“Rescue” Ten Years Out: An Anecdotal Report on Afghan Women’s Challenges

After nearly a decade of foreign military intervention and with a visibly deteriorating security situation that has affected most of the country over the last three to five years, the primary concern of Afghan women and their families remains physical security, and second to that, economic and food security. While massive reconstruction and humanitarian funding has flowed to Afghanistan, both Afghans and foreigners note with astonished dismay the vast amounts of graft and corruption that prevent more than a small fraction of aid resources from reaching or remaining in the hands of those in need.

Back in 2001, one major problem anticipated for sudden, large humanitarian and reconstruction investment was that if such funds passed directly to project recipients without Afghan government structural oversight or central planning, the result would be a failure to build governance capacity and government accountability: rentierism without a state. In the intervening ten years, corruption and graft within the state apparatus at all levels have been so amplified that neither ordinary Afghan citizens nor foreign donors expect fair dealings from state representatives. In particular, the Afghan National Police and the court system have demonstrated pervasively corrupt practices, such that citizens cannot expect protection in ordinary security matters or fair and efficient treatment of legal disputes. Bribery at multiple levels is a normal component of the execution of any contracts requiring government approval. Four examples reported to me in-country by individual interviewees in 2009 will serve as illustrations:

1.   The female head of an Islamically inspired NGO providing young women and men with education for income generation (the women are trained through coursework and internships for office management and secretarial jobs, which provide middle-class living wages, at the moderate tuition cost of about US$20 per month) reported that the meter-reader assigned to their neighborhood came to them with a proposition: he would underreport their electric usage (for their housing and their training facility) if they would provide him a kickback for doing so, thus benefiting them both. She refused to do that on Islamic ethical grounds. Her electricity was cut off, and restoration of power took two weeks.

2.   The same individual leased a house with her family in Kabul. Having been required to pay the total rent for the period in advance, they were then confronted by another family to whom the landlord had also rented the house, with a move-in date before their lease was up. The new family came daily to beg them to leave because they had no place to live and had also paid the landlord. The first renter refused to leave before her lease was up. The landlord’s suggestion was that the two families should accommodate each other, the one moving out a little early, the other moving in a little late. The landlord made no offer to adjust the rent for either, and in any case, affordable housing being very limited in Kabul, it takes perhaps two to three months to find a new place to live. The problem was unresolved when related to me. There is no effective legal recourse in such blatant breaches of contract, which other interviewees described as pervasive. This interviewee and other respondents attributed such “un-Afghan” behavior, in a country where oral contracts were formerly sacrosanct, enforced by witnesses and public suasion, to an essential breakdown of trust among the population. “Trust” appeared as a key word in my 2009 interviews.

3.   At Herat University, construction had been halted, as of 2009, for more than a year on half-finished buildings funded by an external development grant. The money allocated for the project had, according to university officials, been received by the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul but not transferred to the university for payment of contractors, for reasons unspecified. The contractors had therefore halted work. The university was prevented from seeking funding from other sources to finish the much-needed construction because the money was nominally in hand but simply not in their hands. No resolution was in sight.

4.   The female head of an NGO seeking certification from the ministry appropriate to her NGO’s tasks refused to pay a bribe to the clerk receiving the application paperwork. When she complained to his superior about the inaction on her application and the bribe solicitation, she was told, “You have now turned a $10 problem into a $100 problem” (that is, the bribes required for intervention up the chain of authority are incrementally larger).

As these grassroots moments describe, well-educated Afghan women activists are now, ten years out, an established though minority force in development institutions. Many of the initial post-9/11 NGO leaders had formed their organizations and initiated projects during the Taliban period or even before, operating from bases in Pakistan’s Afghan refugee community. Some have records of activity dating back to the Marxist government, whose aggressive programs for Afghan women became the target of mujahideen reprisals and were perceived as examples of anti-Islamic interference, but which nonetheless trained and inspired some members of that older generation.

