Return to Readings Page
The Rape of Afghanistan

   By Rasil Basu

   An unexpected fall-out of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was the sudden concern of the American and other governments with the plight of Afghan women.

   America retaliated by declaring war on Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban regime, end terrorism, and to capture Osama “dead or alive.” A further justification, added by President Bush in his address to the UN General Assembly, was the Taliban’s treatment of women. Laura Bush went further in her radio address to the nation, with the plight of Afghan women providing her an entree into political life. She was unequivocal in demanding that Afghan women be involved in rebuilding democracy in Afghanistan. It has taken 13 years for America to recognize the problem even though it contributed handsomely to the suffering of Afghan women, as it was less concerned with their situation and more with its own geopolitical interests during the period of Soviet occupation of  Afghanistan.

   During the occupation, in fact, women made enormous strides: illiteracy declined from 98% to 75%, and they were granted equal rights with men in civil law, and in the Constitution. This is not to say that there was complete gender equality. Unjust patriarchal relations still prevailed in the workplace and in the family with women occupying lower level sex-type jobs. But the strides they took in education and employment were very impressive.

   I witnessed these gains first hand when the UNDP assigned me (1986-88) as senior advisor to the Afghan government for women’s development because of my long career with the United Nations working for women's advancement. During this period I had drafted the World Plan of Action for Women and the draft Programme for the Women’s Decade, 1975-85 adopted at Mexico City Conference (1975) and Copenhagen Conference (1980).  In Kabul I saw great advances in women¼s education and employment. Women were in evidence in industry, factories, government offices, professions and the media. With large numbers of men killed or disabled, women shouldered the responsibility of both family and country. I met a woman who specialized in war medicine which dealt with trauma and reconstructive surgery for the war-wounded. This represented empowerment to her. Another woman was a road engineer. Roads represented freedom - an escape from the oppressive patriarchal  structures.

   But as far back as 1988 I could see the early warning signals as well. Even before the first Soviet troop withdrawal, "shabanamas”, or handbills, warned of reprisals against women who left their homes. Followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar started throwing acid on women who dared to venture into the streets of Kabul in trousers, or skirts, or short-sleeved shirts. Ironically, the US favored the three fundamentalist resistance groups of "freedom fighters¾ headed by Hekmatyar, Khalis and Rabbani over the more moderate mujahideen groups. Saudi Arabian and American arms and ammunition gave the fundamentalists a vital edge over the moderates. Even more tragic is the fact that this military hardware was used, according to Amnesty International, to target unarmed civilians, most of them women and children. But more about that later.

   In the fall of 1988, I wrote an article for an op-ed piece which I submitted to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Ms Magazine.  I pointed out that ascendant fundamentalism in Afghanistan had struck its first blow at women¼s education and employment. Since the Najibullah regime, which was still in power, was anxious to accommodate the opposition under its National Reconciliation Policy, women's rights were made the first offering!

   It was no coincidence that the backlash started in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which began dismissing women on the pretext of abolition of posts. A strict code of dress was also imposed - a scarf to cover the head, the traditional full sleeved long tunic, and pants.  Lunch breaks, which enabled women to meet, discuss problems, and protest against unfair practices, were stopped. So was co-education, which existed till sixth grade. With acute scarcity of resources it was obvious that girls' schools would receive low priority and standards would drop. I recommended a number of steps which the western world, especially the US, could take to protect women’s rights. In their aid programmes they could insist on the integration of women in development projects. Women’s colleges, vocational    institutes, and NGOs could provide fellowships to women to study abroad. My recommendations were buried. And the above publications also preferred not to publish my piece, obviously, because it went against the perceived interests of the US.

   The events, which followed, were worse than the most dire predictions!  The overthrow of the Najibullah government in 1992 led to fighting among warring fundamentalist groups for territorial control. Massive artillery attacks killed and wounded thousands of civilians, especially women and children. Afghan women¼s rights were violated with impunity as the constitution was suspended by the mujahideen groups who seized power in Kabul. The ruling warlords ignored the legal system, dismantled the judicial structure, assumed judicial functions for themselves in several provinces, and for the Islamic clergy or local shuras (councils of elders) in others. Trials were arbitrary and punishments were barbaric like stoning to death and public lashings of everyone including women. Amnesty International’s report for the period April 1992 - February 1995 lists horrendous crimes against women.

