Fragile Women Rights in Afghanistan – two steps forward, one step back? A story about the emancipation of women in Afghanistan

“It [independence] belongs to all of us and that is why we celebrate it.” by Lisa Marie Quelle; photo: Afghan women

Do you think, however, that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acuire as much knowledge as possible, in order that we may render our services to sociery in the manner of the women of early Islam.“ – Soraya, wife of Amanullah, on the 7th anniversary of the independence of Afghanistan, 1926 

The situation of women in Afghanistan has always been a justifcation of Western military intervention in the name of peace. Shortly after 9/11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the topic of “Women in Islam” has become part of the Western discourse and gained importance on the highest political levels. Cherie Blair and First Lady Laura Bush spoke about this topic in a radio address on 17th November 2001: “Civilized people around the world are terrified, not only because we can see at the example of Afghanistan, how the world would look to terrorists would impose us … the fight against the terrorists is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (see Leila Ahmed 2011: 1).

Besides the U.S., the German government supported the civil reconstruction in Afghanistan. Until 2010, the German expenditure for this project were far below the military spending; only one (!) percent of the funds were actually invested in women’s projects. Since September 2012, the German government is pursuing a different strategy: Instead of correcting its previous policy in the promotion and protection of human rights in Afghanistan, it defines its new guidelines on “fragile states” as follows: less export of democracy – more attention to local traditions and power structures. If you know the history of the country, this would be a magnifcent tactic to push forward female-friendly developments in the country. The situation of women in Afghanistan can not only be traced back to the political phase of the Taliban. There is a broad story about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Therefore, the issue could not only be explained in relation to “before” and “after” the political phase of the Taliban. The developements of the emanzipation of women is historically determined by the patriarchal authorities and their social relationships which are deeply rooted in the traditional society. In addition, there is the existence of a weak nation state, that is incapable in the face of “tribal feudalism” to establish any modernization programs (see Ahmed-Ghoh 2003 : 3).

The following aspects should be considered in regarding the rights of women in Afghanistan: On the one hand, women in Afghanistan were not always suppressed by fundamentalist authorities such as the Mujahideen and the Taliban. Topics about the emancipation had always been an integral part of the national reconstruction agenda, especially in the 1920s. Women who stood in the midst of public life mostly by the popularity of their men, gained international attention and used it for social reforms. Secondly, the power of the tribal male-dominated society, which did not tolerate any modernization that could undermine their own patriarchal authority especially in the rural areas, must be taken into account. Women in Afghanistan do not represent isolated institutions; their fate is influenced by historical, political, social, economic and religious forces. In addition to internal ethnic tensions, also external powers developments in Afghanistan encourage the “gender dynamics ” ahead. Two key epochs had the greatest impact on the social status of women: The first was the reign of Amanullah in 1923 and included rapid reforms to the position of women in the family and thereby to improve their lives. The reforms were accompanied by widespread opposition protests of conservative tribal leaders and eventually led to the demise of Amanullah. Before his time certain tribal politics and conficts within the groups affected the social image of the country and their supreme authority. The partially Islamic laws of individual tribes saw women as a way to unite tribes through weddings. Women were strictly forbidden to divorce and and to go to school. They were the ” honor” of the family, veiled and voiceless (see Ahmed – Ghosh 2003 : 2).

A person symbolizes the modernization processes in Afghanistan, is Mahmud Beg Tarzi. As a former exiled Afghan who lived and studied in as Syria and Turkey, he became infuenced by modern interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. He was convinced for the need to engage educated women in public affairs. They are the capital of future generations. Tarzi added that Islam does not deny this equality. Amir Habibullah Khan, who was in his time in office and continued leading his father’s policy under the infuence of Tarzi’s liberal infuence after 1901, opened schools across the country, including numerous girls’ schools. Their English curriculum were an eyesore for the tribal leaders and the mullahs. Habibullah’s efforts ended early with an attack on him on 20th February 1919. According to May Schinasi, Habibullah was always trying to keep Afghanistan’s position in the international arenas well as in the Muslim scene, but he was unable to control both using the same methods (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 4).

