The wedding that Joya facilitated was a rare beacon of hope for women whose fate once featured so prominently in talk of Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan.

Glyn Strong, UK Progressive, July 8, 2010

Malalai Joya with Saima, the bride (Photo by David Gill)

The ‘most famous woman in Afghanistan’, Malalai Joya, has decided not to stand for re-election to Parliament because it is too corrupt, the commander of multinational forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has been dismissed and American politicians have temporarily cut off aid to the Afghan government after it emerged that billions were being ‘redirected’. Coalition deaths are above 1,800, Afghan civilian deaths are unknown – and there are fears that Afghan women may be airbrushed out of yet another key International Conference in Kabul on 20 July. Against this depressing background a wedding took place that gave some small cause for hope.

Imagine a drama, co-authored by Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll, in which a dark game of human croquet is played daily. The game has no point and there are no winners, because every evening the human ‘hoops’ that have been negotiated move. The play is called ‘Contradictions’ and the imaginary country it is set in is called Afghanistan – a place where answers neatly segue away from questions - and half the population (i.e. the female half) is virtually mute.

For nine years this theatre of the absurd has played to global audiences. Transfixed by rhetoric about human rights, counter-terrorism and drug eradication Western ‘theatregoers’ – politicians, journalists, military personnel, security staff, civil servants and aid workers – have bought their tickets to watch or participate.

But recently there have been rumblings, that this long-running drama might be nearing its end. With a fatal review by ‘Rolling Stone’, a new leading man cast in the role of ISAF Commander, a British coalition Government disinclined to bankroll indefinite performances and a body count more bloody than Macbeth, the augurs are not good!

Not long ago there was a much-vaunted Peace Jirga. In the expat compounds of Kabul, where diplomats, NGO staff and hacks congregate, a ‘Mask of the Red Death’ mentality obtains. Poe would have loved Absurdistan! In the homes of ‘ordinary’ Afghans a more ‘pig with lipstick’ attitude prevailed. Another triumph of experience over hope.

Two days before it started, when security in the city had already started to ramp up, Farah Senator Belquis Roshan said, “I condemn it. It is just way of ‘squaring the circle’ of getting the Taliban back into Government. But these warlords and Taliban are killers who have raped women, children and boys . . . they should be in jail.”

“The devastation of Kabul reflects their crimes. The evidence is all around us.”

In fact, the debate was nugatory. The Taliban failed to show up then . . . and have since indicated that they have no desire, or need, to sit round the table with an ‘enemy’ who has nothing to offer them.

The jirga’s start was not auspicious. Its 1,600 delegates, gathered in a huge air-conditioned tent, soon came under attack despite days of police planning. A few RPGs were lobbed into the surrounding area; there were armed clashes, but no delegates were hurt. Even the protests, it seemed, were off the mark.

President Karzai called the gathering “the hope of our Afghan nation to reach a peace agreement” and appealed to the Taliban to join the peace process. But to women like Roshan and suspended MP Malalai Joya his words were hollow.

Roshan, a single woman and former provincial council member for Farah Province, was cynical and disillusioned. Like Joya, of whom she speaks with pride and admiration, she is tough, blunt and has reason to be concerned for her personal security. From the safety of a supporter’s house in Darulaman, she showed me her invitation to the jirga and laughed scornfully.

“In 2001 we (Afghans) accepted foreigners in our country for the first time in 30 years, to rebuild our country and its infrastructure. They have let us down – brushed aside our hopes. They do these token PR exercises pointing out what they have done, but we didn’t get any real benefit. Crime increased, corruption rose, poppy production grew.”

Like Joya she advocates NATO withdrawal, claiming that in many ways things were better under the Taliban rule. “Of course it was bad for women, but at least they had rules and there was security of a kind.”

Today she describes Afghanistan as a series of fiefdoms, ruled by gangsters, and claims the word ‘taliban’ is meaningless and no longer describes any discrete entity.

“The US and NATO allies take credit for building schools for girls, but four years ago there were schools all over Afghanistan. Now people still want education but are too afraid to send their daughters.”

“Two years ago, in the Khak Safed District of Farah, one of the local warlords had a teenage girl murdered just because she left home. Nothing happened to him.”

(IWPR reports catalogue routine interventions by Taliban taking a cut of aid funding. Explanations of why it should – and should not – be tolerated are predicated on pragmatism rather than ethics. This is Farah, not Utopia!)

Roshan and Joya believe that 2001 was NATO’s chance to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s people by arresting its many war criminals. Roshan said “In Iraq they had no compunction about hunting down and executing criminals. Here such men were allowed to take seats in Parliament, where they sat with their guns and pistols.”

