Afghanistan: an all-time struggle for women

We need to say “enough!” to the leadership of people who foster oligarchy and treat Afghanistan as a playground for their selfish interests. The biggest battlefront is the election. Whatever change may happen, if women’s perspectives are not included, it will make no difference to the lives of women at all.

Massouda Jalal
14 October 2013

It has been twelve years since Afghanistan began a journey towards democracy, peace and reconstruction. It has been a journey fraught with uncertainty, but filled with enduring optimism and incomparable determination.  And if there is one important thing that has to be said over and over again, it is the fact that in all our success and failures, the international community never left us alone.

Four country scenarios and women's prospects 

Today, our people stand again at a precarious crossroad.  After 12 years, the international security support that once helped us drive away the Taliban, is preparing to leave. And our government has been negotiating with the Taliban, purportedly, to bring back national peace and reconciliation. At this point in time, there are four scenarios that may happen after the departure of the international security troops at the end of 2014

The first scenario is the Afghan scenario. It implies a negotiated peace based on consensus between different Afghan power factions with a consolidated oligarchy in power.  Among Afghans, this is termed as “Afghan solution” because it is based on the country’s tradition of consultations to reach a consensus. This is a solution that will be owned by most, although not all, of the many opposing interests and factions in the country. In Afghan’s own version of democracy, it is seen by participating factions as a good solution because it is based on negotiations and trade-offs. This is also the scenario that is being pursued by the government and the factions that used to be its enemies, most notably, the Taliban. This is the most dominant scenario and the likely outcome of all the events going on in the political scene of the country.

In such a scenario, however, only the powerful have a voice and only the powerful will benefit from the new political set up. In the present context, those who are powerful are the ones who have guns, money and international support.  The people do not matter, especially the most powerless and marginalized.  In such a scenario, democracy will be challenged as a foreign imposition; and extremism will dominate politics and the mindset of the people.  The Constitution and laws of the country may be changed, rule of law will take a back seat, and we will return to square one, where gains of the past 12 years will be erased and the powerless returns to a state of submission and hopelessness. 

Where do women stand in this scenario?  We are already experiencing the dominance of this scenario in our life. We see the clawing back of the rights that women began to enjoy during the past 12 years.  We see women’s agenda becoming a mere token in public policy, where women’s voice is either silenced, distorted or divided; and where extreme Taliban-style violence against women spreads once again across the country with unbridled impunity.  In this scenario, it will be an uphill, all-time struggle for women leaders and activists like me once again. As we have already witnessed, defenders of women’s rights will fall one by one as targets of assassination, aggression and brutality by the oligarchs.  But no matter how many women leaders are killed, new ones will emerge because we have tasted liberty and nothing will ever be a substitute for it.

The status quo scenario 

The second scenario is a status quo scenario which implies a stalemate with durable disorder, contested elections in 2014, and a continuation of present or more intensified levels of conflict. The legitimacy of the government in Kabul will be undermined, ethnic tensions may result to armed conflicts in many parts of the country, and regional threats from different parts of the country towards Kabul may develop and escalate.  

Within this scenario, the agenda of development, democracy and women’s rights will be held hostage – unable to progress or move forward.  The seeds of solidarity within the women’s movement could be ruined by ethnic politics which, from the very beginning, has been stronger and more valuable to society than sisterhood and solidarity around women’s advancement.  In such a scenario, it will be increasingly difficult for government and women NGOs to reach out to women who need economic and social services in remote areas. As threats to the Kabul-based government intensify, it will be more and more difficult for international agencies that support women’s projects to operate in the country. Life will therefore be more difficult and punishing for Afghan women throughout the country and there will be very little that can be  done about it.    

The negative scenario 

The third is the negative scenario, a more fearsome situation of state collapse within an intensified regionalized civil war. This will return the country to a scenario similar to the 1990s with open war between and among different contending power holders with direct and indirect involvement of different neighbouring countries.   

This is a scenario of chaos which none of us would even want to think about. Women have already experienced how to live in a situation like this, where life expectancy regresses back to 44 years and nobody dares to worry about getting old. Eyes of women never get dry, widows are created every day, and every minute brings a chance to be an orphan. This is a profoundly depressing scenario.

The developmental scenario

 I would like to call the fourth scenario the 'developmental scenario', even if others call it a 'donor-desired scenario'. This scenario implies a developmental and partially democratic state that serves as the basis for a unified and peaceful country. One that develops democratic governance, fights corruption, and grants the female population the same rights and opportunities as men.  This is the ultimate goal of the international development cooperation. The international community remains committed to this goal and this is a scenario that women and majority of Afghans hope for.