King Amanullah, who took over the post after Habibullah, is known like his father, for his modernization programs in Afghanistan. His agenda referred to the liberalization of women from the tribal standards and was influenced by the agendas carried out at the time in Turkey. Mahmud Tarzi also gained an advisory role at Amanullah because he even exemplified the changes that he wanted to society also in his private life: his monogamous marriage, the education and employment of female family members and their public unveiled appearances. Amanullah’s resulting publicity campaigned against the veil, against polygamy and encouraged education of girls not only in Kabul but also on the countryside. Many women of the family of Amanullah became involved in organizations and became government offcials. Examples include his sister Kobra, who founded the organization for women’s protection (anjuman-ihimayat-iniswan) in the early 1920s and his wife Soraya, also the daughter of Mahmud Tarzi, who founded the first hospital for women. In her public appearances she always reiterated the important role of women as active participants in nation-building (see Ahmed-Ghosh2003 : 4).

Many conservative leaders saw his rapid reforms to “western” for their company and these changes would also be against the doctrine of Islam. In the 1920s, massive conflicts appeared between elite modernist and traditional tribes. Nevertheless, women were excluded from the profits of the modernization programs on the countryside. Any tribal leaders ensured by intra-tribal alliance not only in their areas but over vast tracts of land, so that the tribal standards could not be challenged. 1929 Amanullah was expelled from the country. He was followed by several families and leaders, but none that would move the reforms to their own authoritarian disadvantage (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 5).

Through massive foreign aid and technical assistance from the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, Afghanistan went through a “cautious” modernization. Unlike his predecessors Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud saw the veiling as a “voluntary choice”. Women were encouraged again to play an important part in the developing economy. In 1940s and 1950s women became nurses, doctors and teachers. The third constitution that was already enforced in 1964, allowed women to participate in politics and gave them the right to vote. The first female Secretary of State, in the Department of the Ministry of Health, was elected with three other women. The first women’s movement of Demokratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW) was formed in 1965, in addition to the socialist Soviet grouping Demokratic People’s Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).This organization advocated the elimination of illiteracy among women, the prohibition of forced marriage and the bride prize (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 6).

The 1970s saw an improvement in the education of women, a new force in the universities and as representatives in politics. Thus, this is the second important epoch to illustrate the empowerment of women in Afghan society. 1978 was the beginning of the power expansion of the controversial PDPA. The progressive economic and social boom drew an echo of the controversies of the 1920s with them. There were far-reaching land reforms part of their agenda, including the abolition of the bride prize, education compulsory for women and the raising of the minimum marriage age of 16 for girls and 18 years for boys. In October 1978, a document was issued, which demanded for equal rights for women. Again, the mullahs and tribal leaders saw it as a threat to their social position. In their view, the education of women violates tradition, it was anti-religious and a challenge to their male authority. Therefore, attacks and public attacks on women who wore Western clothes increased, PDPA reformists were killed and the general hatred of women who are socially engaged, was fueled (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 6). Despite the establishment of women in senior professional positions, for the nation as a whole, this period of change was a period of anarchy and the fragmentation of the country. With the beginning of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, the country experienced a decade-long war, which was financed by external power and interests by the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China to support the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The rural areas were a breeding ground for the ” freedom fghters “. Their battle was a war in the name of Islam and a reversal of the socialist reforms, including women’s rights. In 1992, the Mujahideen took over Kabul and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state. This was the beginning of the violent apartheid policies against women. Universities were burned and the women were forced to wear the burqa. By 1996, the Mujahideen went barbarous against women: killings, rapes, amputations and other forms of violence were commonplace. To escape, many women committed suicide (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003: 7). The same alliance which fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet Union changed on the side of the Taliban in 1996 to counter the unexpected brutality of the Mujahideen. The ray of hope did not last long. The Taliban established the “Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” and controlled large rural areas through their propaganda and new introductions right through the radio Sharia. The radio slogans were supposed to remind the people of their obligations towards the State and Islam. For women, this meant that they were not allowed to leave the house except for shopping food, otherwise they had to be accompanied by a male supervisor. They had to wear the burqa, without makeup and striking shoes. Girls and women were not allowed to go to school or to visit a male doctor (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003: 7). The developments that both have changed the status of women in the 1920s and 1970s were not only fruitful, but also led to a continuous increase in violence of tribal leaders and conservative forces. With regard to future efforts to advance the “modernization” in Afghanistan, this can only be done with recognition of the multiple conficts, cracks and resistors. Also global political changes since the 1980s and the idea of Islamic fundamentalism gaining strength in the region must be considered.

