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 rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths.
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.
The facts about Afghan women are chilling. Only 14 percent of them are literate. Their maternal mortality rate is 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 marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women 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 year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset. For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak.
Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless.
In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women. Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted. The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed. Some politicians 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; some want it ended altogether.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.
Malalai Joya, a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”
Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.
As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”
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A fuller version of this commentary appears in www.towardfreedom.com