They subsequently voted themselves amnesty from prosecution and crudely intimidated anyone who opposed them. Joya, who openly condemned them in her now famous speech to the Loya Jirga, became a particular target. She later described her experiences in parliament as ‘pure torture’.

To Joya and Roshan the Peace Jirga was simply the next step in the process of legitimising Taliban and other criminal elements. Roshan said “I asked a question in the Senate recently and was told ‘We will give you the answers after the Peace Jirga’. I said, no – this is wrong. You should say now how we want things to be, not wait to be told.”

The picture painted by both women is bleak. They describe the Presidential elections as a farce citing their own province as an example. Farah is a large, lawless area, sandwiched between Pakistan and Helmand

Roshan said through her interpreter “In some areas there were no polling stations, yet votes were returned. It is well known that deals were done and votes bought. The Governor and local warlords bought votes for Karzai; Dr Abdullah Abdullah – he also bought some votes. Only (Ramazan) Bashardost got true votes. In Farah some Talibs even fired rockets into the city to stop people voting . . . this is not democracy.”

I put it to her that untimely NATO withdrawal would simply leave a power vacuum that criminals, warlords and Taliban would quickly fill, turning the country into a battleground again. She acknowledges this and concedes that corruption and fear rule out any hope of security or an honest rule of law being delivered by the Karzai Government. “In fact we have no ‘government’” she says dismissively.

But this didn’t, in Roshan’s eyes, excuse the Peace Jirga’s role as a reconciliation platform. “My point of view is the same as that of my people. They don’t want Taliban back in government where they can (legitimately) use their powers against the us. This ‘Peace Jirga’ – I condemn it! The foreigners should have supported us – but they didn’t. The US and its Allies are doing just the same as the Taliban – killing local people with their air strikes. Our people are fed up of foreigners. People want them to withdraw from Afghanistan because civilian casualties are increasing day by day and the security is getting worse. Secondly, if foreigners really want to help Afghanistan become a democratic state they should support democratic minded people in and take our views to their leaders.

“We don’t want their troops to die here – they are also victims. Ordinary people in the international community should put pressure on their governments to support true democrats. They arrested Saddam Hussein in Iraq – why can they not do the same with Dostum, Sayaaf and the other criminals here!”

In the event, Roshan did go to the Peace Jirga. As it drew to a close she tried to speak. She was told it was not appropriate and microphones were switched off. Only two media outlets reported her attempt. Hopefully more are aware of it now.

Photo by David Gill

Friba, a spokeswoman for RAWA (The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) – an organisation that profiles and publicises human rights atrocities – told me that there were no reliable statistics available on rapes in Afghanistan: “Because first rape usually goes unnoticed and in most cases the victim and families try to keep silent because they think if the case is made public, it will be a “shame for the family”. We have cases where the rape victim has been killed by guardians to “keep their honor” in society.

“We have seen rare cases where rapists were prosecuted . . . . but most of the rapists are warlords and powerful men that Afghanistan’s corrupt and rotten system can’t bring to justice. And unfortunately, due to backward tradition in Afghanistan, a rapist does not feel any shame and many of them proudly announce that they raped a girl or a boy, but again the rape victim is regarded with shame in the society. And if they file a case against the rapist, they will be victims in the court too and the powerful rapists may pressure them to keep silent.

“Even more tragically you can find women in Afghan prisons who have been raped and then arrested and charged for committing ‘Zena’ (”adultery”), while the actual rapists are free. And many imprisoned women are raped while in custody.

“Last year, two sons of a powerful warlord in Helmand province, raped a small boy and also filmed their savage act, then they proudly released their film in public, although the family of the boy filed a case and raised their voice for justice, but no action was taken against the rapists because their father is a warlord and their mother (Bibi Laeiqa) is a member of Provincial Council of Helmand.”

When I told her about the wedding of Joya’s bodyguard and his sweetheart she was incredulous. “We have never heard of any rape victim ‘make a full recovery and marry’. Especially those whose cases are public, their entire life is bleak and we have examples where the victims commit suicide.”

The wedding that Joya facilitated was a rare beacon of hope for women whose fate once featured so prominently in talk of Millennium Development Goals for Afghanistan.

Roshan was also one of the guests. She said later “This wedding was special and I applaud what the bodyguard did. Really, Faramarz is a hero because here in Afghanistan no-one marries a raped girl. This does not come from the Koran, its just a tradition – people think that women are second-hand if they have been raped and we must struggle to change this view.”

