The Real War on Women

Posted: Feb 13, 2013 8:00 AM

This month in Townhall Magazine, we explore the real war on women--one that must come to an end. Marybeth Hicks writes of an often-forgotten element of the U.S. War on Terror: helping women in Afghanistan who are oppressed and denied even the most basic human rights. What will their situation be as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan lessens? Scroll down for an exclusive excerpt from this eye-opening piece.

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Excerpted from Townhall Magazine's March cover story, "The Real War on Women," by Marybeth Hicks:

Throughout the 2012 election cycle, conservatives found themselves defending their commitment to women’s rights, thanks to the liberal claim that Republicans had initiated a “war on women.”

Of course, the irony is that in America, a “war on women” is defined as limiting funding to Planned Parenthood, or the idea that employers should not be obligated to provide free contraception or abortifacient drugs to their employees as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, despite feminist claims to the contrary, women’s rights are not under attack in the U.S. By every measurable standard, American women enjoy more freedom, safety, security, public engagement and access to health care and education than most of the women on planet earth. And many of the gains made for American women in the last half-century have come about because of the actions of conservative political leaders.

Such is not the case for women in Afghanistan.

Almost 12 years ago, when the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan to punish and dismantle al Qaeda and eliminate the powerful Taliban regime that had provided its support, Americans saw, largely for the first time, the extreme oppression under which Afghan women lived.

Most Americans were stunned by images of women in full Afghan chadri—the heavy, black burqa that covers the entire body, leaving only a netting of fabric around the eyes. They were shocked to realize that under the Taliban rule, women were not permitted to leave their homes without a male family member and were barred from speaking to any men to whom they were not related. Americans could not fathom that in the 21st century, a country still existed that did not permit women and girls to be educated or to have full access to the most basic human rights, including health care, employment and civic participation.

Worse, Americans were distressed to learn how the manifestations of extremist Islamic culture threatened the very health and safety of women and girls.

The extent of the atrocities toward women could not be overstated. Supposed religious customs allowed child marriage, genital mutilation of women, forced prostitution, rape without consequences for perpetrators but shame and punishment for victims, honor killings and all manner of violence against women in the name of “honor.” According to the human rights organization Womankind Worldwide, it is estimated that 81 percent of all women in Afghanistan will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives.

That’s a real “war on women.”

With the ousting of the Taliban and the formation of a democratic Islamic Republic, hope sparked for the long-suffering women of Afghanistan. Chief among U.S. demands were an end to aspects of the Taliban’s archaic interpretation of Shariah law that trampled basic human rights, and inclusion of women in public and civic life.

Indeed, early in the war, improving the lives of Afghan women became a primary goal. In 2002, President George W. Bush, along with Afghanistan’s then-newly appointed President Hamid Karzai, founded the U.S.–Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership connecting the governments of the two nations with the private sector, academia and nongovernmental organizations in support of Afghan women and children.

Throughout the Bush years, first lady Laura Bush took an active role in promoting the work of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council. In a November 2001 radio address, Mrs. Bush declared that the war on terrorism was also a fight for the “rights and dignity of women.” Through frequent visits to Afghanistan, she raised awareness of the difficulties endured by Afghan women, and she encouraged progress in education, employment and health care for women and families. (Mrs. Bush still serves as honorary advisor of the Council, which has been housed since 2009 at Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development and is chaired by Georgetown’s President John DeGioia and Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.)

But much remains to be done to assure security, advancement and equality in Afghanistan. In a very real sense, extremists have conducted a generational “war on women,” reducing women to little more than chattel under the guise of religious adherence. The progress made on behalf of these women in the past 12 years stands precariously in the balance as the U.S. and Afghanistan plan for the withdrawal of American troops and a transfer of authority to Afghan security forces.

In the aftermath of Karzai’s Jan. 11, 2013, meeting with President Barack Obama, at which the terms of the post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan were formalized, new questions arise about the future for Afghan women.

Will women in Afghanistan continue to have improved access to education, health care, employment and protection? Will schools expand, will women gain ground in a peace-time economy, will young women be free to drive cars, choose careers and even to choose their husbands?

Or will a negotiated settlement for peace, which includes participation by a “new and improved” version of the Taliban, threaten the progress made up to now? Will the fears of women in war-ravaged Afghanistan—that the advancement of women is only possible with a strong Western peacekeeping force—become reality when extremists once again emerge as legitimate leaders? ...