- Published on Tuesday, 19 June 2012 07:42
While fears of what lies ahead for Afghan women after the 2012 drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan are certainly valid, it is imperative that the international community consider how far Afghan women have come over the past decade.
To be sure, violence against women is pervasive and on the rise in the embattled country. Reports of the Taliban poisoning hundreds of schoolgirls through contaminating drinking water and spraying toxic material in classrooms highlight girls’ education as the flashpoint issue for ultra conservative forces in the country intent on upending a decade of progress.
These attacks hark back to the Taliban policy of banning girls from school education, which ended 11 years ago. A recent ActionAid report revealed that 72% of Afghan women believe that their lives improved over the past decade, 86% are fearful of a reoccurrence of Taliban style rule, and one in five are concerned about their daughters’ education.
Kidnappings, child marriage, rape, acid attacks, and the recent burning of two schools for girls, have contributed to more and more Afghan women and girls abandoning education and the workforce to stay at home. This deteriorating security situation in the country has also led to a brain drain as educated and capable young women seek scholarships to study and work abroad, effectively giving up on futures in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch published that the majority of girls in juvenile detention facilities and half of the imprisoned women in Afghanistan are being held on charges of “moral crimes”, offenses that include fleeing a forced marriage or domestic violence. With courts overlooking the legal rights of women and treating child rape victims as adulterers and religious leaders advocating segregation of the sexes in Afghan schools, travel bans on women, and authorizing husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, it’s hard to believe that the Taliban were driven from power over a decade ago.
As widespread and entrenched discrimination against women continues to stifle advances toward gender equality across all sectors in the country, what is the Afghan leadership doing? Outside of its members trying to consolidate their grip on power and privilege as the Karzai presidency draws to a close, the government is in negotiations with the gender apartheid-perpetrating Taliban in pursuit of a political solution to end one of the most divisive wars in U.S. history. In case anyone needs a recap on what Taliban rule looked like for women, the National Organization for Women sums it up well: “When the Taliban took over Kabul in September 1996, it issued an edict that stripped women and girls of their rights. Women were prohibited from being seen or heard. The windows of their homes were painted…they were beaten, even killed, for minor violations.”
It’s no wonder that the 2011 Survey of the Afghan People taken by the Asia Foundation found that women respondents were less receptive than their male counterparts to the government reconciliation process with armed opposition groups, including the Taliban. Last month Karzai and his delegation dealt another blow to Afghan women, by not including them in the NATO summit held in Chicago to map out the transition to an Afghan-led security force. Women protested the absence and, finally, at least two female delegates were added.
While NATO leaders—a male majority—convened, Amnesty International held a shadow summit attended by U.S. and Afghan women and outlined an eight-point plan focused on safeguarding basic rights and the educational, political, and economic advancements women have made over the last 10-plus years, and promoting their involvement in the peacemaking process with the Taliban and other opposition groups. Afghan women have made vital gains since the fall of the Taliban; this truth remains the single greatest outcome of former U.S. President, George W. Bush’s, ill-advised War in Afghanistan. Over one third of the school population are girls, in 2010, more than 400 women stood for parliamentary elections, and three to five new women-owned ventures join the national database registry each month, according to a Peace Dividend Trust study. Female parliamentarian, Fawzia Koofi, is audaciously mobilizing campaign efforts for a 2014 presidential bid. Although Afghanistan is ranked 69th out of 86 countries in OECD’s 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)—which measures data on discriminatory social institutions in over 100 countries—that’s a significant jump from its 2009 SIGI ranking at 101—one country short of the lowest standing.
In the face of soaring levels of violence, threats, and intimidation, Afghan women are courageous and making strides toward a more equitable future. Fariba Nawa, Afghan-American journalist and author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan, attributes this to “an underground sexual revolution [that has taken place in the last ten years]. You see more and more reports of violence against women in the media. That is a sign of mobilization of these women. Women are speaking up.” Nawa points out that rather than viewing the journey to gender equality through the U.S. and Afghan governments’ prism of token gestures that treat Afghan women like bargaining chips in the political process, it is the grassroots women’s movements that are bringing about real change on the ground. She referred to a recent example of a young woman who came out and told her family she was raped—the act of voicing rape is a new development in a land where honor killings are not uncommon for speaking out. That the victim’s family helped her publicly, as opposed to behind closed doors, is also a sign of progress.
This story marks a concrete shift in the socio-cultural status quo taking hold. It poses a direct challenge to those who subjugate women by denying them a voice, and thereby, humanity, even on the subject of their own rape. “Women in rural and urban areas, they’re voicing it. It has to do with booming media. Afghanistan is a part of a global village. There’s a lot more exposure,” Nawa adds.
Isobel Coleman, Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “The spread of courageous media has been…[a] bright spot of the past decade, particularly with respect to shining a light on women’s issues…the hugely popular soap opera, ‘The Secrets of This House’ deals with all sorts of controversial subjects such as corruption…love and the role of women in society.” The proliferation of independent media in the country—half of which are dominated by women—has also been crucial to changing attitudes toward women. USAID’s Afghanistan Media and Development Project, a proponent of independent radio and TV stations, invests in women through media training and facilitating access to multimedia resources, production platforms, technical innovation, and practice advancement. UNESCO helped Afghan women in the media sector establish Voice of Afghan Women in the Global Media, a professional association that offers professional training, and publishes a widely distributed monthly newsletter for rural women. Civil society initiatives like these along with robust independent media play an important part in cultivating a pluralistic and inclusive Afghanistan.
As commentators and analysts continue to ponder the fate of Afghan women and girls in the run-up to the 2014 foreign troop reduction, we must resist the urge to simplistically equate the progress of Afghan women to the presence of Western troops. Additionally, attempts to surmise the kind of future that is possible for these women through the Afghan and American governments’ respective records on gender development in the country since 2001, does a disservice to the multilayered reality of gender politics on the ground, and ultimately disempowers the women who have fought extraordinarily hard for every inch of freedom they possess. It behooves the international community to critically gauge nuances such as shifting cultural patterns and women mobilizing at the grassroots level in pursuit of justice and equality. Let us make a commitment to remain hopeful, but vigilant, as we track the dynamic story of Afghan women over the next two years and beyond.By Areej Noor, Women’s Editor