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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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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