President Obama is a ladies’ man–in a public-policy sense. Case in point: the President has surrounded himself with influential women by appointing them to his cabinet, his White House staff, and throughout various government departments. He has also created a State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues run by an ambassador-rank appointee, Melanne Verveer. Many saw this as tangible evidence of President Obama’s commitment to making women’s rights a priority in his foreign policy. In fact, Secretary Clinton remarked that “it’s no accident that that [Verveer’s appointment] would happen in the Obama Administration.”
But it was Secretary Rice who created, in 2007, the only award given by the State Department to women leaders around the globe–the International Women of Courage Award. This year when Secretary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama were honoring women around the world, they chose two women from Afghanistan–Shukria Asil and Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi. By honoring them and their work in promoting educational and professional opportunities for women in their home country, Secretary Clinton said that “the United States and the Obama Administration” were sending a “very clear message” that “we are standing” with them. But has this rhetoric rung true in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan?
As Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl have pointed out in their article, Betrayed, the Bush Administration aggressively pursued opportunities for women’s rights in Afghanistan by helping them secure positions in the Afghan national legislature, helping them take part in the drafting process of their own constitution, and building schools for young women to attend. With the Obama Administration’s strong stance on women’s rights, surely these policies have continued in Afghanistan, right?
Unfortunately, they have not. Hudson and Leidly remind us that the Obama Administration’s rhetoric on women in Afghanistan has dropped off dramatically in the past 10 months. While President Bush’s aim for Afghanistan was to facilitate the growth of a “flourishing democracy,” President Obama has refrained from similar discourse. For instance, Obama was virtually silent with when President Karzai signed a law prohibiting women from leaving their homes unless for “legitimate purposes” and from refusing the “sexual desires of their husbands” unless they were “ill.” This kind of calculated indifference towards oppression–even if it is done to avoid damaging an already frayed U.S.-Afghanistan alliance–is immoral, no matter which way you cut it. As a result, it has created the image of a weak American president in comparison to his predecessor, who was unwavering in his support for human rights and who advocated a foreign policy based on the ideals of human liberty and universal prosperity.
As I read Hudson and Leidl’s article about the abhorrent conditions of life for Afghan women–being sprayed with acid as they attempt to go to school and beaten on a regular basis–I cannot help but be disappointed that President Obama isn’t doing more to condemn these actions publicly. If the President wants women to take his eagerness for women’s rights seriously, he is going to have to prove that eagerness exists by taking action.