The Plight of Women in Afghanistan

05/07/2015 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Countries which undergo strife for long periods of time due to civil war, terrorism and so on, face many societal problems. One of these problems causing great suffering is the severe degradation of the natural rights of people. In this climate, unfortunately, the most vulnerable groups in society such as women, children and minorities suffer first and the most. Afghanistan, which has undergone a violent transformation in the past thirty years, is no exception, plagued by myriad chronic societal issues. Given the depth and severity of these challenges adversely affecting the Afghan psyche, it will take a long time to tackle them.

The international community (through direct government to government contact, civil society organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs)) has consistently pressured the Afghan government to address these subjects, especially that of women's rights. But deep societal changes do not come about suddenly and are beyond the immediate control of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan (even before the onset of strife in 1978) has always been a more conservative society relative to the West, it had made considerable progress on women's rights in the 1960s and 1970s. But that progress was in the Afghan context at that time. A good number of women in the capital Kabul and other large cities participated in many professional activities. They were doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants and parliamentarians, among others. In the large cities women dressed as they wished, wearing short skirts, pants suits and high heels, for instance. Some had completely shed head scarves, not to mention burqas. My mother and others drove cars without wearing any kind of headgear. The point is not that outward appearance is necessarily indicative of progress in all aspects of women's rights, but it shows the level of tolerance that existed in the society at the time.

What is even more noteworthy is the fact that all the gains were a natural byproduct of the overall Afghan societal progress which had begun very slowly in the late 1930s, producing results decades later. This was achieved without the pressure of any NGOs, foreign civil society organizations and/or foreign governments.

Women and children in Afghanistan suffer every day from abuse, poverty, lack of health care and other horrors. But their plight is only heard when the situation is gruesome enough to merit media coverage. The recent brutal and horrifying lynching of Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman, in broad daylight in downtown Kabul caused an outraged. It brought the sad circumstances of women in Afghanistan to the fore with many demonstrations and rallies. The Afghan government arrested a number of people who had participated in her lynching. The alleged perpetrators expeditiously went to trial. On May 6 the Afghan government announced that four of the convicted instigators were sentenced to death. Eight men received sentences of sixteen years in prison and eighteen men were acquitted.

While the strong reaction to Farkhunda's horrendous killing is a good first step, a fundamental societal change is required to improve the status of women in today's Afghanistan. Even as the sentences were announced, there were mixed reactions in the country. Some people supported the court's decision as justice for Farkhunda's family, but others thought that the trials were flawed. Few Afghans have any faith in the country's justice system, which consists of kangaroo courts. The rule of law is mired in corruption, bribery and interference by the powerful. Sadly, it will be a while before Afghanistan returns to where its vulnerable citizens' rights are respected and the violence against its women is diminished.