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Where are the voices of Afghani women?

Meral-EceGiving Afghan women back their rights was one of the main reasons given for military intervention. Yet women there continue to suffer. So what are our brave soldiers dying for, asks Meral Ece

Watch any recent news item about Afghanistan, and the chances are you will only hear about it from a military perspective, and not hear a peep out of any of the country’s women.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that women are restricted to a ghost like presence scuttling in the shadows, covered from head to toe in a burkha.

Five years ago, we were told that traditional taboos were easing and with the West pushing for women to participate in democracy, millions of Afghan women eagerly registered and then voted for a presidential candidate.

In a few districts, female turnout was even higher than male turnout. But on August 20th this year, when Afghans again went to the polls to choose a president, that season of political emancipation seemed long gone.

This time, women stayed away and according to election monitors and women’s activists, a combination of fear, apathy, tradition and poor planning conspired to deprive many Afghan women of rights they had only recently begun to exercise.

So what’s happened to what I remember as being one of the reasons given back in 2001, for invading Afghanistan? President Bush’s spouse, Laura gave the first ever radio address by a First Lady to the nation, condemning the brutal treatment of women at the hands of the Taliban.

Here in the UK, Cherie Blair followed suit. We were told that women had to be liberated and their human rights restored. Clearly this was not the main reason for going to war, but it was held up as a rallying call to gain support in the West.

Fast forward 2009: powerful men, from President Karzai down, have passed laws sacrificing women’s human rights that they had began to claw back in the last few years.

Karzai has done a deal to sell off women’s rights in return for support of fundamentalist support to get himself re-elected. “In Afghanistan, the sacrifice in the political game is women and children”, female Afghan parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi said.

Koofi says that is exactly what happened when the Afghan parliament recently passed a bill intended to give the minority Shia community their own identity.

But critics say the latest draft strips Shia women of rights as simple as leaving the house without permission from a male relative and as extreme as allowing a man to have sexual intercourse with his wife, even when she says “No.” In other words, rape in marriage is being sanctioned.

A staggering 60% of women are still forced into marriage as children – often as young as nine or ten. This has not changed since the West intervened, despite Afghan law stating that girls under 16 should not be married. In the words of other commentators: “Is this the democracy our brave young soldiers are dying to defend?”

With the deteriorating situation for women, its no wonder so few women felt able to turn out and vote.

There are many active women & NGO’s both in Afghanistan and internationally, campaigning to end this. In the meantime, why do we not hear from these women in the media? Why do we only see images of Afghan men in tribal costume on our screens?

My own view, and its one I’ve heard from others who know Afghanistan well, is that the BBC and the Western media seem keen not to encourage any sympathy for ordinary Afghan civilians in this terrible conflict.

Better to imagine them as tribal war lords, or faceless women in blue burkhas: not worthy of our compassion or sympathy, and it seems without a voice.

Meral Ece is a councillor in Islington, and chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

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