Why U.S. can’t deliver women’s rights to Afghanistan
April 2nd, 2013
01:42 PM ET

Why U.S. can’t deliver women’s rights to Afghanistan

By Malou Innocent, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute and can be followed @malouinnocent. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

During his recent unannounced visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with prominent female entrepreneurs and the captain of the women’s soccer team to discuss the hard-won progress of Afghan women and their uncertain future. Like his predecessor, Secretary Kerry has admirably pledged to prioritize women’s rights in his foreign policy agenda. But the underpinnings of this pledge – the entrenchment of women’s rights across Afghanistan – are beyond the ability of the United States to uphold. It is time to stop making promises we cannot keep.

If the past 12 years in Afghanistan (and Iraq) has taught us anything, it’s that we are not very good at spreading Western-style, Jeffersonian democracy – and all the attendant rights – to foreign cultures. In the end, our military and diplomacy cannot transform deep-rooted societal norms. The future of Afghan women deserves U.S. support, but not a false promise tied to the open-ended presence of U.S. troops.

Undoubtedly, since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the quality of life for many Afghan women has undergone extraordinary transformations. But the progress may be illusionary. As Reuter’s senior correspondent in Afghanistan Amie Ferris-Rotman argued in Foreign Policy last month, President Hamid Karzai has been “increasingly ambivalent on women’s rights,” and the local government has failed to motivate Afghan society at large to adopt new habits to accept gender equality.

Misogynistic warlords and conservative Afghan traditionalists still wield considerable influence over traditions and customs that govern property rights, marriage and divorce, inheritance, and custody. Despite women’s constitutionally guaranteed rights, fundamentalists in parliament and government ministries continue indigenous cultural prohibitions that discriminate against women.

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In addition, women’s rights activists observe that forced marriages involving young girls remain common. Beatings, torture, and other forms of domestic violence against Afghan women persist. Worse, women and girls are often shot, stabbed, or even stoned to death in honor killings when captured for running away from their abusers.

Because Afghan society’s acceptance of women’s social and legal rights has yet to take root organically, from the bottom up, the most viable alternative for changing its long-standing customs and social practices would be top-down with the help of the international community. But as University of California Santa Barbara Assistant Professor Robert W. Rauchhaus has noted, third parties willing to protect a discriminated minority would need to focus not only on the group that is at risk – Afghan women – but also on more effective punishments against those who provoke violence against that discriminated minority, namely Afghan traditionalists.

America’s reluctance to punish domestic parties resistant to Afghan social change highlights what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington argued in his influential book The Clash of Civilizations.

Huntington wrote that Western attempts to impose its will onto foreign societies is “contrary to the Western values of self-determination and democracy.” Indeed, what truly “clashes” is the liberal tolerance of diverse cultures and perspectives against the liberal interventions intended to spread liberty. Principles aside, the extent to which methods of punishment and exclusion would incite an internal rebellion also raises a practical problem.

Before the nearly 40 year reign of King Zahir Shah, who oversaw Afghanistan’s most prolonged period of prosperity and internal stability during the middle of the 20th century, King Amanullah had made repeated attempts to reform the Afghan state. The Ataturk-style modernist styled himself a “revolutionary ruler.” He demanded Afghans wear Western-style suits and hats in government precincts in Kabul. He changed the Friday weekly holiday to Thursday. And he pushed to end the seclusion of women and abolish the veil. The pace of his reforms proved far too fast for the country to absorb, and he was overthrown in a coup in 1929.

Today, although current foreign-led efforts meant to assist Afghan women remain morally defensible, they tell us little about the unforeseen consequences that arise when operating in a foreign culture. The most contentious issues between the Afghan state and society have been policies concerning the rights of women, marriage, and other issues deeply rooted in Afghan cultural values and the social framework of Islam.

Sadly, while many Afghan women justifiably fear that their progress could be undone if the Taliban reemerge onto the political scene, the past 12 years have underscored the enormous difficulty of advancing democracy in general and women’s rights in particular.

Secretary Kerry is right to speak out against gender-based oppression and other affronts to human rights and individual freedom. But emphasizing local drivers of social change can be a more effective way to export Western liberal values to Afghanistan’s illiberal society. The United States and its coalition partners can continue to support independent media and other local institutions in Afghanistan even after they remove their soldiers. That assistance would recognize that gender relations are firmly embedded in values and traditions that command local legitimacy.

This legitimacy will not come from an indefinite commitment by the United States in aid and troops. Like the other gains reaped during the 12-year occupation, without developing institutions and norms in the context of Afghan culture, the transformation of women’s rights may ultimately prove ephemeral. Secretary Kerry and others in Washington should be honest and admit our limitations. The United States can offer support, but it cannot deliver women’s rights to Afghanistan.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Women

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soundoff (142 Responses)
  1. Badly-Bent

    Alas, I too fear things will revert to their barbaric past once we leave. Women would do better to protect their own safety in an insane society!

