Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan. King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females. “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said. His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital. Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.
By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced. Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled. A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.
All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet backed rule. Their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths is familiar to most of us by now.
Post Taliban, things seemed to improve. A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls.
That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.
Afghanistan’s recent history is rife with extremes and often hard-to-explain anomalies. For example, in 1977 the Revolutionary Association for Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) was established and a year later, under Communist rule, education for girls became compulsory. In 1984 the country saw its first woman paratrooper who went on to become a general in the Afghan army in 2002. Post-Taliban, two Afghan women competed in the 2004 summer Olympics, a woman was elected provincial governor, and in 2005 a woman ran against Hamid Karzi for president. A female boxing federation and a women’s body building club were established in 2007 and by 2011 women were competing in international boxing matches.
Yet over 400 honor killings were reported between 2011 and 2013 and in 2013 violence against women increased by nearly 25 percent over the previous year. In November of 2013 two women, possibly mother and daughter, were found hanged to death, naked, from a tree. No one even knows who they were or what they were accused of.
Facts like these about Afghan women are chilling. Only 14 percent of them are literate. Their maternal mortality rate is estimated to be the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriages where they often suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is 44 years.
“The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes. “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”
That same year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of women in their country through legislation and attempts at changing the prevailing male mindset. Their successes remain elusive. For despite the 2004 Constitution, a progressive document on paper, old laws and tribal customs continue in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law.
Jordanian scholar and feminist activist Rula Quawas, a professor at the University of Jordan currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in the U.S., reflects on the problems facing Arab women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “Change is happening on paper,” she says, “but we still need to implement and enforce new laws. And we have not yet changed people’s mindset. Consequently, Arab women live in snares of silence and fear.”
Addressing the problem at a deeper level, Quawas notes that “women fighting oppression are accused of being anti-Islamic. And the Holy Koran is misogynistic. It is the big elephant in the room. We must find a new interpretation. We must decode the Koran and see it through the lens of gender, with new meanings, new definitions. Until then, our rope may be longer, but we are still tethered.”
Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country either through public or private sector initiatives, the situation remains bleak in many quarters.
According to one member of RAWA the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females have experienced some form of violence, including rape, and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel there is no other choice.
The benefits of having US and NATO troops present in Afghanistan for nearly a decade remain debatable. One young Afghan woman who is studying at a college in Massachusetts remembers feeling threatened as a child by the presence of foreign soldiers. “I did not feel free in my country,” she recalls. "I was fearful of these men with their guns who didn’t speak our language or understand our culture. I knew they killed innocent people because they thought they could be terrorists.” It wasn’t until she came to the US that she formed a positive opinion of Americans, she says now.
Malalai Joya, a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 and later removed from her post for being outspoken, told The Nation magazine in a November interview that the occupation forces produce even more bloodshed. “The US and NATO presence is making the struggle for justice and peace much harder because they empower these reactionary terrorists, who are great obstacles for true democratic-minded elements in my country.”
Stephen Landrigan, an American playwright who worked in Afghanistan for several years has a more positive view. He says the presence of US and NATO troops gave women a chance to work in organizations where they could learn new skills and demonstrate their leadership abilities. “They had positions that put them in charge of men and showed that women could be managers.” Asked what would happen when troops withdraw, he said it was difficult to say.
As security was being handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed even larger in the face of escalating violence generally, and specific attacks on high profile women. At the same time, legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives were also being targeted.
A February report in The Guardian revealed that “a new Afghan law will allow men to attack their wives, children and sisters without fear of judicial punishment, undoing years of slow progress in tackling violence in a country blighted by so-called ‘honor’ killings, forced marriage and vicious domestic abuse.” Some in parliament have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape. The quota for women in government has been lowered and some want to end it altogether.
The war in Afghanistan between Afghan government and US/NATO forces and insurgent groups resulted in a 14 percent increase in casualties in 2013, according to a recent UN report. Georgette Gagnon, the UN official in charge of human rights at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), explained, “It is particularly alarming that the number of Afghan women and children killed and injured in the conflict increased again in 2013. It is the awful reality that most women and children were killed and injured in their daily lives—at home, on their way to school, working in the fields or traveling to a social event.”
Three quarters of the civilian deaths were due to the Taliban and its associates, according to the UN report. Notably, Afghan government forces were responsible for more than 2.5 times as many civilian casualties as the US/NATO forces.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.
According to Malalai Joya, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, misogynists, even Taliban. Most of the 28 percent of women in parliament are pro-warlord, pro-occupation. Their role is symbolic. Self-immolation is skyrocketing. We’ve seen acid attacks, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions of women. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and the occupation forces.”
Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced last September to support Afghan women’s political participation. The collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation is aimed at supporting voter turnout among women during the next elections.
But as one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Big change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.”
Rula Quawas agrees. “The Arab Spring has been regressive when it comes to women’s rights. We cannot yet determine its full impact,” she says, noting that virtually no women sit on committees designing their country’s future. “Women are still trying to figure out where they stand. They are still fighting the good fight.”
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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayneclift.com)