   Rape by armed guards of the various warring factions was condoned by their leaders; it was viewed as a way of intimidating vanquished populations, and of rewarding soldiers. Fear of rape drove women to suicide, and fathers to kill their daughters to spare them the degradation. Scores of women were abducted and detained, sexually abused, and sold into prostitution. Most girls were victimized and tortured - because they belonged to different religious and ethnic groups. In addition to physical abuse, women were stripped of their fundamental rights of association, freedom of speech, of employment, and movement. The Supreme Court of the Islamic State in 1994, issued an Ordinance on Women’s Veil which decreed that women should wear a veil to cover the whole body, forbidding them to leave their homes "not because they are women but for fear of sedition.¾ This in a nutshell is the past record of the groups that form the Northern Alliance. Their warlords looked upon women as spoils of war - the very same warlords, who are now strutting around Kabul, with the support of the so-called civilized Western world under US leadership.

   In February 1995, the Taliban (students of religion), a strong and popular political force, took control of nine out of thirty provinces and ushered in a new era. The Taliban established its own interpretation of strict Islamic code of ordinances and conduct. The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the moral police, was established. Its edicts banned women from working, or going to school, and forced them to wear the head to toe burqah. It ordered people to paint their first floor windows black so that passersby could not see the women inside. A Taliban representative speaking from the Attorney General’s office in Kabul explained the edict to journalists: "The face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them.”  The UN Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka, reported "official widespread, systematic violations of human rights of women in the Taliban areas of Afghanistan.” In many rape cases, she added, women were punished publicly for adultery and beaten for violations of the ministry’s edicts, and under Rabbani’s government from 1992-1996, some of the worst outrages against women were committed.

   One exception to women’s employment was made in the case of opium poppy cultivation as it is a labour intensive task which men refused to undertake. The report of the UN Drug Control Programme quotes a woman: "Our major problem is that weeding poppy fields takes a lot of time. We have problems carrying the seeds to the field and often get sick while lancing and collecting poppy.” With all the odds against them, Afghan women showed amazing bravery and heroism while resisting successive oppressive regimes. They often paid for it with their lives.

   Foremost in the struggle was the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) formed in 1977. RAWA organized women through successive regimes to resist their oppression, by non-violent methods. It organized underground schools and health facilities for girls and women, and support and succour for rape victims, even in the refugee camps in Peshawar and Quetta. RAWA¼s founder, Meena Kamal, continued to work despite being repeatedly threatened for her "anti-jihad activities”, till her assassination in 1987 in her house in Quetta. Although she had informed the Pakistani authorities of threats to her life, she was not provided police protection.

   More recently (1993), the Afghan Women¼s Council (AWC) was formed by a number of professional Afghan women doctors, teachers and university lecturers to provide schools and health clinics for Afghan children and women in Pakistan’s camps. Though they worked towards raising awareness of women’s rights within the framework of Afghanistan's religious and cultural tradition they too were threatened by mujahideen groups.

   The war in Afghanistan has come full circle. As of today the Taliban seems defeated in all Afghan cities. Osama bin Laden has not been captured “dead or alive” nor is the terrorist network destroyed. No estimates exist of the toll war has taken of the lives of civilian men, women and children, nor of those permanently disabled or seriously wounded. The Northern Alliance, which is a conglomerate of various opportunistic ethnic groups mostly Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks minus the Pashtuns, will play an important role in the formation of the next government. Needless to add they are the same groups who were in power before the Taliban.

   Their treatment of women is well documented. The most recent indicator of the Northern Alliance¼s intent is the ban imposed by Interior Minister Younis Qanooni on a women¼s freedom march in Kabul, planned by Soraya Parlika of the newly-formed Union of Women in Afghanistan, for November 28. The ban, according to Parlika, is said to be "for security, but that is just a pretext...they don’t want women to improve.” The UN Special Envoy Frances Vendrell has been holding meetings with the exclusively male Northern Alliance and other political leaders but not met with any Afghan women. Is this a precursor of things to come?

   Many of the countries - so-called victors of this "war” - have their own agendas in Afghanistan, and their own ideas about a future Afghan government. India is in a unique position to take up this issue with the Northern Alliance with whom it is on good terms. But will it ? Is it at all interested in raising its voice on behalf of the scarred Afghan women? It is of the utmost importance that the UN sponsored talks in Bonn and elsewhere take up these issues with the seriousness they deserve. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has underlined the need to involve women in the planning and implementation of the new
   government and as beneficiaries. Now is the time for him to stand up and be counted. RAWA must be invited to participate in the talks, and the views of Afghan women implemented. Minimum humane standards as set out in the Geneva Conventions must be impressed on the future  government.

   Women’s human rights should be safeguarded in any new Constitution and future legislation. Otherwise it will be yet another case of lip service to the cause of women. Just as it has been in the past.

The author is from India and is Chairperson of EKATRA, a non-governmental organization for development alternatives for women. Formerly a U.N. civil servant in the Branch for Advancement of Women and in the Secretariat for the Conference on the Palestine Question. Served as a UNDP consultant in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1987 and 1988.