Within such scenario, women may still continue to experience oppression, violence, and denial of rights, especially in remote areas of the country. But activism for women’s empowerment and gender equality has a better chance of flourishing in this scenario. The international community will also be in a better position to continue assisting gender equality initiatives, and push for the implementation of laws and policies that protect women’s rights. Women leaders and activists will multiply, the women’s movement will blossom to the fullest, and all these will form the basis of an enduring, inter-generational change on the status of women in Afghanistan. 

How do we get there?  

Faced with these four scenarios, where do we go from here?   

We need to collectively take a stand to choose the scenario that we want to happen and frame our actions around it. In my opinion as a woman, it is clear that the developmental scenario will bring out the best results, not only for women, but for the entire country. We need to give peace, development, democracy and women’s rights a chance to improve our lives. And we need to say “enough!” to the leadership of people who foster oligarchy and treat our nation as a playground of their own selfish interests. 

The challenge, however, is how do we influence the current political scene to be able to sway the Afghan scenario towards a developmental scenario?  I think that the peace process has opened a floodgate for many powerful factions to assert their own interests in the leadership of the country. It is like a feisty scramble for the great bacon. So, while we only have the government today to bleed our coffers dry, we see a future situation where every powerful faction cooperates with each other to collectively squeeze every drop of resources that are meant for our people. They will not be stealing only our peoples’ money, but also the money that taxpayers of many countries of the world worked hard for. This is why we are in this together.

 It is important for us to offer an alternative. If all the major players in the current political field are oligarchs, we can be assured that our country will go nowhere but into the hands of the oligarchs. To me, therefore, the biggest battlefront is the election. We should be able to put up a candidate who will be overwhelmingly supported by the Afghan people, no matter in which part of the world they live. We need to create a different version of people power to turn the table against the oligarchs by mustering an overwhelming victory for a peoples’ Presidential candidate who is backed by the general population in the 2014 national election. Maybe we need to pick out and bring back a brilliant, charismatic, visionary and principled from the many Afghans living abroad -   put him or her in the President’s seat and help him or her use the tremendous natural resources underneath our desert to give our country an economic miracle.    

And to do this, we should be able to consolidate the votes of the youth, the women, the disabled, the elderly and the ordinary citizens who are tired of being pawns and victims of the problems created by our oligarch leaders.  Our people have suffered long enough, and it should not be impossible to sway votes and protect the integrity of the election through a silent revolution in the 2014 polls. To me, a good leader and a great people working together is the best antidote to the messy situation that we are in. 

My second idea is for us to strengthen international lobbying to tie up international aid with the human rights agenda. We saw this work during the past twelve years.  When the international community made it clear that it was in favour of promoting women’s rights, incredibly positive things happened. We ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) without any reservation; we enshrined women’s rights in the Constitution; we positioned gender equality as a cross cutting agenda of the Afghan National Development Strategy; we adopted an EVAW decree; we brought women in public offices and put Afghanistan in the top 30 countries of the world with the highest representation of women in the Parliament. We also put women in local councils; we won women’s right to get inside the mosque and practice their freedom to worship.  These are not small achievements, and we Afghan women know that without the help of the international community we would not have been able to achieve that much. In short, the international community should use the power of aid to influence the political scene of Afghanistan towards a scenario that will benefit the general population and make oligarchy an anachronism.

My third idea is to help the women’s movement in Afghanistan to organize their voice and obtain a space in the current political process. There are current talks on whether there will be an election or an interim administration, or whether the government should be presidential, parliamentary or federative. Whatever change may happen, if women’s perspectives are not taken, it will make no difference to the lives of women at all. We therefore need an intervention that will constantly keep the women’s agenda alive in the midst of these talks which are likely to take place very soon. We want at least 30 percent of women’s representation in any form of government that may be established. We want at least a 30 percent share of the development resources being used for the women’s agenda in the country. We want reforms that are based on gender equality, particularly in the legal system, so that women can enjoy protection under the law. And we want an across-the-board 15-year moratorium in the repeal or amendment of laws and policies on women that were adopted in the past 12 years.

 I endorse gender equality as an axial theme of the post Millennium Development Goal agenda.  I know that my government will make no statement about it, but this is what women of Afghanistan want.


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