For peace in Afghanistan, women can't be 'secondary'

Afghanistan's religious authority declares women as 'secondary' and seeks restrictions on them. Karzai approves, perhaps to win over the Taliban in talks. But the outrage from Afghan women shows they no longer see themselves as willing victims.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP Photo
Sadaf Rahimi, left, practices for the Olympics with her colleague at a boxing club in Kabul, Afghanistan, last month.

For 10 years, ever since the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the world has witnessed amazing progress for women in that country.

A quarter of lawmakers are female. Nearly half of students are girls. Women work alongside men in government. Their health has greatly improved. And women’s rights are enshrined in the Constitution.

But last week, Afghanistan’s council of Islamic scholars made a surprising declaration. It claimed that “women are secondary” to men.

The nation’s highest religious authority seeks a separation of the sexes in workplaces and in education. It would require women to travel in public only with a male relative. And what was even more startling was that President Hamid Karzai endorsed the declaration.

The apparent reason for this backward step is that Mr. Karzai is preparing for talks with the Taliban. He, like President Obama, sees the need for a negotiated settlement with the militant group before American combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. Perhaps Karzai believes that he can easily give up many women’s rights for the sake of winning a few concessions from the Taliban and bringing peace.

Such a move, however, hardly fits with one of the “red lines” set down by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the outcome of talks with the Taliban. She insists the group accept all rights in the Constitution.

Ms. Clinton has also told Afghan women that “we will not abandon you.” And even when she was a senator in 2001 when US forces ousted the hard-line Islamist group, she said, “The proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future for that war-torn nation.”

The main purpose for the US invasion of Taliban-run Afghanistan was to prevent the possibility of that country again being used for an Al Qaeda-style terrorist attack. One way to ensure that, as Mr. Obama has said, is for the United States to leave behind a “stable” country. The US has already spent $70 billion building up Afghanistan’s government and infrastructure.

Would restricting the newfound freedoms of women really be stabilizing?

Not if one notes the reaction of leading Afghan women to the council’s declaration. The outcry of protest shows that many Afghan women no longer accept that their role in life is that of a victim and subordinate. They have realized the need to act as equal to men in public life.

Given that welcome response, both Obama and Clinton should be patient in coming weeks as Afghan women exercise their new confidence and demand that Karzai not accept the old-style paternalism.

The Afghan women have a base of progress from which to define and defend justice on their own terms without foreign meddling. The veil of victimhood has been lifted for them. The West should not so easily and quickly return to the old habits of “saving” Muslim women. Afghan women now know their rights don’t come from men.

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