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Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal

Posted April 13, 2009 | 12:24 PM (EST)

What You Should Know About Women's Rights in Afghanistan


Just as the world's eyes are turning towards Afghanistan once again, a few conservative Afghan lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would, amongst other things, legalize marital rape, prohibit women from leaving the home without permission, deny them the right of inheritance, force a woman to "preen for her husband as and when he desires," and set the minimum female marital age to sixteen.

The draft proposal, which is aimed only at the country's Shia minority, recalls for many the harsh strictures of the Taliban era and has been roundly condemned in the international community: Hillary Clinton said that she is "deeply concerned" about the law, Obama found it "abhorrent", and others in the West have asked, "Is this what our soldiers are dying for?" The international condemnation has forced the Karzai administration to shelve the law for the time being, as the Afghan government pledges to look at the details of the bill more closely.

While the world buzzes about this latest setback for Afghan women, you might be wondering just what exactly the bill says about women's rights in Afghanistan.

What do Afghan women think about this law?

Most Afghan women have never heard of it. This is because the majority of Afghans are rural, living without electricity or a connection to the happenings in Kabul. Afghan women suffer from the lowest literacy rate in the world, at 13 percent. And the ones that are familiar with it mostly shrug their shoulders, because the conditions that the law imposes are no different than those that already exist in their everyday lives. The typical woman from the country's south or east, for example, cannot leave her home without a male guardian. She must wear the burqa in public at all times, and in some villages she must even don one in private. Marital rape is the norm in a society where sex is a man's right, not a woman's.

According to the UK-based NGO Womankind, anywhere between sixty and eighty percent of marriages are forced, 57 percent of brides are under the age of 16, and 87 percent complain of domestic violence. UNIFEM says that 65 percent of widows in Kabul see suicide as their only option to "get rid of their miseries and desolation." Thousands of women turn to self-immolation every year. There are no reliable stats on rape, as most women will never report it. This is because women can be convicted of zina, extramarital sex, if knowledge of the rape becomes public. In most of the country, even a woman just found outside of her home without the permission of her male guardian will be thrown in jail and tried as an adulterer.

How do Afghan women fare now compared to the Taliban era?

The answer, like most things in Afghanistan, depends on where you look and whom you ask. In the central highlands, for example, women of the ethnic minority group the Hazaras are usually allowed to leave the home and sometimes even find work. In Kabul, some females now have access to education, and there are well-paying NGO jobs available for the elite. Only five percent of girls go to secondary school throughout the country, but in Kabul more girls are enrolled than at any point in the last ten years.

In the south and east, life for women is mostly unchanged since the Taliban times: they remain cloistered indoors, in burqas, away from schools, without health care, without independence, and without protection from physical and sexual violence. And in some ways, life is even worse than during the Taliban: these women now live in an active war zone, caught in a crossfire between belligerents.

So the lives of women in the central highlands and in some cities have improved, while things have remained the same or even gotten worse for women elsewhere. The sum result is that things have mostly stayed the same for Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban. It shouldn't be surprising that the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a study finding that Afghanistan is the second most unequal society in terms of gender in the world. Or that Afghan women rank at or near the bottom in almost every conceivable world ranking: life expectancy, maternal mortality, access to education, access to health care, suicide rates, domestic violence, and more. In short, Afghanistan is just about the worst place in the world to be a woman.

Why are things so bad for Afghan women?

People wrongly assume that the Taliban is a sort of alien force, imposing misogynistic views on an unwilling society. For instance, Ellen Goodman of the Washington Post Writers Group writes in a recent editorial that:

Afghan women had slowly gained rights through the 20th century. They helped write their country's 1964 constitution. They served in parliament and went to universities. They were 40 percent of the doctors and 70 percent of the teachers. Then the Taliban turned their homeland into a patriarchal jail.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Afghan women did gain rights throughout the twentieth century -- in the cities. In the countryside, where the majority lived, no such thing happened. And the Taliban did not turn the Afghan homeland into a patriarchal jail; it was already a prison for women.

There are three causes for women's predicament. First, Afghanistan was and is a rural society, and in the south and east dominated by tribes. This tribal society is deeply patriarchal, with women commodified into a resource to be bartered, sold and fought over. Hence the Pashtun man is honor-bound to defend zan, zamin and zar (woman, gold and land).

Various Afghan leaders -- including some kings and the Communist government -- tried in vain to modernize the countryside. But this was a second reason why women remained oppressed -- the central state has been weak and unable to successfully enact reforms throughout the country.

Even as the central state made such attempts, other actors were actively working to undermine women's interests in the country. The third reason for the situation today is foreign intervention, especially by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The US and its allies supported the mujahedeen -- fundamentalist, misogynist warlords -- against the Soviets in the eighties. The mujahedeen transformed an extremely reactionary interpretation of Islam into the national standard, and in many ways were even worse than the Taliban. They burned down schools and libraries, killed women in public positions, enforced the burqa in areas under their control. They raped and killed thousands. After coming to power in the mid-nineties, they established a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. One issued decree mandated that:

Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands' permission to leave home.

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul in 1996, they continued to enforce these mandates, without resorting to the widespread raping and killing that marked the mujahedeen government.

After the Taliban was toppled, the US and rest of the international community supported these same mujahedeen in their return to power. The majority of the Afghan parliament today consists of these warlords. Is it any surprise then that parliament tries to pass anti-women laws?

Can the West save Afghan women?

Many observers say that unless the rural, tribal structure of the society is changed, the patriarchal prison will continue. But that might be something only the Afghans themselves can accomplish. In the meantime, many Afghan women say that the West can help this process -- by dropping support for fundamentalists and misogynists.

It will be important to take such a step, they say, because the West has a credibility gap -- despite billions of dollars, thousands of lives lost, and scores of promises, Western intervention has not made the lives of Afghan women significantly better.


Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist. To read more of his dispatches from the region, see his website: www.anandgopal.com.