    April 4, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply
  2. jackinbox

    The media label their men as opressors of their women in order to justify a zionist agenda. It does fool the foolish.

    It is just pure silly to go around world, granting women the rights to orgasm at gun point, with borrowed money. Do you want your kid be shot for someone's rights to orgasm?

    Their society had women from day two. They will make adjustments at their own pace.

    April 4, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply
  3. John Geheran

    The West still doesn't get it. "Societal Norms" are NOT the problem but merely a symptom. The position and ill treatment of Muslim women is rooted in Islamic sacred texts, ahadith, et al, and continuously reinforced by most Islamic clerics as well as the Mecca of Islamic orthodoxy Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Until Muslim women and the West arrive at this reality, nothing is likely to change.

    April 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
    • POOPE


      April 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Please POOPE, do cut that Tea Party lingo out. That's some that Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell or any other uncouth Tea Partier would post!

        April 4, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Garvey Brinkley

      People in power know this, but they know that as long as the Gulf Arabs have the oil and the natural gas, they are powerless to speak against it

      Only when the Gulf Arabs lose their wealth and power, will people be able to speak out against Islam

      April 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  4. Treg

    Malou is correct that GOVERNMENT is "not very good at spreading Western-style, Jeffersonian democracy – and all the attendant rights – to foreign cultures." She says that, "In the end, our military and diplomacy cannot transform deep-rooted societal norms." and that is true, government cannot. But that is NOT to say that "we" cannot do this. The question really is, "What do we do that does spread "western-style, Jeffersonian democracy"? That answer might be found in this book which does and excellent job of assimilating the data coming from Enlightenment/libertarian ideas. That book is already a NYtimes best seller. Its 'THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED', by Dr. Steven Pinker. Its well worth the read. If we try to understand why the libertarian-humanitarian rights revolution has worked in the West, smothering the horrible violence found in the Middle Ages, we might have an idea as to what will work in the East. Treg

    April 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  5. Squeezebox

    If Afghani/Pakistani women started committing suicide en masse (not recommnended), would the men change their ways? What if they murdered their own children first. Would that make the men take notice? Or would it be the same misogynist crap? What percentage of the women would have to kill themselves to get the men to change? Would foreign women be dumb enough to take their places?

    April 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • Garvey Brinkley

      Get an airplane and fly out leaflets with sign images, Dari and Pashto, AND tape recorders with messages in Dari and Pashto saying that

      April 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  6. jim

    Hand guns are the answer to this problem-Next time some towel head trys to impose their brand of justice the woman should pull out her pistol and introduce the guy to Allaha.

    April 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  7. Foreigner

    "Why the US can't deliver rights to Afghan women" – why is this America's decision or responsibility in a complex world? Is it because only Americans have the intelligence, might, and right to make such decisions on behalf of all global inhabitants? Regardless of how Afghan women are treated, the concept and exceptional-ism of American zealots is a big part of many world problems. Look at the mess in the middle east expecting democracy to solve all those problems. Get your heads in and let people solve their own problems in their own way.

    April 4, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • Kathy

      Is there no such thing as universal truth among humans concerning evil that all of us can recognize as overriding any particular global group's fancy for control, power, abuse, hacking up, stoning, burning, crushing to dust the women of their gruop? You don't have to be an American or westerner to recognize evil and call it such. You only need to breathe in and out. I'm really sick of men saying, "those women aren't our problem." Everything Afghanistan does is our problem, or have you been asleep since 9/11?

      April 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
      • acom

        Welll put, Kathy. I am proud to be in a country that sees evils outside its own doors and doesn't just stand idlely by. SOMEONE has to speak out against the inhumanity going on in these third world countries.

        April 5, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Garvey Brinkley

      Read the chain emails decrying the Taliban before 2001...

      And also third worlders complain when we meddle, but they also complain when we are absent. Look at Latin America.

      April 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  8. Towel Heads

    Women in Towel Head countries have no rights.

    April 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  9. Yakobi

    Who is USA to deliver human rights to Afghan women, hindu immoral society of the west has nothing to offer, but hinduism immorality to rest of the human kind, Keep way of hindu secular ism, filthy self center ism for your self, it of the animals, not of human.

    April 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  10. xyzthegreat

    Progressive things cannot be brought to Islam. Islam stands on revelation, rest of the world stands on reason.

    April 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Garvey Brinkley

      Take their holy book, get a green pen, and declare parts to be "FALSE" because we humans know it, and if a cleric tries to condone, say, prebubescent girls marrying and having relations with older men, declare that girls who get pregnant too soon have health problems such as urine leakage, so we know God didn't design them for that, so we know it to be FALSE – if clerics argue against you, declare them "apostates against humanity" and declare any Muslim who tries to punish a person who leaves Islam an "apostate against humanity"

      April 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  11. Riks

    women's rights cannot co-exist with Shariah (islamic law)... Man are allowed to beat women, at court needs 2 women to be equal with 1 men.. Man can have 4 wife.. Etc...

