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25. February 2008

Afghanische Frauen am Markt © FoG

Politics in Afghanistan: Out of Control

A comentary by Edit Schlaffer (Der Standard, 23.2.2008)

Afghan women have always lived under the threat of violence, regardless of which regime was in control of the country. But under the Taliban, they became the targets of a particular kind of aggression and a war was declared upon them. The expulsion of women from public spaces was a cornerstone of the regime’s strategy, and one of their first decrees foreshadowed what was awaiting women in the country: In the spring of 2001, it was declared that women in public places had to make sure their silhouette “did not bear resemblance to a human form” and visits to public parks were forbidden. It was clear that the superior males wanted to keep them under control. But then came the liberation, the Taliban regime crumbled and the nation was bombed – under the pretence of the urgent need to implement democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Today, the Taliban is once again on the march. But in actuality they had never left. We have grown accustomed to the reappearance of reports each spring covering the offensives conducted by religious warriors who waited out the long winter in the mountains and have returned to attack the burgeoning civil society.

Life is becoming increasingly dangerous for the urban elite as well. Denunciations and purges are part of daily life. The most recent and dramatic example is that of 23-year-old Pervez Kambaksh, who is now in the crosshairs of the local fundamentalists. He is being charged with blasphemy because of the distribution of heretical material. He downloaded text from an Iranian website which, in an ironic manner, took the reader through a small thought experiment: what would happen if – under religious terms – the wives of polygamous men were also allowed to have multiple husbands. The young journalist overlooked the fact that the entire raison d'état is based upon blind obedience, and that testing boundaries using humour and wit can have consequences in a totalitarian regime. And the consequence for Mr. Kambaksh’s has been severe: he was promptly sentenced to death. But his family dared to bring the case to the public. His brother, Yaqub Ibrahimi – a fellow journalist who has been a thorn in the side of authorities for some time now due to his harsh criticisms of public figures and the Parliament – had to go underground after Pervez’s arrest. But the international community reacted immediately and resolutely; the case of Pervez was taken up by the British newspaper the Independent which started a campaign to avert the execution and succeeded in collecting 80,000 signatures within 14 days. During a brief visit to President Karzai in Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British counterpart David Milliband expressed their concerns for the safety of Pervez, and Karzai assured them that “justice would be exercised.”

However, it is feared that Pervez will languish for several months in a prison populated by murderers and religious fanatics, and will be abused by the guards. Condoleeza Rice emphasized the “need to respect international norms,” but one must remember that Afghanistan is a young democracy. And Hamid Karzai? As president, he has the power to overrule the court in Mazar-e-Sharif and repeal the verdict. But the tribal chiefs and religious leaders have conducted demonstrations to make it very clear that the death sentence is irrevocable.

Caught between the Mullahs and debt owed to the Western Allies, Karzai struggles for his political survival. While Condi and Hamid remain ensnared in an absurd balancing act, they also remain under pressure to market a democracy which is not one at all. And Pervez is an inconvenient disturbance who has gained wide publicity in the West, and will now be used as a benchmark with which to test the actual degree of freedom understanding of rights which exists in Afghanistan.


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