07/26/2012 07:23 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2012

Obama and Clinton Legacy Linked to Afghan Women's Rights

The public execution of Najiba, a woman accused of adultery, is testament to the brutal customary laws of Taliban and Pashtun cultural practice in Afghanistan. Other examples of increasing recent violence against Afghan women include the rape and torture of 18-year-old Lal Bibi by Afghan Local Police and the assassination of Hanifa Safi, the provincial head of women's affairs in Laghman province.

In a nation where women are traded for animals, female literacy is 13 percent and medieval tribalism ensures male domination and domestic violence, it is not surprising that the West has come to associate Afghanistan with oppressed women.

Yet such a view denies the spirit and progress that Afghan women have made since the overthrow of the Taliban. Their rise, in large measure through assistance provided by the U.S. and NATO, has been extraordinary, especially in areas of the country where the Taliban insurgency has not overwhelmed the local population.

Afghan women reformers were able to insert gender-sensitive legislation into the new constitution to ensure women's education and employment, as well as participation in government and protection from violence and family bartering.

These reformers include women such as Sima Samar, "the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan," who was short-listed for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Even under the Taliban, when education of girls was forbidden, teachers continued with underground classes, risking fatwas and death.

Girls on the way to classes were attacked by militants, who sprayed acid on their faces and burned down schools, but many girls expressed a fierce determination to continue their education.

Women who achieved prominence were at risk of their lives. Those assassinated included Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar, who became head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women, Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, and Safia Amajan, director of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kandahar.

Gender reforms continued despite executions, endemic gender discrimination, widespread corruption, a drug-financed religio-political insurgency and a matrix of opportunistic tribal and religious alliances. The latter was exemplified by the family laws that sanctioned marital rape, and were hurriedly passed for Afghanistan's Shiite minority three years ago in order to gain government support from Shiite leaders.

Afghanistan's women are major stakeholders in the political and military outcome, for violent Taliban-style Islamism is accompanied by oppression of women, and wherever such Islamism grows, radical extremists demand more control over females by implementing strict sharia law.

Conversely, the more freedoms for women, the less control by Islamists over present and future societies, because mothers who are free will not provide a role model of the submissive, fearful woman or be cowed into indoctrinating children.

The rebuilding of Afghanistan cannot take place without the advance of its women, who represent a major social, political and economic resource. Muslim reformers outside Afghanistan have voiced similar aspirations. In the U.N. Arab Human Development Report 2005, advocates for reform stated: "an Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women in Arab countries ... Directly and indirectly, it concerns the wellbeing of the entire Arab world."

It would be disgraceful to squander reformers' sacrifices and lose hard-won coalition gains in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the future for Afghan women seems precarious, due to a weak, corrupt central government beholden to warlords and extremist religious pressure, as well as a tribal judicial system that trumps state laws, especially in rural districts.

Afghanistan suffers the predicament of a landlocked quagmire of sectarian bloodshed, and the competing interests of surrounding sovereign states, particularly Pakistan, Iran, India and China.

The main spoiler is Pakistan, where domestic violence, rape and honor killings are endemic. Pakistan also gives refuge and assistance to the Taliban and harbors their affiliate, the ruthless Haqqani Network.

As the U.S. exit from Afghanistan approaches, protection of Afghan women's rights requires courage and political will instead of tired rhetoric. However, in an election year, we are unlikely to see meaningful action from the U.S. President and his Secretary of State.

To be sure, the United States is caught in a bind, as cutting off aid could create a vacuum easily refilled by Islamists. In this context, the recent international donor's conference in Tokyo was a step in the right direction. Donors guaranteed $4 billion in annual aid over the next four years, subject to the Afghan government reducing widespread corruption. Although laudable, this aid should have been firmly linked to Afghan women's human rights as well.

Understandably, women fear the coalition pullout will be followed by rapid expansion of Taliban control, and many educated women have already emigrated. At the very least, the U.S. Administration could take the lead and call an urgent international conference to discuss and propose measures for safeguarding the progress of Afghan women to date. The outcome could determine the legacy of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.