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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have accused one another of waging a “war on women” in America. But both are silent on the real war against women being waged by the Taliban in Afghanistan. With the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of US and Nato troops edging closer, they have become more aggressive in their preparation for taking back control.
Recently the Taliban forced the closure of 600 schools in two eastern provinces where it has retained control, as part of its campaign to close as many girls’ schools as possible ahead of 2014. Hundreds of schoolgirls were admitted to hospital in a matter of days after drinking poisoned well water. The key target was the province of Takhar, with over 125 girls and three teachers of the Bibi Hajera girls school in Taluqan poisoned in their classrooms with a type of toxic spray. Days later, another 40 girls from the same school suffered similar symptoms. 160 girls were then poisoned in Aahan Dara Girls School in Taluqan, and almost 400 boys were also poisoned in a school near the Khost province.
In another incident, pupils from a mixed school in southern Afghanistan had to watch as their teacher and headmaster were executed for refusing to follow the Taliban’s warnings to stop educating girls.
The Taliban denied responsibility for the attacks. However, other Afghans are unconvinced, with a police spokesperson saying “the Afghan people know that the terrorists and the Taliban are doing these things to threaten girls and stop them from going to school.” This most recent string of attacks is a mere prelude to the inevitable full reversal of rights for women and girls come 2014.
Despite claims that the Taliban have modernised since being overthrown, these recent attacks – not to mention persistent stories of women being disfigured, forced suicides and so-called “honour killings” – confirm that the opposite is true.
his campaign of intimidation is working politically. Karzai has begun to accommodate the Taliban, backing the Ulema Council’s restrictive “code of conduct” for women.
If still unmoved by these recent attacks, both candidates should spare a thought for fellow politician Fawzia Koofi, for whom dodging Taliban bullets and grenades is part of daily life in her campaign to become President of Afghanistan in 2014. Koofi is the first woman to have been elected into Afghanistan’s parliament – in fact she was elected twice. Yet she fears for her life; several years ago she was shot at while on the road with her two daughters. Koofi remains caught between trying to shelter her children from the Taliban’s threats and attempted attacks, and preparing them to face life alone, should her tormentors be successful.
Koofi’s daughters are too young to remember a time when women were banned from going to school, or forced by the Taliban to stay within the darkness of their blacked-out windows, for fear of being “caught” in the gaze of a man. They have no idea that their mother’s constant death threats are an echo of the past – and a warning for the time when the Taliban reclaim complete control of their everyday lives.
In 2004, Afghanistan’s constitution formally guaranteed girls the right to an education, and the number of girls receiving an education has risen dramatically. In 2010, almost half of the children enrolled into schools were girls, according to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education. Nevertheless, while the vast progress made over the past decade is real, it remains fragile.
Koofi has seen the improvements brought to women’s lives since the regime was overthrown by the US-led military intervention of 2001. However, she argues that the West’s main objectives for entering Afghanistan – “to help the people of Afghanistan establish a strong government, and for security reasons” – have not yet been met. She says: “I think the 2014 withdrawal is not realistic. The people in Afghanistan are very anxious and confused. This planned withdrawal is based on ground realities from the West, not based on ground realities in Afghanistan.”
But when asked what America’s policy would be towards women throughout withdrawal from Afghanistan, a senior State Department officer gave a shrug of an answer, dismissing women’s rights in Afghanistan as a “pet project” rather than a priority.
Using women as pawns in presidential power struggles – both in the West and Afghanistan and as collateral damage to the gains of withdrawal – is a far cry from the freedoms the West claims to stand for. Obama needs to pick the right side in the real war on women.