U.S. Policy Has Betrayed Afghan Women for 20 Years

By Glenn Sacks

Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, after years of unconscionably cruel treatment of women, persecution of Hindu "infidels" and Christian foreign aid workers, destruction of ancient Buddhist temples, and barbaric measures towards accused criminals, is finally in the world’s spotlight. Afghanistan was one of the key battlegrounds of the Cold War but it’s clear that the U.S. was backing the wrong side all along.

The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to save its allied government, led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), from falling to the Mujahedin (Afghan rebels). In response, President Carter instituted draft registration, sharply increased military spending, and decreed a US boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The Mujahedin, Muslim fundamentalist extremists who were later dubbed "freedom fighters" by President Reagan, were showered with billions in aid.

Before the PDPA took power, in much of the country women were forced to wear the stifling head-to-toe veil, and were not able to go to school, own property, or divorce. They were often considered non-persons in the eyes of the law, and the female literacy rate was just 1%. Coercive polygamy was common.

The PDPA regime promoted education for girls, gave women the right to divorce and own property, and reduced the bride price to a nominal fee. It also distributed land to the impoverished peasants and restrained the power of the mullahs, the Muslim clergy.

In response, the mullahs told the peasants that Allah would hang them upside down in the sky for all eternity if they accepted the government land grants and allowed women to be unveiled and to go to school. Soon rural Afghanistan had exploded in a rebellion which threatened to topple the PDPA—perhaps the only war in modern history begun largely over women’s rights.

While unpopular in the countryside, the Soviet-backed regime had many supporters in Afghanistan’s cities. Urban Afghans had seen that in the adjoining Muslim regions of the USSR—regions as backward as Afghanistan until the Soviet era—tremendous progress had been made in eliminating illiteracy, reducing infant mortality, and improving living standards. Women, previously among the most down-trodden creatures on earth, had come to make up half or more of the doctors, engineers, and teachers in Soviet Central Asia. Many urban Afghans saw the USSR, for all its flaws, as a model for progress for their country.

According to Professor Val Moghaddam, director of Women’s Studies at Illinois State University, "human rights reports have had to concede that women had higher status and more opportunities under the reformist, left-wing government. For example, one says ’the Communist regime of the 1980s, a growing number of women, particularly in urban areas, worked outside the home in nontraditional roles. This trend was reversed when the PDPA was ousted in 1992, and an Islamic government was installed.’ Indeed, in 1985, women accounted for 65% of the 7,000 students at Kabul University, and the government sponsored literacy classes for the 90% of Afghan women who were illiterate." According to the Los Angeles Times, "women in Afghan cities probably enjoyed their greatest freedom during the Soviet-backed regime that ruled in Kabul from 1979 to 1992."

I met several pro-PDPA Afghan women when I was in Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s. These women, who were in Eastern Europe studying to be engineers and doctors, spoke movingly to me about the many positive changes the PDPA had made for Afghan women. All of them wanted to learn as much as they could and then go back to their horribly backward country and try to help lift it up. It is painful to think of those young women now and realize that the ones who aren’t already dead are probably shivering in fear under a veil somewhere in Kabul, a Taliban soldier patrolling the street nearby, ready to suppress any attempt by them to live a normal life.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out in early 1989, it was widely predicted in the Western press that the Afghan regime would collapse within months. It didn’t happen. At key battles like the bloody siege of Jalalabad, Afghan Army men as well as women in volunteer militias fought side by side and defeated the Mujahedin. The PDPA government held out until 1992, when rebel groups finally seized the capital, Kabul. Many of these rebel soldiers, along with Afghan refugees from Pakistan, later came to form the Taliban, who took over most of the country in 1996. What has followed has been a nightmare worse than anything the PDPA ever could have brought to Afghanistan.

One picture taken shortly after the Taliban takeover says it all: a trembling woman covered in a head to toe veil, her face completely obscured, sobs as she speaks with a Western reporter. Who is she? An impoverished peasant? A homeless woman? No, she’s the recently removed chief surgeon at the country’s largest hospital!

Many in the West now hope that Afghanistan’s fractious "Northern Alliance" opposition, perhaps with U.S. assistance, can unseat the Taliban. However, they too are Muslim fundamentalists and, while probably less noxious than the Taliban, they leave little hope for Afghans, particularly Afghan women.

The Soviet/Afghan war was a brutal conflict with atrocities on all sides, but the Soviet-backed regime, for all its faults, was the best opportunity Afghans ever had to form a modern, comparatively humane society. Arms in hand, courageous Afghan men and women who believed in progress and female equality fought to stop the darkness of Islamic fundamentalism from falling over their country. They needed the West’s help, but we were helping the other side.

After the Soviet withdrawal, interest in Afghanistan waned, and the country was largely forgotten in the US during the 1990s. This column, ironically, was written just a couple weeks before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack brought Afghanistan back to the forefront.

  • Daily Bruin
  • Women's Freedom Network Newsletter