Understanding the violent mix of conflict and gender” in Afghanistan

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“Every ‘unspeakable’ human rights violation is happening in Afghanistan, that to, on a massive scale.”

These words are the excerpts from a report published by the International Court of Justice in 1984 which stands as “self-explanatory” to the three decades of horror committed in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, triggered a cycle of death and destruction that ended only after the interference of NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. Military experts called the ‘series of conflicts’ in Afghanistan as “three decades of war”—designating the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the NATO allies against the Taliban. This has resulted into an intentional creation of conflict understanding followed by certain similarities between the three phases of war, slightly varying in local responses followed by atrocities committed against the society.

The aftermath of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan laid the foundation of the on-going conflict today. However, the heinous crimes against humanity remains largely “unspoken, unheard and without adequate evidences”. The evidences, however inadequate, points to the unspeakable atrocities committed against the civilian population, particularly women which was significant to understand the consequences of a brutal war and military occupation, besides rampant killings, road side bombings, burning of homes, destruction of land and property, lootings and extra-judicial killings.

Open-ended courts established by Taliban during its rule, were one of the certain examples of immediate ramifications of Soviet rule. Soviet officials in the Kremlin along with Soviet military officers stationed in Afghanistan persecuted thousands only on suspicions while many were imprisoned, tortured and disappeared from jails. Afghanistan’s educated classes were systematically removed from the society, resulting in their frequent long years of imprisonment, closed execution and even exile. Women were the easy target, frequently abducted, raped amid other crimes, particularly in prisons or during torture; they were frequently attacked in open and killed in front of their children since the men were engaging in combat or were hiding to prevent from capture and assassination. Old village roads were razed with landmines, in a deliberate attempt to inflict mass casualties. Over two million Afghans were killed, leaving six million displaced.

The defeat of Soviets in Afghanistan gave a short period for masses to breathe. The withdrawal of the Soviets resulted in a vacuum of leadership. This resulted in a civil war. The masses residing in Kabul, which were “safe, secure and distanced” from war, were now “new targets” for the loyalists and factions from the former Mujahedeen who turned weapons against other tribal factions. By now, the Cold war had ended; hence, Afghanistan began reappearing in State Department memo’s and CIA’s dossiers frequently. Punished for being women, many girls were kidnapped from their compounds, sold to Taliban, raped, sexually exploited, and the scenario continued till the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Thousands of civilian’s lives were lost, frequent bombings, rocket attacks, mass executions and large-scale cleansing took place. Torture was rampant; particularly women were used as a subject of war, rape become common systematic tool for oppression in the civil war.

The “savage” anarchy continued for four years, but not for long. Massively supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan, the Taliban recruited mainly from the refugee camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the religious schools. A country gripped by factions, religious Islamic fundamentalists and remnants of Jihadists in favour for Sharia, Taliban leaders tried to maintain order in the region, first by taking over the province of Qandahar in the south and then heading towards Kabul. Frequent fighting between the Taliban scattered factions of Northern Alliance resulted in series of “crimes against humanity”, which continued from 1996, till the fall of Taliban in 2001. Furthermore, the Taliban was quite conservative towards women, they forbade their movement outside, prohibiting them to join any political organisation, workforce, and strictly enforcing the veil.

Afghan Women – Role in Society

The “frequent” change of regimes followed by their ideology towards “women in society”, drastically affected the status of women. However, examining the current situation of women and comparing them with past conflicts and link it with their situation amidst the ongoing conflict forces military experts to interlinking four important factors, i.e. conflict, religion, custom and poverty.

Moreover, Afghan society remains largely pre-industrial, depending massively on agriculture, underdeveloped and impoverished. The Soviet invasion of 1979 devastated Afghanistan’s early economic progress, and “rigorous conflicts” devastated any probable future of development. The cycle of development that linked to urban growth, industrial growth, and gender roles were significant for a nation to prosper, since, growing opportunities and lucrative careers brought women into public domain.