After 9/11, Kabul University and regional universities again became accessible to the next generation of women students, many of whom gravitated toward journalism/media or law programs as available, as well as medicine and education, professions formerly attractive to qualified women. Government positions, however, still rarely pay a wage sufficient to support even a small family. Bribe-taking thus amounts to a form of fee for service at lower-level positions (clerks, teachers, beat cops), the incumbents of which generally must find one or more jobs or income sources on top of their government work to make ends meet. Professionally qualified men and women as well as service support workers seek employment with NGOs and foreign-government institutions, whose local-hire pay scales, though not comparable by factors of twenty and more to wages paid to their international-hire colleagues, are at least geared to cost-of-living considerations for ordinary Afghans.

The impressively motivated, growing cadre of Web-savvy, internationally oriented young urban professionals, male and female, seeking such jobs is still only a small subset of the large population of Afghan youth. While literacy rates are variously, even hazily, understood (as described in my 2001 essay for the SSRC), a recent NPR news report stated that the literacy rate (not defined) for (mostly male) state security (police and military) trainees in foreign-run Afghan programs was 14 percent.1 Death threats against civilians hired to support the military presence, including the small sector of internationally oriented young technocrats, are now common. For example, this month (August 2011), a young, self-trained male computer-systems technician of my acquaintance who worked as a dispatch supervisor for a company providing fuel to the military occupation was forced by “Taliban” death threats to relocate from his hometown of Herat to the more secure Kabul office of his company, where he generally now spends twenty-four hours a day. Within the past two years, satellite offices of UNICEF providing services in two western Afghan towns were forced to close due to death threats to their staff. Scattered but persistent attacks on reopened and new girls’ schools in rural areas, generally, but not always, when no students are present, as well as direct threats to and occasional attacks upon teachers and girl students, have been an ongoing problem throughout the past decade. Heavy intimidation, including physical attacks, from various quarters has come to bear on some young urban women who have taken visible roles in television broadcasting and at NGOs and foreign-government agencies.

Concerning the viability and credibility of Afghan government institutions, the NGOs with programs for protecting abused and trafficked women, particularly those running the few available safe houses, are very apprehensive of the government’s stated intention to put oversight of all such facilities in the hands of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. While from a structural viewpoint this may seem like a step toward governance, the ministry is historically without a budget of any effective size and without any capacity to assert itself as a policymaking entity within the government. Some supporters of ministry control over women’s protective facilities allege that the shelters are themselves supporting trafficking and licentious behavior by women. Women’s advocates fear that this ministry’s oversight will simply facilitate attempts by abusive families to reassert control over women who have sought protection and that deaths will ensue. The ministry lacks any mandate or human resources to expand or improve protective services for abused women.

While the Afghan Constitution promulgated after 9/11 stipulates gender equality under the law, it also stipulates that no Afghan law will be constitutional if it contradicts sharia (Islamic law) principles, which themselves stipulate inequalities in inheritance and access to divorce as well as the principle of male authority within families. Minimum ages for marriage have since been set by law, but the minimum age for females is lower than that for males. In any case, court cases contesting underage marriage are, to my knowledge, nonexistent. Generally, young women fleeing to shelters are running from forced arranged marriages, common even though sharia stipulates that the woman’s freely given consent is required for legal marriage. Their families view their flight as an intolerable breach of contract and family authority, which the family then tries to reenforce.

A certain number of elected parliamentary seats are now constitutionally reserved for women, but women activists complained in 2009 (before the widely disparaged reelection of President Karzai and contested parliamentary elections) that female candidates are often surrogates for commandants (called “warlords” in English) running political machines backed by guns. Independent women elected to the provincial representative council in Herat ran freely in their first-term campaigns, conducting public meetings and speeches. In 2009, running for reelection, they had to be accompanied by armed bodyguards and were unable to participate safely in announced public meetings. Their male supporters were intimidated, and their candidacies were denounced by opponents as un-Islamic. One elected woman parliamentarian serving in 2009 was a well-educated relative of an equally well-educated (and progressive) longtime friend and associate of mine. When I asked how she was doing, he replied, “She’s just like all the others; she’s just there for herself, not to serve the people.”

