This week, the now well-known ousted Afghan MP Malalai Joya will kick off her latest speaking tour of Canada. Joya’s message is that Canada is part of a hostile occupying force in her country. As Joya and her antiwar sponsors disseminate that message, it will be important to seek out the views of other Afghan women who live in Afghanistan and fight for reforms there.
As the “troops out” organization Code Pink learned last year, when it met with women leaders in Kabul, most have no interest in seeing NATO’s departure any time soon. These women want peace and they know a premature exit by international forces will not lead to the end of violence, but will swiftly usher in more repression, particularly for women.
Similarly, ordinary citizens generally do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops at present. In a 2010 ABC News poll, only four per cent of Afghans said they would prefer a Taliban government. In a Gallup poll last year, 80 per cent said the Taliban were a negative influence on their country, and a 2009 BBC poll found that Afghans saw the Taliban as the greatest danger to their country.
When asked to rate NATO’s work in Afghanistan, 69 per cent responded “excellent,” “good” or “fair” in 2009. The same number also said it was “very good” or “mostly good” that U.S. forces came into their country.
Many leaders of the women’s movement and women members of parliament echo the polls’ findings, and posit constructive recommendations for moving forward. Their voices should be heard by Canadians.
Dr. Sima Simar, the courageous chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, is succinct in her expectations of the international community: “Finish the job you started. It’s about the protection of humanity. This is a human responsibility. It isn’t possible to escape this kind of responsibility.”
Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan researcher for Amnesty International, articulates what that “job” should resemble: “Instead of a meaningless focus on how many Taliban are killed or how many villages are cleared, international forces should measure their success by clear benchmarks in terms of how they’ve improved human rights. Are more women in Helmand able to get health care? Are more children able to attend school?”
Recently, Afghan Suraya Pakzad, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 by Time magazine, called a potential U.S. military pullout “devastating,” adding it “would mean more girls enduring more horrors.”
Fatima Gailani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said in an interview that she was worried about Americans growing weary of the war in her homeland: “Tomorrow, I don’t want to wake up and open my eyes and you are not there. It’s really scary.”
Masooda Jalal, who made history when she ran against Hamid Karzai as the only woman among 17 presidential candidates, said in October 2009, “It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops . . . committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security - along with other resources.”
Shinkai Kaokhail, an outspoken women’s rights activist and a member of parliament for Kabul, adds, “In the current situation of terrorism, we cannot say troops should be withdrawn,” adding, “international troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety.”
Jamila Afghani, executive director of the Noor Education Centre and a veteran women’s rights campaigner, told me in February, “If the military left, it would be very dangerous. If they have a proper strategy to replace themselves, OK, but without a strategy, they might as well walk out right now. There is a Taliban revival and terrorist revival going on. The future will be even worse than the past, so I don’t suggest they should leave. Or if they leave, we should be satisfied before they go.”
Manizha Naderi, who runs shelters for Afghan women fleeing domestic abuse and leads legal advocacy work through Women for Afghan Women, has said, “If the coalition forces leave, the Taliban or other conservative factions will be much stronger. Women’s mobility and participation in everyday life will be limited again.”
During the Kabul Conference in July, MP Shukria Barakzai saw increasing signs of the deteriorating commitment of the international community, saying to journalist Chris Sands, it’s “like the last drop of the water just fell down” . . . “Until a few months ago I was optimistic, maybe, maybe, maybe. But right now there is no hope.” She added, “In a year's time, it will be like a civil war.”
MP Fawzia Koofi, added, “We thought we were working in a longer-term partnership with the international community. We really wanted to have a joint partnership with them and now they are leaving. There are talks about leaving (but) I think the train has left the station” also saying, “even in two years’ time, I think Afghanistan will be Talibanized, not in terms of individuals, but in terms of ideology. And then all these outspoken women, and media and the young generation of Afghanistan will have a much more tough, difficult life.”
Laila (pseudonym), posted the following to a listserve in response to Joya’s call for withdrawal of all troops: “She needs to understand that her country that she hardly visited in the past years is so vulnerable and fragile that once ‘left’ by international troops, her countrymen and women will be terribly lashed out (at) by the Taliban - and another civil war will eventually or rapidly erupt. So her patriotism is really inviting more misery to the women and the people of Afghanistan. However, I agree that huge mistakes have been done by international community as well that a strong Afghan government would be able to improve the situation.”
Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan has worked for nearly 15 years to improve human rights, to end women’s oppression, and to provide opportunities for Afghan women to live their lives with dignity, certainty and purpose. For the realization of these goals, the international community, including military, developmental and diplomatic entities, must stay the course, but with a paradigm shift that dramatically improves security, escalates development, changes tactics, champions human rights, and vigorously addresses corruption in government and in the aid community.
It’s not time to give up. Canadians can honour the brave struggle of Afghan women by listening to those women on the front lines of a very uphill battle for human rights.
For now, they are saying we should stay.
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. As well as being projects director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, she's a founding member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.