Women still have a long fight ahead

The Times
Jerome Starkey in Kabul

A widow is whipped to within an inch of her life and then killed with an AK47. A runaway wife is held down so her husband can slice off her nose. Teenage lovers are captured and killed by firing squad. Women are stoned to death in football stadiums — all in the name of the Taleban.

It is no wonder that women’s rights groups, civil society and half-decent human beings are concerned that negotiating with the Taleban could undo what precious little progress has been made to improve people’s rights in Afghanistan.

When they ruled here until 2001, the Taleban doled out justice in football grounds so that as many people as possible could see. Today, they are forced to use more modest premises — the forecourt of a mud-brick mosque, a street corner or a village square.

Crimes committed in the name of Islam while the Taleban were in power are still committed in parts of the country where hardline militants hold sway.

Any political accommodation, civil rights groups fear, would bring an end to a role for women in public life, an end to the quota for women MPs and the start of a slide back to much darker days, when women were forbidden from leaving their homes without a male relative to escort them.

Unfortunately, the Taleban are not the only savages who condone such brutal behaviour. Even the country’s President, who rarely shows his own wife in public, wonders whether human rights should be sacrificed to bring an end to the bloodshed. It was President Karzai who signed a law last year that in effect let men rape their wives, or starve them.

What, we should ask, have our all our soldiers been dying for?

Nine years into the war, women seek ever more desperate measures to escape (in Herat’s burns hospital, victims of self-immolation often take weeks to die), yet many conservative Afghans hold views of women’s rights and sexual morality that are worlds away from the ideals enshrined in international law.

Negotiations or not, women will have to continue fighting for a better lot in Afghanistan for many years to come.

If we achieve anything in this country, we must be sure never to betray the idealists, the activists and the civil society campaigners who have risked their lives to try to make Afghanistan more tolerant. Fortunately, all of the women’s activists I have met seem more than determined continue their work.