Afghanistan Women of War

Women in post-con­flict Afghanistan still have far to go be­fore they can be treated as full cit­i­zens.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid

Be­fore the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the sub­se­quent Tal­iban takeover, the coun­try was a rel­a­tively lib­eral land with a pro­gres­sive out­look on women’s rights. Women could not only ac­quire an ed­u­ca­tion, they could also take up a ca­reer of their choos­ing. Afghan women com­prised 50% of gov­ern­ment work­ers, 70% of school­teach­ers, and 40% of doc­tors in Kabul. How­ever, the ef­fects of war and the Tal­iban regime quickly ef­faced the rights of women in public life and rel­e­gated them solely to the do­mes­tic do­main.

Women and girls have of­ten been the worst vic­tims of con­flict. Un­der the Tal­iban, women were forced to wear an all-en­com­pass­ing burqa in public and were barred from work­ing out­side the home. They were also banned from at­tend­ing schools, rid­ing bi­cy­cles, wear­ing brightly col­ored clothes, or laugh­ing loudly. As many as 1 mil­lion women have been wid­owed by Afghanistan’s wars and left with few op­tions for sup­port­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies.

Since the US-led in­va­sion, how­ever, Afghanistan has ex­pe­ri­enced some dra­matic changes. A new con­sti­tu­tion was ap­proved in 2004 and the coun­try’s first pres­i­den­tial elec­tions were held later that year, bring­ing the first pres­i­dent, Hamid Karzai, to power. The con­sti­tu­tion made women and men equal cit­i­zens un­der the law and man­dated that women should make up 25% of the new par­lia­ment. Bil­lions of dol­lars in for­eign aid poured into the coun­try, both through

gov­ern­ment-spon­sored as­sis­tance pro­grams and in­ter­na­tional NGOs (non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions).

De­spite these rel­a­tive im­prove­ments, the coun­try to­day stands at a tip­ping point. For most Afghan women, lit­tle has changed since the days of the Tal­iban. It re­mains taboo for an Afghan woman to be seen in public with­out a burqa, although it is not re­quired by law. Women and girls are still largely un­e­d­u­cated and con­fined to their homes, with few prospects for gain­ful em­ploy­ment. Girls are of­ten the most marginal­ized and vul­ner­a­ble. The lit­er­acy rate for fe­males over the age of 15 is 12.6% com­pared to 43.1% for males, and only 40% of fe­males at­tend pri­mary school and 6% sec­ondary school. Cur­rently, there are 70 pri­vate univer­si­ties in Afghanistan; over 200,000 stu­dents at­tend col­lege — but only 18% are women, and 82% men.

Much of the op­pres­sion of women in Afghanistan is at­trib­uted to Pash­tun prac­tices: male el­ders hav­ing a say over mar­riages of young women, high prices given to the fa­ther of the bride, sug­gest­ing the sale of women into mar­riage, and “hon­our” killings of women for pur­ported sex­ual mis­con­duct. Dur­ing the past few decades, these norms and val­ues have, how­ever, been adopted across all eth­nic­i­ties in Afghanistan and the seclu­sion of women is thus preva­lent.

The Afghan gov­ern­ment and lawen­force­ment agen­cies need to take the dis­crim­i­na­tion and vi­o­lence against women se­ri­ously. But at the same time the root causes of the prob­lem have to be ad­dressed. Un­til women are not con­sid­ered hu­man be­ings and an in­te­gral part of so­ci­ety, noth­ing fun­da­men­tal will change.

Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence the Afghan gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies on women’s rights. Vi­o­lence against women and girls in the form of phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and sex­ual abuse re­mains preva­lent. Afghan women and girls are of­ten forced into mar­riages with older men, re­sult­ing in alarm­ing sui­cide rates. In 2007 alone, 500 women set fire to them­selves to es­cape forced mar­riages. An anal­y­sis of the sit­u­a­tion has in­di­cated that the na­tion's women are among the worst off in the world, both in com­par­i­son to Afghan men and to women in other coun­tries.

In ad­di­tion, the Afghan woman’s le­gal stand­ing is lim­ited. Ac­cord­ing to sharia law, a fe­male’s tes­ti­mony is worth half that of a man. In cus­tody cases, chil­dren are usu­ally awarded to the fa­ther or grand­fa­ther. Di­vorce — even in cases of ex­treme abuse — is less likely to be sought, be­cause a woman must be pre­pared to lose her chil­dren. These dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices against women are per­va­sive and oc­cur across eth­nic groups in both ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas.

Many Afghans, in­clud­ing some re­li­gious lead­ers, re­in­force harm­ful cus­toms by in­vok­ing their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam. In most cases, how­ever, these prac­tices are in­con­sis­tent with sharia, as well as Afghan and in­ter­na­tional law. As long as pa­tri­archy is per­ceived as the dom­i­nant cul­ture and public value in Afghan so­ci­ety, vi­o­lence and the ten­dency to com­mit vi­o­lent acts re­main an in­te­gral part of cul­ture and val­ued re­la­tion­ships.

In­vest­ing in fe­male ed­u­ca­tion is crit­i­cal to ad­dress­ing their needs and con­cerns as well as hu­man rights. It has been shown that girls who go to school are more likely to find jobs as adults, get mar­ried at a higher age, have fewer chil­dren and are able to earn more for their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Be­yond pro­tec­tive se­cu­rity mea­sures, the only way to en­sure hu­man rights for women in Afghanistan and to truly em­power women in the long run is through of­fer­ing pri­mary, sec­ondary, and higher ed­u­ca­tion that will foster lit­er­acy, free-think­ing and knowl­edge of in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights stan­dards.

Change, if it is to be per­ma­nent, can­not be im­posed by western out­siders on this tribal, Is­lamic, post­con­flict so­ci­ety. It has to emerge through ed­u­ca­tion within the con­text of the cul­ture. Ed­u­cat­ing boys is just as cru­cial as ed­u­cat­ing girls: ed­u­cated men are much more likely to sup­port more choices for women and ed­u­cated hus­bands ap­pre­ci­ate and are less threat­ened by their ed­u­cated part­ners.

A vi­cious cir­cle of lack of ed­u­ca­tion, poverty, il­lit­er­acy, vi­o­lence and in­se­cu­rity fuel the highly pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and even fun­da­men­tal­ism and mil­i­tancy which char­ac­ter­izes Afghanistan to­day. Break­ing the cy­cle will take great re­solve and courage, as many Afghan women and men have demon­strated—some­times pay­ing with their lives. Although progress is slow, hope is found in places least ex­pected.

Un­til women are not con­sid­ered hu­man be­ings and an in­te­gral part of so­ci­ety, noth­ing fun­da­men­tal will change.

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