When Choosers Become Beggars

06/03/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013

"I look forward to the day that women are treated as real people; right now their rights are given as charity to them." This, according to Suhera Sharif, is the current state of protections for women in Afghanistan, something she understands well as a member of the Afghan Parliament and proponent of women's rights.

Although I'd traveled to Afghanistan to understand the status of shelter and safety for women there, my visit happened to coincide with a development that was quickly threatening these two things. The Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women in Afghanistan, a decree which had been signed by President Karzi in 2009 specifically to avoid a conflict with conservative Parliament Members but still codify protections for women, had recently been introduced for Parliamentary debate (ironically, by a member of Parliament who, until this month, had been considered a strong advocate for women).

So, I made arrangements to meet with activists who were involved in the original drafting and advocacy of this law. At the time it was signed, the 2009 decree was seen as an important measure to ensure safety from some 20-plus different crimes commonly committed against women and girls, including forced marriage to settle disputes among families, coerced suicide by self-immolation, and a host of other forms of abuse and mistreatment. It was also seen as a victory for women's rights which, the advocates I met with all agreed, had been working well until recently. Although inconsistently applied, Parliament didn't tamper with it, government officials diffidently embraced it, and religious and civic leaders grudgingly complied with it for the most part.

Now the law, having avoided Parliament's considerations previously, was finally before the Parliament and its introduction appeared to open the floodgates for conservative opposition. Within a week of the heated floor debate (in which conservative Members claimed the law was against Islam and was hastily pulled from the floor) there had been protests - one by religious students at Kabul University protesting the current law, another by young women advocates supporting it; news reports on local television proclaiming women's shelters to be dens of prostitution; and frantic activity on behalf of advocates to both keep the law off the floor of Parliament in the future and bolster it with scholarly research and arguments asserting its consistency with Islamic law.

It was in this climate that I was introduced to Norzia Atmarkhail, a woman who had served in Parliament from 2005 to 2010 as a representative from Jalalabad. She had helped to craft and advocate for the current law and, as fortune would have it, is now living in a shelter because of her husband's violence and threats to kill her.

She had won the seat independently before getting married. Her then-fiancé expressed support for her position, calling her strong and powerful. After they married and she moved into his house, however, he gave her a burqa to wear. He controlled her ability to communicate with constituents and staff by controlling her phone. And he then became violent, ultimately threatening to shoot her with a gun. Norzia decided she wanted a divorce, but her family did not support this, telling her that her it would bring shame to the family. When Norzia lost her seat in 2010 and her husband threw her out of their home, her family refused to help her. She was forced to flee to a shelter - the last place she wanted to go - because she had no other options.

She has now lived at the shelter for more than two years and must remain there due to her husband's ongoing threats. When she received her divorce papers, he had written across them, "If something happens to my wife, I'm not responsible." She said she receives all the support she needs from the women in the shelter, since her Parliament colleagues had also abandoned her.

Due to the opposition unleashed by the reopened debate of the EVAW law, shelters like the one where Norzia lives are now at-risk of losing their legal standing as well as, possibly, their funding. Even drafters of the legislation to protect basic protections for women aren't safe, compounded by uncertain funding in the coming years due to the anticipated 2014 troop withdrawal.

Women in Afghanistan are at greater risk of injury and death than almost anywhere in the world due to domestic violence. Until basic women's rights are guaranteed and not doled out as gifts, that violence will continue and women will be hindered from fully participating in the country's recovery from the past thirty years of war. All human beings - male or female- should be assured the basic rights of safety and self-determination as first-order entitlements, not second-hand charity.

This creates a riddle in my mind - when are rights not rights? When they're treated as what's left. Those in power have determined that women only deserve what rights they will be given after others' needs have been met. After all, as it's often said, beggars can't be choosers.

Except that "beggars" - like Norzia - are not asking for charity; they simply want to be recognized as real human beings.