Between death threats, pervasive public disillusionment and skepticism, everyday corruption and institutional deadlock, there is a minefield—physical, psychological, and logistical—through which the small population of dedicated public servants and private professionals must work their daily way. What future for Afghan women? Access to education and training for (mainly urban) women and such women’s own activism have made for significant strides in the last decade. Many female activists view with apprehension the withdrawal of the safety net provided by the foreign presence, even while acknowledging that it is increasingly tattered and highly flawed. It seems safe to expect a new diaspora of unclear dimensions as the situation deteriorates. Under current conditions, neither the planned, substantial withdrawal of foreign forces and agencies nor persistence of the status quo seem to offer much hope for improvement.

Whither, then, the agenda for “rescue” of Afghan women articulated by Laura Bush when she was assigned the president’s weekly message just prior to the beginning of the US bombing in October 2001?2 Recall, also, George W. Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union speech, in which he asserted, “The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes . . . Today women are free.”3 This triumphalist “rescue” claim was reiterated by Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in at least three different contexts in 2010.4 The Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization of female-run Afghan NGOs, commented pointedly on the absence of actual Afghan women at the table in at least one of these venues.5

Compare, however, then-defense secretary Robert Gates, in June 2010, to the effect that the United States is only pursuing its national security interests in the Afghan intervention, not undertaking social reform: “We are not there to build twenty-first-century Afghanistan. None of us will be alive that long.”6 In this he reasserts the Orientalist chronotope of Afghanistan’s culture and society as radically and incorrigibly distant from ours in time as well as space, at the same time giving the lie to the cultural rescue agenda rearticulated by Hillary Clinton just weeks before. The (neo)colonialist pretext of the rescue of colonized women has been widely and trenchantly critiqued.7 I will only say here that Mr. Gates and we were, and are, in fact looking at twenty-first-century Afghanistan. The role of foreign intervention, including our own, in making it what it is, is hardly a triumphal story. Nor is its conclusion clear.

Margaret Mills, who began research in Afghanistan in 1974, teaches general folklore, Middle East (especially Afghan Persian) culture and oral literature subjects through the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department and the Center for Folklore Studies at Ohio State University and is a research faculty associate of the Ohio State Mershon Center for International Security Studies. Her current research includes studies of oral narrative performance and of Afghan citizens’ discussions of contemporary politics. She welcomes reader comments.

  1. Quil Lawrence, “In Afghanistan, Reviewing a Decade of Promises,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, September 2, 2011.
  2. Laura Bush, “Radio Address by Mrs. Bush, November 17, 2001, ”The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=24992.
  3. Malalai Joya, A Woman Among Warlords (New York: Scribner, 2009), 177.
  4. Hillary Clinton, “Secretary Clinton’s Speech at Afghanistan Conference,” January 28, 2010, RealClearPolitics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/01/28/secretary_clinton_speech_at_afghanistan_conference_100084.html; “Secretary of State’s Video Message for International Women’s Day,” February 12, 2010, US Official Speeches and Interviews, US Embassy in Afghanistan, http://kabul.usembassy.gov/sec_message0810.html; and “Remarks with Afghan Women Ministers Before their Meeting,” May 13, 2010, Secretary’s Remarks, US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/05/141806.htm.
  5. Afghan Women’s Network, “Reaction from Afghan Women Civil Society Leaders to the Communiqué of the London Conference on Afghanistan,” January 29, 2010, UN Women, http://www.unifem.org/news_events/story_detail.php?StoryID=1019.
  6. Sue Pleming, “Analysis: U.S. Grapples with Making Peace in Afghanistan,” Reuters UK, June 9, 2010, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2010/06/09/us-afghanistan-usa-strategy-idUKTRE6586ED20100609.
  7. Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90; and Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency: Afghan Women’s Memoirs,” in Orientalism and War, ed. Keith Stanski and Tarak Barkawi (forthcoming).