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September 7, 2010

Uncertain future, a book review

Reuel S. Amdur

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Sally Armstrong, Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots, Toronto, Penguin Group, 2009.

Armstrong’s book on Afghanistan is subtitled “The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women.” 

Her book certainly demonstrates the uncertainty, along with the heroic efforts of various Afghan women to promote their human rights.  It would be wrong to exclude her own heroism, for she risked her own safety in working as a journalist in Afghanistan and in doing her bit to help Afghan women, directly and as well in telling their stories.  More about these matters later.

First, let us address her view about Canadian involvement in the country.  “We are helping them to rebuild, as we promised we would in the Bonn Agreement, signed in December 2001.  And we are protecting ourselves as we discovered we must in the traumatized aftermath of 9/11.”  I discern another explanation.  To begin, Canada is in danger from al-Qaeda if and only if it takes up American’s fight.  President George W. Bush said that the reason that al-Qaeda targeted the United States is that it hates freedom.  Then Osama bin Laden responded: Why was al-Qaeda not attacking Sweden?

And why in fact are we in Afghanistan?  We are helping to pull Uncle Sam’s chestnuts out of the fire. 

The United States gave support to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in order to drive the Communists out of Afghanistan.  Mission accomplished.  We know all too well what followed.  Canada is assisting the United States in its efforts to deprive its erstwhile clients of their power and influence in Afghanistan.  Yet, the U.S., Canada, and the other NATO forces involved in Afghanistan appear on the verge of leaving.  They will, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s words, “cut and run.” 

It is possible to create problems for which there is no good answer, and the Afghanistan imbroglio is just such a case.  Armstrong describes the progress women have made with the defeat (at least for the time being) of the Taliban, with numbers educated, better health care, etc., but can these gains be sustained?  Certainly not if the Taliban regain control, and questionably if there is a settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban.  Whatever the serious shortcomings under the Communists–and there were many–suppression of women was not one of them.  However, their ouster was one of the final chapters in the history of the Cold War–and of the first of the “war on terror.”

Armstrong reports clearly on the lack of firm commitment by the Karzai government to women’s rights and on the outright opposition from the warlords, the courts, and the mullahs.  Her book was written before the infamous law forbidding Shiite women from leaving the house without the approval of their husbands and requiring them to have sexual intercourse whenever the husbands demand. 

The author paints a picture of severe tribal cultural traditions in the country, where women and girls are used as chattel to cover debts and resolve disputes.  Marriage for girls occurs at an early age, often in forced marriages, and if women and girls rebel against these and other sexual norms they are thrown in jail, if not mutilated.  Yes, there is progress but it is slow.

Is it Islam?  In fact, when Armstrong called upon Qu’ranic principles regarding the relationship between the sexes, the principles were ignored.  The response was either ad hominem–we don’t take lessons from women–or a justification in terms of culture.

Sima Samar is one of the impressive heroines of Armstrong’s account.  Her husband was arrested and undoubtedly killed by the Communists.  As a physician, she operated clinics while the Taliban were in power, and she ran schools for girls as well.  For a while she was a deputy prime minister in the interim government, dropped by Karzai to satisfy the powerful religious fanatics in his government.  Note: in government, not with the Taliban.  She has since made her mark as head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Armstrong is less kind to Malalai Joya, another militant woman. Joya stood up as a member of the legislature and time and again denounced the criminal warlords sitting there with her. They responded to her denunciations by attempting to attack her physically and by shouting, “Let’s kill her! Let’s rape her!”  Of course such behavior had to be punished.  She was expelled.  And then the government passed a law exonerating the warlords for all past crimes. 

Joya called for the withdrawal of foreign troops, pointing out that the American forces had allied themselves with warlords as part of the effort to oust the Taliban.  These warlords themselves had committed atrocities and were instrumental in suppressing human rights, including women’s rights.  For example, the Northern League has had the reputation of being a bunch of rapists.  Armstrong criticizes her for wanting the international community both in and out, contradicting herself.  But I come back to my earlier comment: there are messes that politicians create to which there is no ready answer.

On a final note, this dedicated author undertook an impressive organizing campaign among Canada’s women to provide needed assistance to schools and to health care in Afghanistan.  Her commitment and talent are not to be underestimated. 

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