeed sink to a barbaric level if the Islamic extremists return to power. But the idea that US foreign policy makers care one whit about the condition of women in Afghanistan, or that the surest way to guarantee the rights of Afghan women is to keep US troops firmly in place, ignores the history of US foreign policy in the region, and also ignores a point Rubin herself makes: that Washington is exploring reconciliation with the Taliban.
Rubin’s use of the word “reconciliation” is apt. Washington had a working relationship with the Taliban going back to 1995, when it funded and advised the nascent movement through the CIA, in partnership with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and Saudi Arabia.  Washington had no qualms then about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, and for reasons explained below, probably has no qualms today either. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Sunni extremists right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. 
That there are concerns far more senior to decision-makers in Washington than the conditions of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies is evidenced by the enormous support oil-rich Saudi Arabia receives from the US government. The kingdom is a key strategic ally for Washington and a source of colossal profits for US oil firms and US investment banks, through which the Saudis recycle their petrodollars. And while little is ever said in the United States about the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are subjected to practices as barbaric and benighted as any the Taliban have inflicted on the women of Afghanistan. But the Saudis, owing to their cooperation with America’s corporate rich in building Himalayas of oil profits every year, get away with backward practices that leave the Western world sputtering in indignation when carried out by the Taliban, whose practices toward women only received the scrutiny they deserved when the Islamic fundamentalists refused to play ball with Unocal on a pipeline deal.
Here’s how the Saudis – one of Washington’s partners in the Middle East – treat women. Women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A woman’s place is in the home, and a woman’s role is to raise children and care for the household. In a court of law, the testimony of two women is worth the testimony of one man. The sexes are strictly segregated, with separate men’s and women’s entrances to most houses and public buildings and segregated areas in public places. US restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks collude in the oppression of women by maintaining separate areas for the sexes in their restaurants. Girls go to all-girls’ schools where the teachers are less well-qualified and textbooks updated less frequently than in boys’ schools. Fathers can marry off their daughters at any age, and girls as young as nine have been married. In one case a 10 year old girl was forced into a marriage with an 80 year old man. With its separate and unequal legal rights and schools, and its restrictions on the movement of women, the Saudis practice a form of apartheid no different from that once practiced in southern Africa. The only difference is that the victims are defined by their possession of uteruses, not the color of their skin. 
Further evidence of Washington’s supreme indifference to the rights of women abroad is evidenced by the role it played in undermining a progressive government in Afghanistan that sought to release women from the grip of traditional Islamic anti-women practices. In the 1980s, Kabul was “a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city’s university. Afghan women held government jobs.”  There were female members of parliament, and women drove cars, and travelled and went on dates, without needing to ask a male guardian for permission. That this is no longer true is largely due to a secret decision made in the summer of 1979 by then US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to draw “the Russians into the Afghan trap” and give “to the USSR its Vietnam War” by bankrolling and organizing Islamic terrorists to fight a new government in Kabul led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. 
The goal of the PDPA was to liberate Afghanistan from its backwardness. In the 1970s, only 12 percent of adults were literate. Life expectancy was 42 years and infant mortality the highest in the world. Half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.
Most of the population lived in the countryside, which was ruled by landlords and wealthy Mullahs. Women – subjected to traditional Islamic practices of forced marriage, bride price, child marriage, female seclusion, subordination to males, and the veil – lived particularly barbaric existences. 
In stark contrast, the Bolsheviks had raised the living standards of the Afghans’ Tajik, Turkman and Uzbeck brethren in Soviet Central Asia and liberated women from the misogyny of traditional Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
In 1978 the government of Mohammed Daoud, who the PDPA had backed but had increasingly grown disenchanted with, killed a popular member of the party. This sparked mass demonstrations, which Daoud met with orders to arrest the PDPA leaders. However, before the order could be executed, the PDPA ordered its supporters in the army to overthrow the government. The rebellion was successful, and Noor Mohammed Taraki, leader of a hard-line wing of the party, was brought to power. The Saur (April) Revolution was a spontaneous reaction to the Daoud government’s plans to arrest the PDPA leaders and suppress the left, not the realization of a plan worked out with Moscow’s connivance to seize power. While the new government was pro-Soviet and the Soviets would soon intervene military at its request in an effort to suppress US-supported Islamic reaction in the countryside, Moscow was not behind the seizure of power. 
The new government immediately announced a series of reforms. The debts of poor peasants would be cancelled and an Agricultural Development Bank would be established to provide low-interest loans to peasants, in an effort to root out the usurious lending practices of moneylenders and landlords. Land ownership was to be limited to 15 acres and large estates broken up and redistributed to landless farmers. 
At the same time women would be liberated from the constraints of traditional Islam. Bride price – the treating of marriageable women as chattel to be exchanged in commercial transactions – was severely limited. The age of consent for girls to marry was raised to 16. And students from the cities were dispatched to the countryside to teach both men and women to read and write. 
While some gains were achieved, especially in Kabul where PDPA support was strongest, the reforms never took root in the countryside, where the government pressed ahead too quickly, arousing a determined opposition by the rich landlords and Mullahs it lacked the military power to suppress.  Washington’s recruiting of tens of thousands of mujahedeen from Muslim countries to jihad, including the Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, eventually contributed to the Soviet decision to withdraw its military forces and to the eventual overthrow of the PDPA government, which hung on for a few years after the Soviets quit the country. Soon the Taliban, backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had returned Afghanistan once again firmly to the Middle Ages, after the country had taken a few determined steps toward modernity under the leadership of the PDPA. Significantly, it was the Bolsheviks in Soviet Central Asia, and the Marxist-Leninist-inspired PDPA in Afghanistan, that acted to improve the conditions of women, while the United States allied itself with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women.
For Washington, profits stand above women’s rights. The communists, by contrasts, were inspired by the aims of liberating peasants from feudal backwardness and breaking the grip of traditional Islam on the lot of women. The latter acted as paladins of human progress and women’s rights; the former, as captives of the logic of imperialism. Liberation of women from the misogyny of the Taliban and Saudis will not come about through the agency of Washington. Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban and the consequent loss of the few gains Afghan women have eked out under a puppet government backed by the Pentagon, ought to hope, instead, for the revival of the communists. They have a track record in the service of women’s liberation; Washington’s record, by contrast, is not one to inspire confidence.
1. Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghan women fear the loss of modest gains”, The New York Times of July 30, 2010.
3. Michael Parenti, “Afghanistan, Another Untold Story”, Michael Parenti Political Archives, December, 2008, updated in 2009. http://www.michaelparenti.org/afghanistan%20story%20untold.html
5. “Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia
San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2001. Cited in Parenti.
6. From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, translated by William Blum, available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRZ110A.html
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.
7. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland: With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984a.
8. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, London, 1984b.
9. Szymanski, 1984a.
10. Szymanksi, 1984a.
11. Szymanksi, 1984a.
12. Irwin Silber, Afghanistan – The Battle Line is Drawn, Line of March Publications, 1980.