It feels like a slap in the face of humanity: a new Afghan draft law effectively legalising domestic violence against women and children. If it were a movie this bill, which will automatically become law later this month unless President Hamid Karzai refuses to ratify it, would be called "The Patriarch Returns". So are we to take it that this is the price of peace? That Afghan parliamentarians are with this and other measures paving the way for the Taliban to be brought back into the fold, repealing progressive laws to accommodate their views on women? After 10 years of war, was it naive of the west to assume that Afghan women would be "liberated" if the Taliban were gone and the burqas thrown off?
The truth is that a backlash against women rights campaigns started back in 2001 after the overthrow of the Taliban . Its first public face was the young TV presenter Shaima Rezayee. Accused of flirting on TV, the music show presenter was found shot dead in 2005. The murder was never fully investigated but rumours abounded that hers was a Taliban murder or maybe an "honour killing". That these two possibilities could be expressed in one breath showed that the misogyny of the average Afghan family was perhaps not vastly different from that of a Taliban state.
Shaima's killing made it clear: if there was one part of Afghan society that was ready to embrace women's rights, there was another part that was ready to suppress them. Women soon discovered that the enemies of women's rights were as omnipresent as dust, god and corruption. Neologisms such as "the Talib in suits" or "the tie-wearing Talib" were coined to sum up encounters with misogynist men dressed up as progressives. Some of them held PhDs. Others were Fulbright scholars. But a university degree was no guarantee for a progressive mind.
Meanwhile, the silence of the women whose very job it was to stand up for Afghan women against this steady backlash was conspicuous, but not surprising. Many of them were mere extensions of the same mafia clans that had already infiltrated politics and economy. Few of them believed in feminism. Some publicly distanced themselves from women's rights, but never in English. Others openly supported the Taliban, but never in English. To the local population, they were known either as crooks, or wives and sisters of crooks. The international community, however, mostly remained blissfully unaware of all this.
Be that as it may, the idea that we could empower Afghan women by making them aware of their individual rights was preposterous and bound to fail from the inception. Anyone who has spent even two days in Afghanistan knows that individualism as a concept does not exist there. The idea that we could treat women as a separate entity, legal or political, and disconnected from their family was flawed from the start. Those young women who embraced and internalised these values ended up fighting not only alone but also perpetually, and not only against the wider society but also often their own family.
Such struggles were bound to happen because the Afghan wars of recent decades have all been about sustaining the power of traditional society, a key part of which is patriarchy. The bearded men who sit in parliament are the outward expression of the revival of a jealously guarded patriarchy where a man's family is not only his personal fiefdom, but also a sovereign, state-free space.
That is why the Afghan-US bilateral security agreement, which would facilitate leaving 8,000 troops in Afghanistan at the end of this year when the main US military withdrawal takes place, hinged on this very question of whether American soldiers would be allowed to enter Afghan homes. To an assembly of patriarchs, Karzai explained: "The Americans say, what if a US soldier is kidnapped and held captive in an Afghan home? If we don't have the right to enter Afghan homes, how are we supposed to free our soldier? That's why the Americans want the right to enter Afghan homes."
When the patriarchs approved of the accord in November, I was not surprised. After all, they knew that nothing could take place inside the private fiefdom of family territory, and that no US soldier could be kept there without the patriarch's knowledge let alone consent. They voted in favour of the US staying because they knew that the scenario was fictional. That's because the Taliban, too, failed and still fail to project their power on to the family sphere. The only incidents of public uprising against the Taliban have been about the Taliban interfering in matters that are regarded as within the jurisdiction of the patriarchs of the extended family.
Afghanistan's patriarchal clans have survived leftist coups and rightwing wars, becoming the only source of stability in a society constantly in turmoil. To dismantle their power would amount to freedom not only for women but also men. But to reach that end, we need more than the rhetoric of individual rights imported from the other side of the planet.