Last month, First Lady Laura Bush did something her husband never dared -- she went to Afghanistan. While there, Mrs. Bush went to great pains to applaud her husband and to highlight the progress and achievements made by Afghan women. Thanks to Bush's benevolence, the women of Afghanistan are now free. Free to walk the streets without burqas or male supervision. Free to vote. Free to go to school.
Indeed, on May 9, 2003, President Bush boldly declared that the days when Afghan women "were beaten in streets and executed in soccer fields are over." According to Bush, women's human rights in Afghanistan are a "foreign policy imperative and a cornerstone of all U.S. humanitarian efforts in the region."
If only the facts supported the rhetoric.
Let's be clear. Conditions for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban were indisputably deplorable. Thus, as a general matter, the removal of the Taliban was a good thing for Afghanistan's women.
That having been said, Afghan women don't have it nearly as good as the Bush administration would have us believe. Don't believe me? Just ask the State Department.
In its 2004 report on human rights practices in Afghanistan, released on February 28, 2005, the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor paints a far-less rosy picture of the state of women in Afghanistan. According to the report, Afghan women continue to be raped, beaten, and kidnapped on a large scale. Precise numbers were impossible to tabulate as victims of rape in Afghanistan are stigmatized. Not only are they stigmatized, but, according to Amnesty International, Afghan women are frequently prosecuted for the rapes and sexual assaults committed against them. In Afghanistan, being raped constitutes the crime of "zina," or unlawful sexual intercourse.
Those women guilty of "zina" may wind up in prison. Lucky for them, there are separate prisons for women in Afghanistan. The conditions of those prisons, however, according to the State Department, are worse than the prisons for men, which themselves are beneath international standards.
Further distinguishing women's prisons from men's is that many women in those prisons are there at the request of a family member. Their "crimes" range from marrying a man of their own choosing to being accused of adultery. Other women are imprisoned for bigamy, which in Afghanistan means their husbands either divorced or deserted them and then changed their minds after the women remarried.
This is not to say that all women imprisoned in Afghanistan were convicted of being raped or were sent there by their families. As it turns out, some Afghan women are in prison voluntarily. According to the State Department, they chose prison over enduring rampant domestic violence or being forced into arranged marriages. Without shelters for battered women in Afghanistan, prison becomes a viable option.
Prison's not the only option, however. According to the State Department's report, a growing number of Afghan women are opting for self-immolation. By the end of 2004, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission investigated 300 cases of self-immolation. Think about it, Afghan women would rather set themselves on fire than endure their new-found freedom so lauded by the Bush administration.
Bush and his buddies nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back for bestowing democracy upon Afghanistan, particularly its women. Bush & Co. frequently touted the figure of 41 percent of all registered voters in Afghanistan being women. Let's assume that figure is accurate. According to a 2004 report by the Asia Foundation, 87 percent of Afghans said women required their husband's permission to vote. Similarly, 72 percent said men should tell women how to vote. According to the director of the Policy Center on Afghan Women, those women who were permitted to vote were expected to vote the same as their husbands or not at all. Then again, with an illiteracy rate of 80 percent, Afghan women had little choice but to rely upon their husbands when voting.
Not exactly the vision of free and fair elections portrayed by Bush and his apologists.
Quite simply, the plight of Afghan women is of little concern to either the U.S. or Afghanistan. For instance, less than one percent of Afghanistan's budget for 2005-2006 is allocated for the Ministry of Women's Affairs – $1.5 million out of a proposed $678 million. Out of the $87 billion Iraq and Afghanistan Emergency Supplemental authorized by Congress in 2004, only $800 million (about 1 percent) was earmarked for Afghanistan. Of that, $65 million was allotted for Afghan women's programs. Put another way, eight-one-hundredths-of-one-percent of the 2004 emergency supplemental went to Afghan women.
Such a paltry sum hardly jibes with Bush's claim that the rights of Afghan women are a "foreign policy imperative and a cornerstone of all U.S. humanitarian efforts in the region." Judging by the numbers, the rights of Afghan women are little more than an afterthought for Bush.
The point is that for once, just once, Bush should be truthful with the American people and with the world. He and his apologists should admit that while some laudable progress is being made in Afghanistan in general, and on women's rights in particular, things are hardly as shiny and happy as they would have everyone believe. So long as Bush & Co. continue to gloss over the harsh realities confronting the women of Afghanistan, so long as they continue to deceive and manipulate the American public, the "freedom" delivered to Afghanistan's women will remain a hollow promise.
The women of Afghanistan deserve better than to be exploited for Bush's political gain.
Ken Sanders is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Visit his weblog at: www.politicsofdissent.blogspot.com/.
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