    April 4, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • Garvey Brinkley

      Take a green pen and cross out every passage in the Quran saying that a woman's testimony is half of a man's, or that being a woman makes you stupid

      And declare any Muslim, ANY MUSLIM who says this is a truth as an "apostate against humanity" because we humans today KNOW that a woman is as clever as a man is, and vice versa
      And if a god was really telling us this, we'd rebel and beat him into a pulp. We humans can beat up a god.

      April 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
      • Yakobi

        Wish of a hindu ignorant , follower of hindu ram, rap st of his sister to follow hinduism, racism, take your hindu filthy hinduism, rap ism and shove it in you hindu rap st kirs na hind, hindu secular from hindered gutter of hindu secular ism, filthy kenjer ism india.

        April 7, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  12. jim hodge

    The Jim Hodge Allied story has a number of considerations that every business owner should consider. Jimhodgeallied.com

    April 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  13. AS

    Without discussing the misogyny of the Quran, this issue will never go away.

    "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient.... As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish...and beat them." Quran 4:34


    April 5, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
    • acom

      Thank you for reminding us that this is a RELIGIOUS problem that can never be fixed by social means.

      April 5, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi

      Ya, hinduism, fabrication of hindu secular s, filthy self centered by faith from hindered gutter of hindu secular ism, filthy kenjer ism calledin dia.

      April 6, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Garvey Brinkley

      So let's wait till the Gulf Arabs lose their wealth. Then we can take over Islam and declare clerics who insist on stupid things just because it's in a Holy Book to be apostates against humanity

      April 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
    • AG

      There are plenty of misogyinistic passages in the bible, yet somehow we have (well, most of us have) learned that that doesn't excuse crimes against women now.

      October 25, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply
  14. MTD

    The problem is Islam. Period.

    April 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Reply
    • Yakobi

      Only by hindu secular s, criminal self centered, kenjer by faith, from hindered gutter of hindu secular ism, immoral kenjjer ism bu called india.

      April 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
    • Garvey Brinkley

      Then we need to seize control of Islam

      April 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  15. Kabulian

    This is my second tour in Afghanistan. Apart from this fact, I also hail from this region (hence I know the language, religion, culture and the social norms prevalent in AFG). Everyday I hear and see people speaking out of their rear-ends about issues they have no idea about. They sound off because of various reasons I don't want to get to. Everybody has their reasons.

    However, one thing I know for sure is that our soldiers (including myself) cannot and should not be the agents of cultural change anywhere least of all in AFG. That type of change can only come at a snale's pace and further it should be championed by indigenious populations only. Any other attempts to do otherwise will be intereprested as interference and/or influencing internal affairs of a soverign nation.

    Having said that, the US has and will always stand up for human rights in AFG and we do even more so for AFG women. There's nothing immoral about that. We are a democracy that cares about other people's fate. To whom much is given, much is expected. We should do whatever we can for AFG women by informing and/or educating the AFG men and religious figures not by punishing and imprisonment. The same thing should go for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Government. That is the only peaceful way out of the current state of affairs. Punishment and imprisonment will only breed more violence. The current perpetrators think and believe that they are justified just by the mere fact that they are doing what they are supposed to do and what they were taught to do. It may sound strange to you and me but not to them.

    Hope this makes sense.

    April 7, 2013 at 3:25 am | Reply
    • Kathy

      You bring a voice of reason and clarity, although I feel a sense of frustration that the answer to women's issues more often than not are to train the men, enlighten the men, work with the men. How unimaginably screwed up the planet is that the vast majority of power lies within the hands of ignorant men. Yes, I'll call them ignorant. Women who clearly CLEARLY have more sense of a grand design among humans whereby empathy and dignity are self-evident as necessary among all humans are subject to ill-begotten training and customs by those wishing to maintain power. The power of beliefs is strong, and yes, men need trained. That said, it's pitiful that so many men behave so much worse than dogs, cows and insects. For everyone's sake, let the women rise up and claim their power. Maybe the younger girls will lead it. I pray they do. If women wait for men to be taught, they may be waiting indefinitely

      April 7, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  16. Canukman

    It is not the fault of the USA or its allies that women suffer in Afghanistan in the first place and it is not their failing that changing that is proving so difficult now. I, for one, am proud of our efforts to effect change, however slowly that may occur. It is much more than what most of the rest of the world is doing.

    April 7, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  17. Saadiq

    The year that the coup happened again Shah is incorrect. Please fix. It is off by several decades. Not sure how that happened.

    April 8, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
  18. realfuture2010

    If you are talking about mens rights then the Afghans are wise in not implementing any cultural changes as the US is leaving.This country has a enough problems without women's lib.

    April 10, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
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