Code 179510
PublishDate: Sunday, June 9, 201318:44

Beyond the burqa The US has done little to help the women of Afghanistan

The number of girls signed up for school rose from just 5,000 before the U.S.-led invasion to 2.2 million.

At Kabul University in May, zealots — all men — protested a law that would abolish child marriage, forced marriage, marital rape and the odious practice, called ba’ad, of giving girls away to settle offenses or debts.

Meanwhile, in jails all over the country, 600 women, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban, await trial on charges of such moral transgressions as having been raped or running away from abusive homes.

It is tempting to wring our hands at such obscene bigotry, to pity Afghanistan’s women and vilify its men. Instead, we must look squarely at our own complicity in the shameful circumstances of Afghan women, billions of international aid dollars and 12 years after U.S. warplanes first bombed their ill-starred land.

I have been traveling to Afghanistan since 2001, mostly to its hardscrabble hinterland, where the majority of Afghans live. Over the years, I have cooked rice and traded jewelry with Afghan women, cradled their anemic children and fallen asleep under communal blankets in their cramped mud-brick homes. I have seen firsthand that the aid we give ostensibly to improve their lives almost never makes it to these women.

Today, just as 12 years ago, most of them still have no clean drinking water, sanitation or electricity; the nearest clinic is still often a half day’s walk away, and the only readily available palliative is opium. Afghan mothers still watch their infants die at the highest rate in the world, mostly of waterborne diseases such as bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis and typhoid.
Instead of fixing women’s lives, our humanitarian aid subsidizes Afghanistan’s kleptocrats, erects miniature Versailles in Kabul and Dubai for the families of the elite, and buys the loyalty of sectarian warlords-turned-politicians, some of whom are implicated in sectarian war crimes that include rape.

Yet, for the most part, the U.S. taxpayers look the other way as the country’s amoral government steals or hands out as political kickbacks the money that was meant to help Afghan women — all in the name of containing what we consider the greater evil, the Taliban insurgency.

In other words, we have made a trade-off. We have joined a kind of a collective ba’ad, a political deal for which the Afghan women are the price.

To be sure, a lot of well-meaning Westerners and courageous Afghans have worked very hard to improve women’s conditions, and there has been some headway as far as women’s rights are concerned. The number of girls signed up for school rose from just 5,000 before the U.S.-led invasion to 2.2 million. In Kabul and a handful of other cities, some women have swapped their polyester burqas for headscarves. Some even have taken jobs outside their homes.

But here, too, progress has been uneven. A fifth of the girls enrolled in school never attend classes, and most of the rest drop out after fourth grade. Few Afghan parents prioritize education for their daughters because few Afghan women participate in the country’s feudal economy, and because Afghan society, by and large, does not welcome education for girls or emancipation of women.

To get an idea about what the general Afghan public t

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