Why should Canada bother helping Afghan women and girls when Canadian combat troops withdraw next year? What right does the West have to force its aggressive, feminist values on the Afghan people?
These questions have been raised at hearings by the Senate committee on human rights on the role Canada could play in supporting Afghan women after 2011. Some of the committee members' cynicism is understandable, since George W. Bush's administration used the plight of Afghan women to bolster its case for war nearly a decade ago, with the result that their status has been politicized and manipulated by all parties to the conflict.
Yet, cultural relativism should not be used as an excuse to abandon Afghan women now that Canada is turning a page on its war in Afghanistan. Since 2001, Afghan women and girls have made progress, taking great personal risks to renegotiate the strict gender roles imposed on them by the Taliban. They have seized opportunities to go to school, to earn a living and to participate in public life. Afghan women's groups have also fought hard for political gains, including a 25-per-cent quota of reserved seats in parliament.
When I testified before the Senate committee, one member suggested that had it not been for the West's patronage, there probably wouldn't have been one Afghan woman in parliament. This attitude may be just as patronizing to Afghan women as that of Western feminists bent on "saving" their Afghan sisters. It discounts the hard-won efforts of Afghan civil society and women's groups fighting for social change in a local context.
As they will point out, women's empowerment is by no means a new phenomenon. There were women in the Afghan parliament as early as the 1960s. During the 1920s, the monarchy of King Amanullah opened girls' schools, advocated against the veil and introduced the most progressive Muslim family law seen at that time. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, women participated in all areas of public life, as doctors and lawyers and even in the army. During the late 1990s, women secretly resisted the Taliban's policies by running underground schools for girls.
There's no doubt that there has been a backlash against the perceived women's rights agenda of the West in recent years. As anger toward foreign military intervention has risen, Afghan women exerting leadership abilities have been accused of being "un-Islamic" or "Western agents." Yet, this backlash is less a result of Afghan tradition than about the politicization of women's status in a wartime environment. In the past 30 years, the opportunities for Afghan women have been more determined by state-building processes, geopolitical conflicts and the impact of war on Afghan society than any static understanding of Islam or culture.
As development workers will argue, empowering women is critical to addressing poverty, good governance and creating a stable, prosperous society. A stable Afghanistan, after all, is in the interests of the entire international community.
As many cash-strapped European countries continue to slash their aid budgets, there's a great need to maintain support for health and education programs that have directly assisted Afghan girls and women. As NATO's mandate in Afghanistan looks set to expire in 2014, and as the Afghan government reaches out to the Taliban (a move some Afghans fear may endanger women), the need to build on the small successes of Afghan women in public life is critical.
Canada can do a lot. It can push for Afghan women to be meaningfully represented in any peace talks with the Taliban. It can expand literacy programs for girls into rural areas. It can ensure Canadian trainers give Afghan security forces gender-sensitized training.
The Senate committee has recognized this. In its tabled report, it has recommended that Canada make supporting women's rights a priority of its post-2011 role. Turning a page on the war is one thing, but turning its back on women and girls should not be an option for Canada.
Sarah Smiles Persinger is a research associate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She recently co-authored the report Afghan Women Speak, funded by the Dutch charity Cordaid.