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Silence Meets Despair of Afghan Women

Silence Meets Despair of Afghan Women

By Marie Cocco - April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan's women are no longer in vogue.

It was only a few years ago that Laura Bush, who normally shied from causes that could be considered controversial, took up their banner. "The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists," the first lady said in a radio address shortly after President Bush launched the U.S-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control."

That was then. This is now: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just signed a law that forces women to obey their husbands' sexual demands, keeps women from leaving the house -- even for work or school -- without a husband's permission, automatically grants child custody rights to fathers and grandfathers before mothers, and favors men in inheritance disputes and other legal matters. In short, the law again consigns Afghan women to lives of brutal repression.

"This is really, really dangerous for everybody in Afghanistan," Soraya Sobhrang of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said in a telephone interview from Kabul. Noting that violence against women already is rampant, Sobhrang said the new law effectively "legalizes all violence against women in Afghanistan."

The legislation zoomed through Afghanistan's parliament quickly. Karzai, who faces elections in August, signed it in an apparent effort to placate conservative religious factions. The United Nations Development Fund for Women says it is still analyzing a final version of the legislation, but is "seriously concerned" about its impact. It appears to contradict both the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women, and international conventions on human rights.

The U.S. State Department has had no immediate comment.

Afghanistan's women are, apparently, the latest casualty of the Obama administration's tilt toward realpolitik: ignore human rights violations -- whether they're in China, Russia or in the quiet misery of an Afghan villager's home -- in pursuit of larger foreign policy goals.

This contradiction between political rhetoric and policy reality has often been the American way. But now we have Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. When she was first lady, she championed the rights of women oppressed by the Taliban long before most Americans had ever heard of that radical regime. Clinton took the helm of the State Department vowing to elevate the cause of human and economic rights for women and girls -- a pledge she made again in The Hague this week at the end of a major conference on Afghanistan that was aimed at securing greater international cooperation on the desperate and disparate crises there.

"My message is very clear. Women's rights are a central part of American foreign policy in the Obama administration; they are not marginal, they are not an add-on or an afterthought," Clinton said in response to a general question about the situation confronting women in Afghan society. "You cannot expect a country to develop if half its population (is) underfed, undereducated, under cared for, oppressed, and left on the sidelines."

The secretary was not asked specifically about the new law. Among other provisions, it guarantees that married men can have sex once every four nights and wives must submit. In effect, it legalizes marital rape. Sobhrang worries there may be worse to come. "They are talking about child marriage," she says.

Without pressure from foreign powers who hold so much sway in Afghanistan, there was little even women in the country's parliament could do. Sobhrang faults those who were quiet in the face of the clear effort by a religious faction that is said to hold the balance of power in Karzai's re-election bid to reimpose medieval mores on a country that is in many ways a ward of the contemporary international community.

The ugly truth in Afghanistan is that it has long been sliding back into the violent chaos that is friendly political ground for the Taliban and other extremist groups. Women have, as usual, been among the chief victims.

There is indeed a lengthy and urgent to-do list for the Obama administration, which says it is determined to abandon a failing course. But that does not mean the United States should again fail Afghanistan's women.

To consign them to what Laura Bush correctly called "deliberate human cruelty" is cruelty itself.

mariecocco@washpost.com

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Marie Cocco

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