Helen Hardacre notes that religion as a cultural force in human history, is extremely powerful to establish long-lasting infuential motives of gender. Religions give the family has sacred signifcance. This also extends to the family and interpersonal relationships. The family is the most important unit for ritual observance, as well as an infuential place of religious education and transmission of religious knowledge from one generation to the next (see Hardacre 1993 : 118).

Therefore, to ensure that patriarchy is maintained, the symbol of the family along gender hierarchies is strengthened in order to ensure the transmission of religion, culture and family from mothers to children. But the idealization does nothing to improve the status of women, because the concept of motherhood is glorified, but not the actual position mothers in society. Enlightenment and embedding of gender roles in the family will be a strategy to ensure power and control over women by men in the traditional structures of patriarchy. If they threaten the safe position of tribal leaders, the risk is projected on of society and will destroy it (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 8). Within the current living conditions in Afghanistan, the religion, according to Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, is considered to be the only force capable to a national identity, to strengthen solidarity between relationships and the economic and political situation against what Western and corrupt ideologies and forces are seen. The result is that women who accept the “fundamentalism” as a way of life, do not give Islam the blame for their impoverished and oppressed life, but to the corrupt government, the patriarchal control and the distorted interpretations of the Koran. Women in Afghanistan are against the Afghan fundamentalists, not against Islam (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 9).

It should be recognized that there is a dichotomy between the individual and the collective. In all cultures, not only in the Middle East but also in the West, regardless to which model of society someone is belonging, most women are, not like men, defined by their role in the family and society. The family and the society is not only the place where they realize themselves and exercise an authority, this are also the institutions where they are suppressed. In all societies the individual and the family and the individual with the State are connected, thus these relations are creating the basis for a hierarchy among the genders. In other words, the degree to which an individual is “free” of the family or social group, is one of the features of the defnition of gender in any social environment. This does not imply that women themselves may exclude from the family or society on their own, because in Afghanistan, as well as in other traditional societies, women do not exist outside of the family and society (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003: 10).

While they are caught in a web of complicated politics and a spiral of poverty today, women must define their society in a way that their economic and social contribution is noticed (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 10).

Sima Wali, one of the few women who expressed herself at the Bonn talks on Afghanistan in December 2001, said: “Men in Afghanistan are part of the solution, not the problem” (see Wali 2002 : 5). Afghanistan’s future interests lay on the economic reconstruction and the maintenance of Islamic identity. The reputation of the company to democracy in a secular connection with Islam as the national religion, is the premise in today’s discourse. The first step toward this complex process will be to motivate tribal leaders to dialogue and to share the power over the future of Afghanistan. The current social and political situation in Afghanistan is a test ground for hybridized modernization programs, secularism and gender equality. For women the participation in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan is essential not to become “victims” of the Islamic burkas or the Western “liberalization” and at least the step, to re-arrange their position in society (see Ahmed-Ghosh 2003 : 12).

