Thursday, 8 March 2012

What are we fighting for?

I'd already planned to write something for International Women's Day today. Why not? And as the father of two daughters and a former teacher at a girls' school I've more than a passing interest in the subject.

Then there was this - the single biggest fatality for the British military in Afghanistan since 2006. And this - Afghan President Mohammad Karzai's plan to turn back the clock on women's rights. Finally, yesterday, (thanks to a link on Facebook) I read this - the best and worst places to be a woman.

'Men are fundamental, women are secondary,' says the President of Afghanistan, for whose government our troops are currently dying. Although since the invasion the place of women has improved (57% of women and girls now go to school) there are real fears that with the scheduled withdrawal of Western troops and with Karzai cosying up to the Taliban it will be shortly be back to 'business as usual' for Afghan women.

Business as usual under the Taliban was simple: women were banned from working or even leaving the house unaccompanied throughout the 1990's. Yes, the 1990's. Not the 1890's or the 1790's or the 1690's. Twenty short years ago Afghan girls didn't go to school; Afghan women couldn't sit in Parliament; an Afghan woman couldn't be a judge.

Things have improved. Isn't that what we're fighting for? But the place of women, the rights of Afghan girls to an education, the right's of women to teach them are still by no means secure. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, between March and October 2010 twenty girls' schools were either bombed or burnt down and over 120 students and teachers killed. Anonymous, threatening 'night letters' are routinely sent to working women, including one to a teacher in a girls' school which read: "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter."

I'm not sure, turning back the clock, if the invasion of Afghanistan was such a good idea. (I'm certain the invasion of Iraq wasn't.) As has been shown - and continues to be shown - in the case of the Arab uprisings, a little subtle military support here, some diplomatic pressure there, can help the people themselves achieve a whole lot without the need for an invasion of ground forces.

But at least this invasion seemed to be changing lives for the better. According to the Independent on Sunday's investigation Afghanistan isn't actually the worst place in the world to be a woman. That badge of dishonour goes to Yemen. But it is the most dangerous. And with Karzai's latest attempt at placating the Taliban, that's hardly likely to change much in the near future.

Which rather begs the question - what are we fighting for?
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