‘This matters greatly to our public opinion’
Widespread opposition to a proposed Afghan law is less about liberating women than shoring up Western authority.
It is not often that the conservative Daily Mail and the liberal Guardian are united in outrage over the same issue. Yet concern that the Afghan parliament might pass a law restricting women’s rights had both British newspapers writing similar shock banner headlines about ‘The Return of the Taliban’ (1). It seems that there are few issues in the West that have the power to win as much support across the political spectrum as the cause of Afghan women.
Afghan women’s rights appear to have become a moral trump card, used both to condemn the Western military mission for its incompetence, or waste of resources and military lives, and also to support the mission, indeed to endow it with a radical and progressive content. Yet few commentators have considered how this legislation might actually impact on Afghan women. The furore appears to have less to do with concern for Afghan women than with the growing disillusionment over leading Western states’ unpopular and unfocused military mission in Afghanistan.
The proposed legislation, which Afghan president Hamid Karzai is now said to be reconsidering, would allow Shias (about 10 per cent of the population) to have a separate family law based on Shia jurisprudence. Many claim the legislation would ‘roll back’ women’s rights – an argument which demonstrates how little they are concerned about the situation of women in Afghanistan. Because in truth, all that this legislation would do, if it were ever passed into law, is reflect the already-existing reality that women’s rights in Afghanistan very much depend on their community and their social and economic context.
The Afghan government may have signed up to a whole host of international conventions, including those guaranteeing equal rights for women. However, the lack of social and welfare facilities, and reliance on traditional family networks, make it hardly surprising that many sections of Afghan society are highly conservative when it comes to gender issues.
The press coverage has given much more attention to the views of Western-sponsored rights activists than to the voices of Afghan women, like Shukria Barakzai, a member of the lower house of the country’s parliament. Barakzai argued that the law was a positive step: ‘It’s not really 100 per cent perfect, but compared to earlier drafts it’s a huge improvement… Before this was passed family issues were decided by customary law, so this is a big improvement.’ (2)
It is true that traditional Islamic law, with its partial protections for some women’s rights, could provide more protection than some local tribal codes where women have no civil rights (3). Yet even this view exaggerates the importance of the proposed bill. The government’s writ bears little weight outside Kabul and without changes in rural ways of life it is unlikely that traditional tribal and village courts will be under pressure to change their approach.
The issue of women’s rights highlights the artificial nature of the Afghan state and the Western discourse of the human rights mission in Afghanistan. International intervention to shape and reconstruct the Afghan state, following the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, has merely created ‘phantom state institutions’, which reflect Western concerns more than those of the Afghan people (4).
The gulf, between paper resolutions (passed to meet the demands of Western donors) and the social and economic realities of Afghanistan, is so large that there are now two Afghan states: one that exists on the basis of Western patronage and which passes legislation that appeals to the donor state constituencies, and one which operates much as before.
This division is clear to those tasked with state institution-building. Even the key Group of Eight states, sharing the ‘lead nation’ tasks following the 2001 Bonn agreement, have restricted institutional reform to Kabul, leaving the rural areas to manage their own justice administration (5).
These phantom state institutions are much more important to the West than the institutions which most Afghan people engage with. This explains why the proposed legislation, under the Western media spotlight, makes little difference to Afghan women but makes a lot of difference to the states leading the Western military mission. This fact was highlighted by Mark Malloch Brown, Britain’s foreign office minister for Africa, Asia and the UN: ‘[T]here is dismay. The rights of women was one of the reasons the UK and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion.’ (6)
In Canada, which has lost 116 soldiers in Afghanistan and spent up to $10billion propping up the Karzai government, politicians have been similarly worried about the impact on public opinion. Canada’s international trade minister, Stockwell Day, has declared that: ‘If these reports are true, this will create serious problems for Canada. 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.’ (7)
The US also expressed its outrage. US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is alleged to have privately confronted Karzai on the issue and, at a press conference later, she made clear that ‘this is an area of absolute concern for the United States’: ‘My message is very clear. Women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama administration.’ (8)
Western governments and diplomats would like the government of Afghanistan to sign up to gender equality policies merely in order to shore up Western domestic support for their military mission. This would do nothing to further women’s rights, but rather would increase the divide between phantom state institutions and real Afghan society.
The Western policy elite’s ‘dismay’ may be genuine, but it is entirely self-seeking, and it has nothing to do with furthering the position of Afghan women. We should give no support to their self-concerned and empty moralising about women’s rights in Afghanistan.
David Chandler is professor of international relations at the University of Westminster. Visit his website here. He is the editor of the Journal of Statebuilding and Intervention and author of From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto 2006). His next book, Hollow Hegemony: Rethinking Global Politics, Power and Resistance, will be published by Pluto Press later this year.
Previously on spiked
David Chandler argued that we shouldn’t blame Karzai for the ruination of Afghanistan. He also said that in Britain’s theatrical war against the Taliban British troops were definitely not fighting the good fight. Elsewhere, he asserted that Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan was the bribe. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Or read more at
spiked issue War on Terror.
(1) As bad as the Taliban? Afghan President backs law which “legalises rape within marriage”, Daily Mail, 31 March 2009; “Worse than the Taliban” – new law rolls back rights for Afghan women, Guardian, 31 March 2009
(2) “Worse than the Taliban” – new law rolls back rights for Afghan women, Guardian, 31 March 2009
(3) International Legal Foundation, The Customary Laws of Afghanistan, September 2004
(4) Selling Afghans short, by Josie Appleton
(5) Matteo Tondini, ‘Rebuilding the System of Justice in Afghanistan: A Preliminary Assessment’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Vol. 1, No.3, (2007) pp.333-54.
(6) Pressure on Hamid Karzai to scrap Afghan women’s law, Guardian, 1 April 2009
(7) Canada expresses outrage over Afghan women’s law, Canadian Press, 31 March 2009
(8) Pressure on Hamid Karzai to scrap Afghan women’s law, Guardian, 1 April 2009
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