Since 2001, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan exists under Hamid Karzai, a Durrani Pashtun tribal leader, who is still regarded as the head of state and head of government of the country at the same time. The Taliban were driven with the invasion of the Americans out of the country, but since 2006 they commit intensifed attacks against civilians and soldiers again. Karzai was increasingly accused of collaboration with the Taliban in his tenure. In 2009, a law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) was adopted, which led by Liesl Gernholtz, director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, to ” essential safeguards against child marriages and domestic violence.” The EVAW represents in the first time of Afghanistan’s history, child and forced marriage as a criminal offense. A study by the NGO Global Rights from 2006 shows that more than 85% of Afghan women were victims of physical, sexual and psychological violence or were married against their will. Thus, also about 2,000 women and girls in Afghanistan try every year to escape of domestic violence through suicide by self-immolation; the number of those suicides is increasing. Human Rights Watch in an open letter called on the President, to urgently and immediately enforce this law before the elections in April 2014. Gernholtz said: “If he [Karzai] manages to ensure that this legislation is implemented, Karzai could leave a lasting legacy for the protection of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.” Karzai was not allowed to compete in the elections in April again (see HRW 04/09/2013). According to Human Rights Watch, it has failed since the fall of the Taliban to enforce measures to curb child marriages and to stop domestic violence otherwise as in other Muslim states. In Bangladesh, Egypt and Jordan for example, the age of marriage was raised to 18 years; in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh is legally required to tackle domestic violence. At a donors’ conference in July 2012 in Tokyo, the Afghan government assured greater commitment to enforce the EVAW – law and received another $16 billion aid payments. Human Rights Watch called on Karzai to reach the general public in September 2013, through nation-wide campaigns which informs about the sufferings and consequences of child marriage and domestic violence. Similarly, Human Rights Watch requested for special units in each province which should pursue the criminal violence against women and to divide the number of cases by province and district (see HRW 09/04/2013). T

The Society for Threatened Peoples expressed in a letter to the Ambassador of the Special Representative of the Federal Government for Afghanistan and Pakistan their worry concerning the fact that Hamid Karzai has appointed the former Taliban representative Abdul Rahman Hotak as a member of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan (AIHRC). This was a serious setback for the establishment of the EVAW Act. Hotak declared in publicly that the law violates Islam and must be subjected to a modifcation. Afghan human rights activists still deny this statement and indicate that the law was not passed under pressure of Western countries, but that there are forces within Afghan society which keep improving the position of women as a urgently required fact (see Society of Threatened Peoples 01.10.2013 ). Many attacks on women’s rights in recent years make clear that these come from any direction from the government – not only from the Parliament, also from the executive branch of government, the judiciary, even by the AIHRC. There are also a number of physical attacks again, including assassinations against high-ranking women, marking the continuing threat to activists and women in public (see HRW 09/23/2013).

In February 2014 there was a renewed failure for the situation of women in Afghanistan. Karzai signed a 128-page outline of the Afghan criminal prosecution, which was the latest in a series of experiments to set back the already fragile legal protection for women and girls in an earlier restore (see Heather Barr 2014 : 1).

Below them there was a law which practically prevents the prosecution of domestic violence by men against their wives, children or sisters. Therefore “a relative”, as parents, grandparents or siblings should not say something against them in the court, because relatives may not be objective and their statements could increase the risk for acts of revenge. In order for the prosecution of domestic violence it is enormously diffcult to retrace them and also makes it impossible to punish forced marriages, marriage of minors or marriage for the settlement of clan disputes (known as Baad- practice). The potential witnesses in the investigation of cases remain without a voice. This is not only a step backwards in the direction of women’s rights, also a signifcant step backwards human rights in general and the elimination of the EVAW Act (see Hasrat – Nazimi 2014 : 2).

Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, one of the 68 women elected to the Parliament, which a quarter of the seats are determined, observed an increasing misogynistic tendency in politics and a fear of attacks in their own ranks led by conservative forces. This atmosphere makes it impossible to establish long-term security laws for women (see Hasrat – Nazimi 2014 : 2). Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that emphazised that these developments are alarming. These developments are not only in Parliament but also in other areas of society for some time. Last year, for example, the proportion of women of the Afghan provincial councils was reduced from 25 to 20 percent. There were also debates whether stoning should be introduced as a punishment again; there has been increasing attacks and assassinations of police offcers and the knacker of the abused 15-year-old Sahar Gul were released in spite of their condemnation again (see Hasrat-Nazimi 2014 : 2).
Proving these events and the recent law shows that the rights of women are reaching the target patriarchal authoritarians again. It is still uncertain what the newly elected president, who is expected to be elected in the second ballot on 28 May 2014, pretends for a direction with his signature in the coming years. This development is in his hands and is going along with his subcribtion of the laws – either two steps forward or one step back?


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