In late May, as women were marching against misogynistic violence in Isla Vista, Calif., and speaking out on Twitter, the Obama administration was brokering a deal to free five world-class violent misogynists from Guantanamo Bay.
They are now free to return to their country and continue their careers oppressing women.
Meeting the five released Taliban members provides a kind of crash history in modern violence against women in Afghanistan.
The senior-most official Obama released was Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former governor of Herat.
The Institute for the Study of War describes Khirullah, who appears to be one of the Taliban’s founding fathers.
When the Taliban came to power in the 1990s he captured the northern city of Mazar-e Shariff and when forced to retreat by rivals in 1997, destroyed all in his path and conducted ethnic massacres.
He became governor of Herat in 1999. What was life like for women under his rule?
The New York Times visited in November 2001 and talked to one woman who lived there:
“‘I thought of killing myself many times,’ she said of life under the Taliban. As a woman she was not supposed to leave home without a male relative; as a widow she had no choice. Buying groceries could bring a beating from the religious police. …
Nouri, who uses only one name, described going to a courtroom on behalf of a relative who had been wrongly arrested. The Taliban beat her so hard for appearing there that her hands were swollen for days.
‘Why are you doing this?’ she said she shouted. ‘Aren’t you Muslim? Aren’t you afraid of God?’ They told her they would do it as long as she was out of the house.”
While there, The Times actually witnessed one woman who, after the American liberation, was leaving her house for the first time in two years — for the first time since Khirullah was governor.
What can Khirullah expect if he returns to Herat? The outlook for women remains bleak; but life seems safe for violent misogynists. Mother Jones reporter J. Malcolm Garcia witnessed a nurse caring for a victim of disturbing new trend: self-immolation:
“The previous evening, the woman’s father had called her a slut, accusing her of sleeping with a man out of wedlock. He had taken her to a doctor who confirmed his suspicion. Now she would never find a husband. She was worthless to her family. Throughout the night, the woman fumed. In the morning, she stormed upstairs, locked the door behind her, and set herself ablaze. She burned for 20 minutes before her father finally beat down the door. She had not wanted to burn so badly, she told the doctors. ‘I’ll behave better. Let me live. Don’t send the case to the police. It is not my father’s fault.’”
Will he go return to Bakh? If he does, we know what he will find. Spiegel has reported on what life is like for women in Mazar-E-Sharif, the capital in Bakh.
“Over the past year, the number of women arrested and imprisoned for ‘moral crimes’ has skyrocketed. In May, the parliament in Kabul opted not to pass proposed legislation outlawing violence against women; instead, representatives are now considering an amendment that would prohibit relatives from appearing as witnesses in trials, thereby making it significantly harder to prosecute cases of domestic violence.”
He may even have an opportunity to return to power. Reported Spiegel:
“What’s more, the Taliban are regaining some of their military and political power. Human rights experts are concerned that the West, as well as the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, might be willing to sacrifice women’s rights in order to reach a compromise with the Islamists.”
The least senior Taliban member Obama is releasing is Abdul Haq Wasiq, who nonetheless is known for a connection with the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
In a Dec. 8, 2001, Christian Science Monitor story, a reporter talked to Qari Ahmadullah, who was the Taliban’s chief of intelligence and a top negotiator for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Ahmadullah mentioned that Muhammad Omar was alive and well. In fact he had just sent his assistant, Wasiq, to meet with him but Wasiq had been captured.
Omar is a founding father of the Taliban in the 1990s, and was a friend of Osama bin Laden. Omar was initially popular in Afghanistan, bringing a religious sensibility and public safety to a lawless region.
But then Omar declared his government the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, banned women from schooling and from the workforce, then made it illegal for women to leave their homes without being accompanied by a male. Beating women became commonplace and went unpunished.
Wasiq is not Omar, but was a minor player in the Taliban regime.
Obama also released Mohammad Nabi Omari who was caught in the Khost province near the Pakistan border and was described in a Brookings report about Guantanamo Bay detainees in 2008.
Omari was said to be one of a group that served either Taliban or Al Qaeda or both. “Mohammad Nabi Omari said that he was in charge of the border and worked for the Taliban in an office.”
What was life like there for women? A Doctors Without Borders volunteer, Vanessa Naidoo, an anesthetist, helped at a maternity clinic in Khost in 2012. Her experience showed another side of the lack of regard for women … the loss of care and opportunity:
“The maternity hospital is a strictly women-only environment, which means all the medical staff had to be female. However, we really struggled to find qualified female staff locally, as there are far fewer education and training opportunities for women in these parts.”
Women had no place to get proper care in childbirth, they could get limited help from men, and women could get limited training. She relied heavily on midwives who she said learned quickly.
“As a senior commander of the Taliban army, Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001,” reported Reuters in 2011.
“Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, said Fazl was alleged to have been involved in ‘very ugly’ violence against Shi’ites, including members of the Hazara ethnic minority, beginning in the late 1990s, and the deaths of Iranian diplomats and journalists at the Iranian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.
Michael Semple, a former UN official with more than two decades of experience in Afghanistan, said Fazl commanded thousands of Taliban soldiers at a time when its army carried out massacres of Shi’ites. ‘If you’re head of an army that carries out a massacre, even if you’re not actually there, you are implicated by virtue of command and control responsibility,’ he said.”
Fazl will be in Qatar for a year, reportedly. Qatar is a place where change for women is slow in coming, according to Courtney King, who visited in 2003. She visited a college there and reported a conversation with a male student:
“When asked about their interactions with Qatari women, one student said that unless for a business purpose, he would not speak with a girl. I think I took him by surprise when I asked what he would think of a Qatari girl who came up to talk to him. Although afraid of offending me at first, he finally replied, ‘I would think she was a whore.’”
Which brings us back to the United States and the loud protest for women’s rights in the wake of the Isla Vista killing spree.
“If we don’t talk misogyny now, when are we going to talk about it?” asked Nancy Yang, a college student, told The New York Times at a protest near UC Santa Barbara.
She is right. But as Obama tries to wind down the war in Afghanistan by releasing war criminals, it is also a time to talk about what kind of message he is sending about human rights — and specifically women’s rights — abroad.