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