In a neighborhood of northern Kabul once called “little Paris” after its famous patisseries and tree-lined avenues, a taxi driver drops me off in front of a 15-foot-high metal gate. The fence surrounds a large old house barely visible from the street.
I am here to have a meeting with the director of the Afghan Women’s Skills and Development Center, a non-government organization working to enhance the basic skills and capacities of women and girls through education and training courses. The center is a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), “an umbrella association of over seventy women-focused NGOs.”
Both organizations have signed a report submitted by 29 NGOs working in Afghanistan documenting their serious concerns over growing insecurity for ordinary Afghans. The report indicates that 2010 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001. Citing a recent U.N. Human Rights briefing, the report concludes that there were “1,271 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010—an increase of 21 percent on the same period” in 2009. Careful to outline that a majority of deaths are at the hands of armed opposition groups, like the Taliban, the report emphasizes that the current U.S./NATO military strategy, including arbitrary detention, night-raids, drone bombing, and financing and arming of militia groups are the most significant factors creating instability for civilians.
The AWN and its partner organizations have been working since the fall of the Taliban to advocate for legislation that would protect, and maybe in the future even benefit the status and rights of women across Afghanistan. All are starkly aware of the realities “on the ground” for women, and speak passionately about the need to create security before any substantive work towards human rights can be accomplished.
Still, the issue of security in Afghanistan is as pressing as it is contested. Thenarrative of guaranteeing women’s rights in Afghanistan has served as the highly politicized accessory to the 2001 U.S. invasion. And this objective remains a potent piece of the political puzzle in Afghanistan. Thus, while these two organizations were clear in their condemnation of U.S. military strategy, they also advocated for the necessity of the troop presence due to the reality of violence women would face if there were a civil war.
However, other women stress that the U.S./NATO presence are contributing so significantly to insecurity in the country that there is no choice but to demand from the U.N. an alternative international force that would not act as occupiers. Zohra, a photographer and self-described feminist with a local arts collective Third Eye, reasons that while cosmetic changes for women have occurred in Kabul and Herat since the fall of the Taliban, for the vast majority of women in the provinces this event held no significant political meaning. Zohra, like her colleagues from AWN, assert that while many people in the West focus on the “need” to challenge the gender norms of a culturally conservative society, it is the insecurities accented by war and occupation that remain the principle obstacle to securing women’s human rights.
As Zohra explains, “Your [U.S.] leaders say they are here to secure Afghanistan, especially for the women. The reporters happily wrote stories about how the Taliban did not let women to go to school
. And this is true; many of our women cannot even read. But now it is not the Taliban who are stopping the girls. What mother would let her child to go to school if they think a bomb will drop on them? For the girls does it matter from which hand the bomb drops?”
Across the street from the center is a makeshift refugee camp, homes built from dirt and materials gathered from nearby garbage heaps. The refugees are from Pakistan border areas, I’m told—families fleeing the ongoing fighting and U.S. air raids. I see women scavenge for materials to burn to survive the freezing nights. Across Afghanistan women weep for children who cannot survive the cold; women whose anger must grow as they send children to bed with pains of hunger, or who fear the bombs that mutilate and murder loved ones without recourse to justice. As many have concluded, and as I have heard repeatedly in my time here, “You cannot bomb people and then expect them to accept your aid.”