Terrifying fate of Afghan women
Powerful images can turn history. Not in themselves, but in the reactions they provoke. In 1972, war photographer Nick Ut captured in black and white a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, as she and others fled the napalm strike that destroyed their village. She was naked, severely burnt and screaming in agony. The United States was already losing the Vietnam War, but that single image, published on the front page of The New York Times, arguably did more to turn Americans against the conflict than did the mounting casualties. It remains, for millions of people worldwide, the defining summation of the war.
More recently, in 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight to protest against relentless harassment by local authorities. His very public death was filmed by onlookers and spread like fire across Tunisia and the Middle East. It gave rise to the Arab Spring, which toppled four governments, provoked civil war in Syria and other uprisings throughout the region.
Just over six months ago, the world was jolted by a video from Egypt that provided a glimpse of the terrifying violence behind these Arabian revolutions. The footage showed troops bashing repeatedly a half-naked, unconscious, female protester with their batons. Her identity remains unknown, but her plight reminded the West that the Arab Spring was more complex than a victory of democracy over brutal regimes. It is an ongoing war of values that is far from won, and in which the future and freedoms of women, in particular, are at stake.
And now there is the sickening video that emerged this week from a remote Afghan village. ''Najiba'', the 22-year-old wife of a Taliban member, was shot nine times in front of dozens of ecstatic men. They applauded and cheered ''God is great'' as she was killed.
Her alleged crime? Reports vary, but either she had a relationship with another Taliban man, or that man had sought a relationship with her. The local provincial governor said later that the two Taliban men had accused Najiba of adultery ''in order to save face''. They ''faked a court to decide about the fate of this woman and, in one hour, they executed the woman''.
The footage has outraged Afghan and world leaders. Our Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, called the execution barbaric, and announced extra aid funds to help stop violence against Afghan women.
''This was one of the worst countries in the world to be born female,'' he said, before highlighting the ''strong gains'' made, particularly in education for girls, since invading NATO forces, with Australian support, toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
But Afghanistan is no success story. It remains a terrifying place for many women. Human Rights Watch's latest annual report says almost nine out of 10 Afghan women suffer physical, sexual or psychological violence, or forced marriage, at least once in their lives. And for all of the defensive rhetoric from Western leaders about the righteousness of the NATO intervention, it failed to achieve its aim. A costly, unnecessary war in Iraq derailed it, if indeed it ever had a chance of ''success''.
The once-defeated Taliban is again growing in strength across Afghanistan, as the US, Britain, Australia and their partners prepare to leave. The unpopular government of Hamid Karzai, mired in corruption scandals, now launches regular populist attacks against its Western donors to try to gain local support. Afghanistan, the graveyard of superpowers, remains untamed.
The horror of Najiba's execution will linger, but it will not turn history. The West is looking away. Senator Carr and his counterparts will continue, rightly, to denounce the Taliban, but will do so from afar. And if, as is feared likely, the Taliban wrests back control of much of the country, the West will not repeat a military intervention unless it is provoked by direct strategic threats.
Australia did not enter the Afghan fray for humanitarian reasons; nor are human rights abuses ever likely to drive us to invade any country. We entered Afghanistan for reasons of national interest: to damage the then highly dangerous terrorist group, al-Qaeda, and to pay the required debt to our chief ally, the US. Realpolitik, not ethics, dictates how we as a nation act, as it always has.
Of course, the Taliban does not have a monopoly on vile forms of misogyny. It is formalised, for example, in the Wahhabist laws of places such as Saudi Arabia, a ''friend'' to the West. We must fight it directly where we can, and oppose it loudly where we can't.
But, ultimately, Najiba's battle is one for Afghan men and women to fight. We pray they are victorious, but our hopes, in the meantime at least, are grim.