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The great betrayal

We were led to believe the war would liberate women, but new laws passed under President Karzai are

Malalai Joya, a democratically elected MP and women's rights advocate who was suspended from the Afghan parliament in 2007, is a walking embarrassment to the war effort in Afghanistan. Speaking at Conway Hall in London last month, the 31-year-old cut an impressive figure, determined to expose the real motives and ramifications of "the good war" in her country. She is a model of the women whom the removal of the Taliban was supposed to empower. But, after daring to speak out against the male-dominated Afghan parliament, she lives under constant threat of death.

In London, Joya spoke of a dire reality, "veiled by a western media consensus" in support of a "noble" mission undertaken to promote democracy and women's rights. The stereotypical image has long been of Afghan women stifled in ghastly grey garb, secluded in their homes and deprived of even the most basic education. Changing this is supposed to be part of the mission: ask a British Ministry of Defence official to justify the continued presence of troops in Helmand and he or she will surely, at some stage, fire off figures detailing how many more grateful little girls are now safely ensconced in classrooms.

No one could deny the value of that, but we should be wary of such sentiment. As the New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman commented on the opening of a girls' school in a remote village last month: "After witnessing the delight in the faces of those little Afghan girls crowded three to a desk waiting to learn, I found it very hard to write, 'Let's just get out of here.'"

If education tugs at heartstrings, nothing, it seems, mobilises liberals, feminists and even conservatives like a woman in a burqa. In 2001 Laura Bush became the first first lady to deliver an entire weekly presidential radio address, dedicating it to the plight of women in Afghanistan and their inability to wear nail varnish or high heels. Cherie Blair also waded in: "Nothing more symbolises the oppression of women than the burqa," she said. Victimised women became to Afghanistan what weapons of mass destruction were to Iraq, and the ethical cloak for a cynical campaign was fashioned.

Yet these women's lives, unlike WMDs, are very real, and they are being subjugated by new laws that reverse many of the freedoms won for them since the Taliban were driven from power. In March, in what was believed to be an effort to accommodate the country's Shia minority and appease powerful clerics in the run-up to the elections on 20 August, President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that in effect legalises marital rape.

It states that a Shia woman cannot leave home alone unless "for a legitimate purpose", and can refuse to have sex with her husband only when ill or menstruating. Senator Humaira Namati, a member of the upper house of parliament, declared that, for women, the Karzai government was worse than Mullah Omar's Taliban junta.

The international outcry was answered with obfuscating language by Karzai, who claimed that the laws were "misunderstood" and would be reviewed by the justice ministry to determine whether they were in keeping with religious principles - a step he should perhaps have taken before he signed the law.

Karzai's rebuttal and review of the law were both feeble, but they did the trick. Moral outrage has faltered amid cautious statements about respecting Afghan culture - this despite the law still stating that a man is under no obligation to support his wife financially unless he has "access to her". Rights of guardianship have been granted entirely to fathers and grandfathers. And the payment of blood money has been confirmed as sufficient penalty for the rape of underage girls - a lack of severity that in effect, in the eyes of human rights groups, condones child abuse. No wonder Soraya Sobhrang, head of women's affairs at the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, says that western silence has been "disastrous for women's rights in Afghanistan".

What all this brings home is the difficulty of installing a government of supposedly liberal stripe and expecting it to win closely fought elections when conservative warlords abound and powerful clerics command ballots. Women's rights are bartered in exchange for votes as Karzai struggles to strike a balance between pleasing international patrons and ingratiating himself with allegedly rehabilitated mullahs.

The question is not whether the Afghan war is "winnable", but what constitutes a victory in the first place. David Miliband's latest proposal, outlined by the Foreign Secretary in a speech last month to members of Nato in Brussels, did not comment explicitly on women's rights. He did, however, mention (under the rubric of "reassuring the population and maintaining consent") that enrolling girls in school was a "down payment" to Afghans, a sign of Nato forces' goodwill. Under a western-backed regime which Joya describes as "little more than a photocopy of the Taliban", that payment is not doing much to reassure the women of Afghanistan.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator on women in the Muslim world

Isabel Hilton reviews Malalai Joya's memoir "Raising My Voice".

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War