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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

What Now for the Women of Afghanistan and Iraq?

by Amanda Cherrin and Leonard Tengco, Communications Interns

The "War on Terrorism" gave many Iraqi and Afghan women the hope of a reformed nation and improved social situation. Promised a more pronounced voice in government and extensive social reform, these women are under-represented in the new interim governments, facing substandard social and economic status and, in some cases, worse off than before the U.S. military intervention.

Afghanistan: Still a Dangerous Place to Be a Woman

Although the Bush Administration used the mistreatment of Afghan women as a factor to justify military action and pledged to restore their rights post-conflict, Afghan women have yet to see the promise of social equality fulfilled. The Taliban has been chased from the country, to be replaced in the countryside by warlords who differ only slightly from their predecessors. As a result, the women of Afghanistan still suffer from many of the same hardships that they faced before the war.

Since the fall of the Taliban, there have been some improvements in women's rights in terms of access to education and employment. However, most gains for Afghan women have been made in Kabul, where an international peacekeeping force is stationed. Outside of the capital city it is a very different story. Regional commanders, who are often former warlords, govern cities and provinces with an iron fist, many just like the Taliban. Police officers often force Afghan women to wear the traditional burqa in public, a practice most in the U.S. assumed was long over.

All over Afghanistan, women are imprisoned for a variety of "offenses," ranging from adultery to conversations with non-familial men. Women arrested for the latter "crime" are often taken to hospitals for "chastity tests," which attempt to determine whether they are virgins or have recently had intercourse.

According to a July 2003 Human Rights Watch report, the Southeast Afghanistan army and police practice of kidnapping, robbing and raping is so prevalent that women and girls are staying home as a means of protection. The fear of assault and political intimidation prevents the women and girls from gaining an education, employment and political influence.

These human rights violations are not confined to the Southeastern region, since reports of government officials targeting women for harassment are filed throughout the country.

In Herat, Afghanistan's second largest city, the government of former warlord Ismael Khan has rolled back the rights of women and girls by limiting educational and employment opportunities, censoring women's groups, sidelining women from his administration and enlisting young boys to find and report "un-Islamic" behavior in women, according to Human Rights Watch.

Women's rights are not only threatened by the traditional governments, as unofficial efforts are being made to deter women from entering society. According to the Feminist Majority, pamphlets urging parents not to send their daughters to school are regularly distributed in Afghan communities, and many girls' schools have been firebombed and burned. The consequence of these attacks is drop in school attendance in the targeted areas.

In an effort to improve the situation of Afghan women, the Feminist Majority has called for the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond the confines of Kabul, increased reconstruction funding and direct funds for the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Independent Human Rights Commission, and NOW has joined in that call.

Since the U.S. has concentrated its efforts on Iraq, the plight of Afghanistan has largely been ignored by the Bush Administration.

Iraq: A Step Backwards for Women

Much as they did in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has backed up its "war on terror" battle cry with another justification for invading Iraq—calling "Operation Enduring Freedom" a humanitarian effort to free the Iraqi people from the Hussein regime. Iraqis are now trying to recover from a devastating war, which resulted in between 6,087 and 7,798 civilian deaths, and critics are questioning whether the situation has worsened for Iraqi women.

Contrary to public assumption, women in Iraq once enjoyed relative equality, frequently contributing to and benefitting from Iraq's largely secular economy. It was even common for Iraqi women to hold political office, and the U.N. ranked Iraq as the Arab country with the highest level of gender equity. Prior to the 2003 invasion, women comprised more than 20% of the Iraqi workforce, holding a wide range of technical, professional, and governmental positions, including a full fifth of the country's parliamentary seats.

However, in the disastrous aftermath of the war, Iraqi women have already become dangerously oppressed because of U.S. funded reconstruction. Following the onset of political occupation, the U.S. government has sought to decrease the influence of Iraqi women by filling their former parliamentary positions with men. At the first meeting for post-Baathist reconstruction, only four out of eighty representatives of the new government were women. Of the 25 newly appointed Cabinet members, only one is a woman. In the recently established Governing Council, women fill only three of 25 seats. Even more disturbingly, on September 20, one of the three female council members was fatally shot in a successful assassination attempt.

According to a July 2003 Human Rights Watch report, the failure of Iraqi and U.S. forces to provide a domestic security has led to an increase in abductions and sexual violence against women. The report found that low priority was given to allegations of sexual assault and abduction, and those who attempted to report instances of sexual violence were met with indifference by both U.S. officers and Iraqi police. Many Iraqi women, frightened to leave their homes, are choosing safety over participation in public life and in the reconstruction of their country.

In the post-Saddam era, some rights are already being restricted. The Christian Science Monitor reports Iraqi Universities implementing dress codes, mosques turning away women who aren't wearing abayas over their clothing, and societal pressure on women to cover their hair. This turn toward the past is already having a devastating affect on the rights and liberties of Iraqi women.

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