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Apathy Is The Worst Crime

Text:  Lauryn Oates, Women 4 Women in Afghanistan, Montreal Office

Afghanistan is the epitome of the consequences of apathy. Representatives of Afghan civil society began long ago to refer to their country as the most forgotten place on earth. No amount of suffering or devastation was enough to cause the world to turn its eyes on Afghanistan. The few that struggled for the future of this nation grew accustomed to working under the shadow of ignorance. As they witness the sudden shift of their homeland from the shadows to the spotlight, many are reflecting on the sacrifices it took to garner this attention.

Each night Westerners are graced with the exotic images of bearded men and burka-clad women on their television screens. Our countries have troops in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and the radio broadcaster updates us on the way to work on the latest events of this new war known as the War on Terrorism. Yet this attention came too late. The nearly six-year delay in action has resulted in the death by starvation, warfare or lack of access to medical treatment of millions of Afghan civilians. It has caused the world’s most severe refugee crisis, where half of Afghanistan’s 24 million inhabitants have fled the country. It has littered the fields, forests and deserts with deadly landmines. It has concluded in political chaos, a thorough eradication of infrastructure and an innumerable number of undocumented cases of torture. Yet the most enduring crime of all was allowing women to be subjected to a status less than human. Afghanistan, the Middle-East, and indeed all of the world, will feel the reverberations of this crime for generations to come.

Certainly now there is acknowledgement of the treatment of Afghan women under the Taliban’s regime of brutal edicts and unspeakable punishments. Laura Bush eloquently called for American solidarity for these victimized women. The burka has become a recognized symbol of their oppression and Western women are familiar with the story of bizarre rules under which their Afghan counterparts have been forced to live. We shake our heads and sadly sigh, but the tragedy of Afghan women remains a mere side show within the realm of international politics. A minor symptom of a more important aim, an aim that becomes increasingly blurred with little public outcry.

The terror experienced by the women of Afghanistan was so extreme it is a tragedy on a genocidal scale, where a faction in power carried out the systematic murder of an entire segment of society. The term gender apartheid is almost too humble to describe the extinguishing of the lives of millions of Afghan women. Yet this tragedy is only being acknowledged out of convenience. It has transformed into a useful tool of propaganda for America’s War on Terrorism. It helps the bad guys look bad. It justifies the occasional civilian casualty. It reveals the inhuman and ferocious nature of the Taliban, al-Quaeda and Osama Bin-Laden.

Afghanistan for women under the Taliban was not unpredictable, however. An increasing level of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle-Eastern region is yesterday’s news. Saudi Arabia forces Saudi women to adorn themselves in the all-enveloping black abayas and employs the use of public beatings in the streets for failing to meetthe dress code standards. Laura Bush never made a radio appeal for Saudi women though. I suspect it may have something to do with the economic partnership between the two governments. Likewise, the U.S. has been silent on the treatment of women under Shari’a law in Northern Nigeria, which includes publicly whipping women and girls for “the crime” of being raped. But of course, it may be something to fall back on in the event that Nigeria or Saudia Arabia sways from their financial devotion to American trading.

President Bush was fortunate enough to have his wife play the part of representing the deep concern of the White House for the rights of Afghan women. He would have had a difficult time acting, since it is hardly even one of his domestic concerns. One of the Bush administration’s first actions was to get rid of the White House Office on Women. He is, however, willing to make exceptions for women when they present themselves as potent media tools and he could hardly think of a better example than the oppressed women of Afghanistan.

Similarly humanitarian assistance is also an unequaled media tool. The U.S. Army appears to be generously providing food aide to poverty-stricken Afghans.

But Lieutenant General Dan McNeill of the U.S. Army points out what an effective tool this is to drive away support to the opposition warring factions. It enables the Americans to find in-roads into otherwise inaccessible political arenas and powerful military allies. Accordingly, none of this much-needed humanitarian aide was taking place before the War on Terrorism. They must have only recently discovered the existence of this country called Afghanistan.

The international media and particularly the American public need to be reminded just who’s mess their government is now cleaning up: their own. Without the $5 billion plus donation to the Taliban’s military arm (indeed the sole department of that “government”), the Taliban never would have had the military, political nor financial capacity to defeat the Soviets and gain power over the populace. The U.S. government quietly put guns in the arms of illiterate orphaned boys, snuck out and feigned shock and disgust at reports of grave human rights violations under the new Taliban militia. There were no CNN cameras on site and it was easy to pass off their involvement.

The message George Bush is sending out is clear. It was acceptable for 12 million Afghan women and girls to be beaten, tortured and executed, to be gang-raped and to be denied every fundamental human right for nearly six years. This was insufficient to break the chain of political friendship. Just as the treatment of millions of Saudi women and Nigerian women is acceptable until those governments tread too far onto American soil. This war has nothing to do with solidarity, compassion or humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people. When their mission is accomplished, they will walk away with hardly a thank you to the Afghan women for posing as the poster girl for American goodwill.