It is important for policy makers to understand that, such “religious” conservatism was not new for the Afghan masses, the social order was largely “comfortable” for a majority of factions in the Afghan society. Many laws established by the Taliban, especially with respect to women, were extended laws that many Pashto communities were already living under, in the South of Afghanistan. Blaming Taliban for its ferociousness towards women, because of “unspeakable” horrors it inflected in the minds and the hearts of women, would be too judgemental and naive. It is important for policy makers to understand the “deep social” hierarchy and patriarchal society that existed long before Taliban.

Customs in religion particularly drive this “madness” towards women, which too vary in understanding and significance. Additionally, the socio-economic conditions of a state defines the relationship between members in the society.

Today, the justice system in Afghanistan, continues to face massive hindrances in strengthening its legal system. Rigged with improper understanding of the cases, inadequate judges, the justice system continues to be harsh on the masses even decades after Talibanic rule. Inadequate access to basic education, judicial guidance, incompetent judges, has although replaced the “Sharia law” debate, but continues to pose grave stress on the masses.

However, today, women activists argue that gender sensitivity” were better understood using traditional customs than religion. Afghanistan remains a poverty stricken country; tribals still continue to perform the same daily life activities as their ancestors.

The attitude of Afghan men towards women can be clearly understood from the old Afghan saying: “Why tend flowers meant for someone else’s garden?”

Practically this means that, why should the Afghan family tender attention to a girl, who have nothing to give to the family. Child marriages are rampant in Afghan society, especially when the family could get dowry. Moreover, the absence of an adequate legal birth registry system remains absent, making it impossible even for policy makers to maintain a national database.

Women are frequently “traded” among tribes, valuing nothing more than a financial bargain. Young women are traded between families or tribes in an effort to resolve a conflict, popularly known in the tradition as ‘baad’.

Considering women as subjects with financial and economic value, rather than an individual with respect and dignity, prevents any chance of positive change in the Afghan community. The patriarchy is itself the enemy of the afghan society, particularly when it designates women as a “tradable” subject. Girls, who have prior intercourse, hold no value, even if they have been victimised through rape and sexual violence. Girls, particularly young women, who run away from their home, are also seen with the same dull view; not even the state will be responsible for the welfare of the girl, if the girl has been brought up without the presence of male figure. Moreover, on many occasions, women are imprisoned for leaving their homes.

In the urban cities of Afghanistan, the social constraints which forces women to always look over her shoulders, are largely minimal. Women go to work, young girls are employed, they go to schools, attend universities, and have more freedom. However, the violence attributed towards women does not differ from the educated with that of uneducated rural women. In a decade or so, the gap between rural women with that of their urban counterpart have significantly increased, which policy makers must address. The varying socio-economic conditions play a lead role: as early as the 1970s, families of the elite did not show this extent of limitation which women have to go through today. The key to a possible “women’s quest for success” lies in the State’s access to education, which the policy makers must ensure unconditionally in an effort to make today’s women of Afghanistan employed and self-sufficient.

The dream to resurface the “intellectual” generation of young Afghans lies in the state’s will for investments in skill development. Before identifying key solutions to link the gap between gender development and women, policy makers must address the following, widely known, facts. An average life expectancy of an Afghan woman in 44 years. Afghanistan, continues to retain the number one position of highest child mortality and maternal mortality in the world. Furthermore, over 90%-95% of women are illiterate.

Conclusion

It is important for policy makers to understand the need to strengthen transnational justice particularly for women, who in the light of international consciousness continues to prefer and support traditions rather than the due process of law. Furthermore, there is an absolute need for policy makers to bridge the gap between men and women, which can be possible by maintaining equality in the workforce. Moreover, the trauma that a women experiences in the hands of men, makes her vulnerable in the society. This has been rampant with women belonging to marginalised communities. This can only be effectively addressed when policy makers “aggressively” focus the development agenda of the state using gender specific goals and open the doors to international experts.