While the U.S. pays lip service to Afghan women, it is quick to slap sanctions on the Taliban for hiding Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Sanctions harm Afghan women and ordinary citizens far more than they hurt the Taliban, which has ruled the country since 1996. What Afghan women really need is genuine development assistance, not charity and certainly not sanctions.
The U.S. government has promised a moral commitment to the country, but as the crisis deepens for Afghan women, the strong actions necessary to back that commitment are missing. As a result, the situation has reached a state of absolute desperation. Today, the Taliban forbids women from going to school, walking about freely, or working. Time has run out–both for Afghan women and for empty promises.
As an Afghan woman and a development worker, my frustration intensifies whenever I read about the Taliban’s gender-apartheid policies. There is now more than sufficient evidence of its treatment of Afghan women. But addressing only the symptoms of its rule, such as the burqa (the full-body covering required by the Taliban), lacks vision. To overcome the severe problems that Afghan women face, we must move beyond the Taliban issue.
Thus far, the type of assistance offered to Afghan women has been emergency relief, which inadvertently promotes dependence rather than empowerment. Twenty-one years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. State Department is still in the “charity” mode of providing emergency-relief assistance. Although this may work in the short term, at some point the people themselves, particularly women, must be free to rebuild their own lives and fend for themselves.
My pleas for financial and technical assistance to strengthen Afghan women-led schools, health centers, social services, and human rights groups, operating inside and outside of the country, have fallen on deaf ears. It is as if Afghan women, many of whom are former teachers, doctors, and professionals, are thought to be incapable of solving their own problems. Meanwhile, I know scores of exiled Afghan women (and men) activists in Pakistan. Many secretly cross into Afghanistan to assist those left behind. Moreover, these activists are pleading not for charity but skills training and empowerment programs for those in need. And they are becoming increasingly alienated from international fundraising and political campaigns that speak on their behalf but ignore their perspective. The only way out is to secure an active role for Afghan women in the peacemaking and rebuilding process.
U.S. funding agencies have written off empowerment and development programs for Afghan women by invoking their own “priorities” and “mandates.” USAID, the largest of all federal development agencies, does not assist Afghan refugees in Pakistan simply because of the state of U.S._Pakistan relations. The World Bank, too, punishes Afghans because the “government of Afghanistan” has defaulted on its debt payments. Sadly, no agency is committed to supporting Afghan women’s activism. Even the United Nations is playing foreign policy games in bypassing the long-term needs of Afghan women.
The Feminist Majority Foundation has drawn much needed attention to Afghan women’s problems. But much more needs to be done to alleviate the economic and political challenges Afghan women face. We must bring an end to the flow of arms and to foreign interference in Afghanistan so that Afghans themselves can resist the Taliban and rebuild their nation. We have to address women’s and human rights problems in the context of the origins of this war and the politics surrounding it. The U.S. needs to take on the Taliban with the same zeal (and finances) used to combat Communism. It must pressure Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (among others) to end the flow of arms to Afghanistan that has resu