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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Rights of Women in Afghanistan

The plight of Afghan women is still very much in jeopardy. Five years ago, after the government resisted the powerful Taliban, came peace and it seemed that traditional taboos were easing as millions of Afghan women eagerly registered and then voted for a presidential candidate in large numbers. Women in the last election But, the Washington Post reports, on August 20, 2009, as Afghans went to the presidential polls, the season of emancipation seemed long gone. This time, a combination of fear, tradition, apathy and poor planning contributed to deny many Afghan women of their rights. Unfortunately, women are always at risk in present-day Afghanistan. In fear for their lives, many families kept their educated women home home, even if the men ventured out to vote. Some segregated female polling rooms in cities were nearly empty and women who had worked at polls in the previous election decided not to risk going out. (Pamela Constable, Washington Post, August 31 2009) Considering that a few years ago Afghan women were never allowed to venture out alone, advancements have been instituted. Even though conditions have improved after the end of Taliban rule, the fear of their regime is still very much alive. Masuda Jalal, former acting Minister of Women's Affairs states, "At the first sign of insecurity, the head of the family protects his women and children, and the first measure they take is to keep them inside the house." (Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times) Rubin continues in her report, "Many Afghan women have reached this conclusion: that if they are to persuade men to stand behind them, they will need mullahs as allies and Islam as a shield." The women fear they cannot successfully achieve new freedoms without this help. The Taliban and gender apartheid Upon seizing power, the Taliban regime instituted a system of gender apartheid effectively thrusting the women of Afghanistan into a state of virtual house arrest. Under Taliban rule women were stripped of all human rights - their work, visibility, opportunity for education, voice, healthcare, and mobility. When they took control in 1996, the Taliban initially imposed strict edicts that:
  • Banished women from the work force
  • Closed schools to girls and women and expelled women from universities
  • Prohibited women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative
  • Ordered the publicly visible windows of women's houses painted black and forced women to wear the burqa (or chadari) - which completely shrouds the body, leaving only a small mesh-covered opening through which to see
  • Prohibited women and girls from being examined by male physicians while at the same time prohibited female doctors and nurses from working
Hideous tortures to Afghan women were routinely doled out by the Taliban. Women were brutally beaten, publicly flogged, and killed for violating Taliban decrees.
  • A woman who defied Taliban orders by running a home school for girls was killed in front of her family and friends.
  • A woman caught trying to flee Afghanistan with a man not related to her was stoned to death for adultery.
  • An elderly woman was brutally beaten with a metal cable until her leg was broken because her ankle was accidentally showing from underneath her burqa.
  • Women and girls died of curable ailments because male doctors were not allowed to treat them.
  • Two women accused of prostitution were publicly hung.
  • (Feminist Majority Foundation Reports)
Changes in Afghanistan after Taliban control Yet, BBC News reports a recent Human Rights Watch report said many gains made by women since the fall of the Taliban have been reversed. (November 15 2006) Unjust treatment of Afghan women continues after Taliban rule. “Simply put, this is a patriarchal society,” said Manizha Naderi, director of Women for Afghan Women, one of four organizations that run shelters in Afghanistan. “Women are the property of men. This is tradition.” (Kirk Semple, The New York Times, March 2 2009) Although notable efforts are underway to make their daily lives better, especially in Kabul, the capital, many hopes have diminished as cosmetic changes have failed to change traditional Afghan attitudes toward women. When I did not put on a burqa, my problems started as soon as I stepped outside the house," says Rahila Khan, a student of Kabul University. "People in the neighborhood taunted my parents, policemen and soldiers called me a prostitute, and I was sexually harassed on several occasions." (Owais Tohid,The Science Christian Monitor, August 25 2003)
The following examples of Afghan inequality exist: 1. Women convicted of escaping from home and illegal sexual relations are imprisoned. The first offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, the second 20. These are two of the most common accusations facing female prisoners in Afghanistan. Now, the youngest female criminal is just 13 years old. These women's small children must stay with their mothers if no one else will claim them.

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah's medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man. (The Independent, "The Afghan Women Being Jailed For Being Victims of Rape," August 18 2oo8)

2. In March of 2009, Karzai signed a marriage law bill for Afghanistan's Shiite minority that critics said essentially legalized marital rape. The pushback, both from the international community and Afghan women, forced Karzai to suspend enforcement. But a revised version released last month appears little better, giving a husband the right to withhold food to a wife who refuses to have sex with him. Karzai then used a legislative loophole to pass the revision by decree. (Ben Arnoldy, The Christian Science Monitor, August 18 2009)

The Shia Family Law, passed by Parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, restricts women’s rights by, among other things, condoning marital rape; limiting travel outside the home for work, school or medical care without a husband’s permission; and denying inheritance and child custody.

3. Mostly, the women volunteers during elections are not dispatched to talk to male voters. Gender separation seen in the campaign roles also plays out on the campaign trail. At a rally in Daikundi for Abdullah Abdullah, the men filled the bazaar, while women listened from a private square, hidden from view by sheets. A Karzai rally in a hotel ballroom kept the women sitting on the left and the men on the right. 4. Deadly diseases such as TB and polio, long eradicated in most of the world, flourish in Afghanistan. They hit women and children very hard. One in four children dies before the age of five, mostly from preventable illnesses such as cholera and diarrhea. Reports show that half of all women of childbearing age who die do so in childbirth, giving Afghanistan one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. Average life expectancy hovers around 42 years. (Ann Jones,, February 5 2007)

5. Ann Jones also reports, "About 85% of Afghan women are illiterate. About 95% are routinely subjected to violence in the home. And the home is where most Afghan women in rural areas, and many in cities, are still customarily confined. Public space and public life belong almost exclusively to men."

