By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—In a world besieged by violence and bloodshed, the death of a single individual rarely stands out in the news. There are too many names to record, too little psychic energy left to exert on the question of just who is being killed in those faraway lands where the United States says it is determined to impose order on chaos.
Yet Safia Ama Jan was killed late last month—gunned down by assassins as she left her home for work—and the world has a duty to take notice.
Ama Jan was a 65-year-old grandmother, and a quiet powerhouse of a woman in Afghanistan’s poverty-stricken south. During the Taliban’s oppressive rule, she ran an underground school for girls. After the U.S. invasion and the reconstitution of an Afghan government based on democratic principles, Ama Jan became a provincial director for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar. That is, apparently, what made her such an inviting target—despite having covered herself beneath a burqa when she ventured outside her home. The Taliban took responsibility for the murder.
The fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion conducted to avenge the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to overthrow the Taliban has just passed, overshadowed by the latest congressional scandal. The White House staged no celebratory show to declare this mission accomplished. Perhaps that’s because it isn’t.
The Taliban has reestablished itself through much of southern Afghanistan, filling a void that the Afghan government and international observers long complained had been left as the U.S. military and its allies refused to extend their control there. For years, there has been little security outside the capital of Kabul. Regional warlords and militias operate with impunity, and the illicit poppy crop for opium grows.
Amid even these grim assessments, few recalled the lavish attention the American government once paid to the dire circumstances of Afghanistan’s women. Liberating them from the Taliban’s violent yoke, we were told, was an essential part of the American mission. The political theater promoting the idea was rich. Because of the American military successes, first lady Laura Bush said in a radio address of Nov. 17, 2001, “women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.’’ Soon afterward, the White House showcased women’s rights activist Sima Samar, seating her in the House gallery for the president’s 2002 State of the Union speech.
That was then. This is now: “The situation of women remains dramatic and severe violence against them all-pervasive,’’ Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special envoy for violence against women, reported in February. “Reports of kidnappings and rape of women by militia and warlords continue to be widespread to the present day, including cases of executions by local councils. Thus, the rule of power rather than the rule of law continues to be the norm in Afghanistan.’‘
Despite the development of what is supposed to be a contemporary justice system, ancient custom—backed by threats of violence—determines the course of women’s lives. Girls are sold into marriage as young as 6 or 7. Local councils can order that women and girls be ceded by one family to another to settle a dispute. Widows are perceived as the property of their in-laws. Often, they’re forced to marry a brother-in-law even if he already has a wife.
Violence inside the home is epidemic, the U.N. report says. It is believed to be at the root of increasing attempts by women and girls to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. And what of the schools we Americans brag to have reopened? Despite progress since 2002, primary school enrollment is among the lowest in the world, the U.N. says, and only half as many girls as boys are in school.
These were the concerns of Ama Jan, the causes for which she gave her life. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says the slaying calls into question the credibility of claims by both the Afghan government and the international community that they are protecting women.
No external power—not the United States nor any other—can quickly undo what centuries of oppression and decades of violent conflict have done to Afghanistan’s women. Yet this is what we promised, out of good will or the desire for a good public-relations gambit, take your pick. Now that we seem to have walked away from the commitment, our credibility has been buried alongside Ama Jan.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.