The weight of prejudice is oppressive. How can attitudes be changed? Roshan’s interpreter says “It is only possible with positive attitudes, coming from politicians, and the provision of education. Things are a little better in Kabul, better than in Kandahar, Helmand and Farah; they are the most conservative provinces.”

Roshan believes there are ‘good laws’ for dealing with rape, and in theory married men who commit rape attract even more even more severe punishments. “The problem is that there is no implementation” she shrugs.

Joya’s critics will probably dismiss the wedding she brokered as a publicity stunt, but to was clear to everyone who attended the ceremony, and spent time with the couple in the days following their marriage, that the only thing Joya ‘arranged’ were the formalities and logistics.

The bride and groom were obviously in love. A handsome, and immediately likeable man, Faramarz is one of Joya’s most loyal bodyguards and clearly has great admiration for her. He described his new bride as “a victim, a holy girl, a wholly innocent young woman”. When she agreed to marry him he recalled “I was so happy I didn’t know whether I was in the clouds or on the earth”.

As he led his bride out of her parents house, on the day of their marriage, the sun momentarily blinded him. As he blinked, our eyes locked, and he gave me a smile of pure happiness.

YouTube video still records the days after his bride’s assault. Abducted by eight men, she was gang raped and marked for death. She escaped and her family tried repeatedly to get justice. In the byzantine ways of ‘Absurdistan’ her father ended up being arrested for bringing the reputation of a powerful local businessman into disrepute. The family now live in safety – and grinding poverty – in a suburb of Kabul.

That this is a familiar tale, eliciting no more than sighs and shrugs in some quarters, is an outrage.

Roshan and Joya are iconoclasts – brave individuals who want to appeal directly to the people of the international community who have become stakeholders in their destiny. Roshan said “My message to the people of the USA and UK is that we are not such conservative or people; if our own people can provide security, in my village for example, all the men and women will allow their sons and daughters to go to school.”

Joya is a self-confessed ‘secular moslem’ who sees education as the key to liberation of Afghanistan’s women. After the wedding she translated for me as Faramarz explained that one of his hopes for his new bride was to get some proper schooling. “Education is the best revenge on those cruel, evil men who hurt her” he says. “ And I will help her.

*In the run up to the Kabul Conference on 20 June women are battling to get a voice, wider represenation and a guarantee that five key issues of development ( higher education, employment, leadership/management, agriculture and security) are both on the agenda and addressed. At the request of organiser Dr. Ashraf Ghani a group led by activist Palwasha Hassan of wrote: “The Kabul Conference is an occasion for the government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to reconfirm its commitments to its people and realign its development priorities to their needs. Women’s civil society groups in Afghanistan have always contributed to these discussions by clarifying the needs and concerns of women who constitute over 48% of the population. The aim of this document is to urge the Kabul Conference to contribute to the empowerment of women through enabling immediate implementation of commitments that the government has already made in various policy documents such as the Constitution of Afghanistan, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan, the Millennium Development Goals reports and the Communiqué of the London Conference among others.”

The paper concludes with a positive suggestion: “Select at least three hundred to five hundred of the brightest girls in Afghanistan and invest in their education overseas in various fields such as foreign diplomacy, agriculture, medicine, engineering, civil service, natural resource and mines management, etc. This way, the country will be sure to have at least 300 top notch professionals to fuel the growth of this country. This kind of program, in fact, should continue over a period of 15 years until such time that the country has a critical mass of young women who could lead the country.”

Just days before the conference Dr Vic Getz, a sociologist and gender adviser based in Kabul, asked the question on everyone’s lips – “Where are the women? “ And she added “There has been zero gender analysis in or attention to women’s voices in the preparations for the Conference.

FOOTNOTES:

Kandahar’s SurgarWeekly recently reported: “In the first quarter of 2010, 44 cases of violence against women have been reported in Kandahar, which shows an increase in the violence against women in the same period last year.

Rolling Stone, in the now infamous McChrystal feature, quotes Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan: ”Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem. A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers” – a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that 
President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.”

Glyn Strong is a globally respected journalist whose newspaper career began at The Guardian in the 1970s. Since then she has worked for a wide variety of publications and visited more than 40 countries. She specialises in ethical, gender, aviation, military, travel, human rights, general interest features and veterans issues. In 1994 she left journalism to work for the Armed Forces, spending lengthy periods in hostile environments, running civilian/military news teams in Bosnia and Kuwait and operating in the Falkland Islands, Hungary, Kosovo, Germany, Italy and Holland. She collaborates with broadcasters and distinguished photographers and contributes to national and international publications. Website: www.glynstrong.co.uk Blog: www.glynstrong.blogspot.com/