6. Afghan women and girls are, by custom and practice, the property of men. They may be traded and sold like any commodity. Although Afghan law sets the minimum marriageable age for girls at sixteen, girls as young as eight or nine are commonly sold into marriage. Women doctors in Kabul maternity hospitals describe terrible life-threatening "wedding night" injuries that husbands inflict on child brides. In the countryside, far from medical help, such girls die. (

In Afghanistan, any woman on her own outside the home is assumed to be guilty of the crime of "zina" -- engaging in sexual activity. That's why "running away" is itself a crime. One crime presupposes the other. Indefinite jail terms are often the penalty but if returned home to her husband or father or brothers, they may then murder her to restore the family honor.

7. In Kabul, where women and girls move about more freely, many are snatched by traffickers and sold into sexual slavery. The traffickers are seldom pursued or punished because once a girl is abducted she is as good as dead anyway, even to loving parents bound by the code of honor. A mother may want her to stay away after being kidnapped because she can be killed by her father.

8. Many girls kill themselves. Suicide also brings dishonor, so families cover it up. Only when city girls try to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire do their cases become known, for if they do not die at once, they may be taken to the hospital.

9. According to editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, in general, and in Kabul, in particular, has highly increased the incidence of both prostitution as well as trafficking. So-called "survival sex" for $40 or $50 (more than most women make in a month) is voluntary because very poor women and girls, mainly from the impoverished countryside where there is very little to eat, trade sex for food. (The Nation, February 2 2009)

Heuvel states, "Trafficking occurs when criminal elements start bringing in women--forcibly or coercing them under other guises. Girls--in this case mainly from the Uzbek and Hazara tribes, as well as a number of Chinese girls in Kabul--are actually trafficked in to fill the 'needs' of foreign troops."

10. Is the answer education? Dr. Sima Samar, Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, reports hundreds of girls’ schools have been destroyed. Teachers have been murdered – some right in front of their students. Girls have had acid thrown in their faces on their way to or from school. One 75 year-old woman was nailed to a tree and killed for "collaborating" with the government and the US; another woman was beheaded. Those terrorizing the girls and women are Taliban or "warlords," who are principally drug traffickers, with known records of human rights abuse. (Feminist Majority, March 27 2009)

"Don't teach girls English, as it is a language of the Christians. Just teach them Islamic education,'" says school teacher Abdur Rehman. "'The women do not have to run the government, they just have to run their houses.'" Mr. Rehman quotes these threats by officials outside Kabul while advising her of her teaching duties.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, new legislation says that Afghan Shi'ite women will not have the right to leave their homes except for "legitimate" purposes, and forbids women from working or receiving education without their husbands' express permission. (Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Liberty, April 4 2009)

11. In Pashtun areas, women are bartered to settle tribal disputes or purely to earn money for their families or first husbands under a ritual called "buth." Seemi Jan was sold for $2,000 when she was just 16. Girls as young as six are being married into a life of slavery and rape, often by multiple members of their new relatives. The Independent reports, "More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced. Despite a new law banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under the age of 16." (Terri Judd, February 25 2008)

"I served my 30-year-old husband like a maid for years. But he married another woman without my consent and threw me out of the house," recalls Ms. Jan, who now assists a local nongovernmental organization working for women in Kabul. "Now I [learn] that my husband is planning to sell my 14-year-old daughter. For me nothing has changed." (The Science Christian Monitor, August 25 2003)

12. Religious views present women as second-hand citizens. PBS Films Independent Lens reports in January 2004, the loya jirga ratified a constitution that included an equal rights clause referencing gender — something not included in the United States' constitution— proclaiming that all Afghan citizens, men and women, "have equal rights and duties before the law." However, this clause is open to interpretation and could be used to undermine women’s rights, as “the law” includes religious law. (

Old ways pervade the new government. In a New York Times article from Dec. 16, 2003, Sighbatullah Mojadeddi, head of the Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga, said "Even God has not given [women] equal rights because under his decision, two women are counted as equal to one man." (CBS News Online, March 1 2005)

What is the future for Afghan women?

According to a report by Ann Geracimos of the Washington Times (August 30 2009), "Microfinance companies that issue the loans (for cows or looms to start small businesses by Afghans) say they have their greatest success working with women, who almost invariably repay what they borrow. One government-run lending agency, the largest in Afghanistan, grants 95 percent of its loans to women, and 99 percent of those loans are repaid"

Geracimos continues, "The U.S. government is also aware of the potential. It has allocated $27 million that soon will be distributed in small flexible grants 'to empower Afghan women [private organizations] at the local level,' according to Melanne S. Verveer, the U.S. ambassador at large for global women's issues."

Mr. Pazhwak, the USIP (United States Institute of Peact) program officer, says he believes Afghanistan could make progress against the endemic corruption that has become a hallmark of government if there were more women in senior government posts.

"There are women politicians who are equally corrupt as men because the system is corrupt," he acknowledges. But, he says, "Power corrupts, and most power is in the hands of men." (Washington Times, August 30 2009)

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