The devastating truth of women’s rights in Afghanistan

The looming withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan highlights the apparent dispensability of the modest gains Afghan women have seen since 2001—and the deep-seated forces which sustain a viciously patriarchal order.

Shabnam Nasimi
11 July 2014

“The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women …”Barack Obama, Ladies’ Home Journal, September 2008

Afghan women trainee police officers with guns

Changed roles: Afghan women training as police officers under ISAF stewardship. Balazs Gardi / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Thirteen years on from the international community’s intervention, the situation of Afghan women still gives rise to despair. Although women’s rights and freedoms in Afghanistan have finally appeared on the international radar, they still linger on the margins in many respects and violence against women still emanates in part from laws conducive to its perpetration. Overall, the position of girls and women remains bleak.

Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where all the major institutions are controlled by men. Although, since 2001, there have been many endeavours to elevate women and improvements have been observed, the foundations of discrimination against women have not been uprooted.

In the context of weak law and order, the strict tribal norms, gendered values and religious extremism which are embedded in the history of Afghanistan have been associated with gross violations of the rights of women and would survive significant legal reforms, even were these to be instituted. So one can expect continuing obstacles for women in securing access to healthcare, education and employment, as well as limitations on freedom of movement and opportunities for equal social and political participation.

Killing for “honour”

Much of the oppression of women in Afghanistan is attributed to Pashtun practices: male elders having a say over marriages of young women, high bride prices given to the father of the bride, suggesting the sale of women into marriage, and “honour” killings of women for purported sexual misconduct. During the past few decades, these norms and values have however been adopted across all ethnicities in Afghanistan and the seclusion of women is thus prevalent—entailing women wearing the chaderi or burqa when they leave the confines of the household compound.

Afghanistan’s entrenched traditional and customary practices constitute one of the strongest sources of violence. One of the most esteemed values in Afghanistan is namus. Namus is that which is defended for “honour” to be upheld—as distinct from behaviour which might be deemed honourable, such as showing hospitality. If someone is held to have offended the rules of a gendered order, then it is claimed there is reason to act to protect one’s namus.

Almost every woman in Afghanistan is hidden and isolated from the outside world. 

There have been thousands of cases where women have been physically tortured, beaten severely, brutally mutilated, burned alive or had acid thrown at them—as well as being forced to marry at a very early age, raped or sold into prostitution, with many engaging in self-immolation as a result—and all in the name of namus. Women in Afghanistan, as in other tribal societies, are considered bearers of the “honour” of the family and bound within the associated chains of what is held to be sanctity.

Why such overwhelming violence against women, such calculated misogyny? To taken-for-granted cultural “traditions” should be added the materiality of wealth and power. Sustaining the current political, economic, socio-cultural, religious and tribal systems, even the educational deprivation of the female population, provides opportunities for men to exploit, legally or illegally—including via the drug trade, human trafficking, the black market and dealing in arms. Empowering girls and women would take that away from them or, at a minimum, force them to share the advantages that come with mobility, education and self-sufficiency. Hence, the status quo is preferable and many men resort to criminal behavior and violence to preserve it—knowing they can often act criminally with impunity in so doing.

Root causes

The Afghan government and law-enforcement agencies need to take the discrimination and violence against women seriously. But at the same time the root causes of the problem have to be addressed. Until and unless women are considered human beings and an integral part of society nothing fundamental will change.

Afghanistan today sees more than 50% of Afghan girls married or engaged by the age of 12 and almost 60% married by 16. Almost 80% of Afghan girls are forced or “arranged” into marriage with men who are far older, some in their 60s. One of the reasons which prompts many families to force their young daughters into marriage is the lack of security stemming from three decades of war, including the risk of kidnapping and rape. Some girls are bartered into marriage to repay debt or resolve a dispute. And widespread poverty still compels many parents to have their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them.

The implications of child marriage cannot be overestimated as many girls do not continue their education and remain illiterate. They have babies while still young teenagers, increasing health problems and risking death for themselves and their children (the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women).

Education is the best strategy to liberate women from male domination. Only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school, and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade. Many Afghan families will only permit their daughters to attend all-girls schools close to home and few such schools exist. Other families believe it is unnecessary for girls to be educated. Schools for girls have been burned down, hundreds of teachers educating girls have been threatened or killed and girls have been physically harmed while attending or walking to or from school.

Almost every woman in Afghanistan is hidden and isolated from the outside world. Islamic extremists insist women and girls stay at home and can only leave if they are fully covered and accompanied by a male relative. In the cities most women wear a burqa, which completely covers them. The fact that girls live with their husband’s extended family often results in them being treated like servants or slaves, compounding their isolation. A culture prohibiting women to appear in public combined with a widespread lack of education means women enjoy few economic opportunities: in general, they are confined to housework.

In addition, women’s legal standing is limited. According to sharia law, a female’s testimony is worth half that of a man. In custody cases, children will usually be awarded to the father or grandfather. So divorce—even in cases of extreme abuse—is less likely to be sought, because a woman must be prepared to lose her children. These discriminatory practices against women are pervasive, occurring across ethnic groups in both rural and urban areas.

Many Afghans, including some religious leaders, reinforce harmful customs by invoking their interpretation of Islam. In most cases, however, these practices are inconsistent with sharia, as well as Afghan and international law. As long as patriarchy is perceived as the dominant culture and public value in Afghan society, violence and the tendency to commit violent acts will remain an integral part of culture and valued relationships.

Modest progress

It would be wrong, though, to discount the achievements made since 2001—especially since those achievements are now in jeopardy. According to NATO’s 2012 statistics:

  • in the upper and lower houses of the Afghan parliament, there are now 21 and 69 women respectively;
  • three ministers are female and gender directorates are functioning in 27 out of the 31 ministries;
  • out of 1,472 judges, 142 are women, including one provincial governor;
  • there are now more than 1,500 women in the Afghan National Security Forces, and
  • the number of girls enrolled in primary and secondary school has gone from 50,000 in 2001 to 3,230,000 in 2011, while the number of women enrolled in higher education has gone from zero to more than 20,000 in the same period.

    Change, if it is to be permanent, cannot be imposed by western outsiders on this tribal, Islamic, post-conflict society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. Educating boys is just as crucial as educating girls: educated men are much more likely to support more choices for women and educated husbands appreciate and are less threatened by their educated partners.

    Nevertheless, although these gains are real, the obstacles to women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan are forbidding. Reforming the laws and penal codes, improving the performance of the judiciary, aligning the Elimination of Violence Against Women law more closely with Afghan criminal law, criminalising rape and redefining it in a way that dissociates it from zina (adultery), building awareness of the plight of girls and women, and facilitating attitudinal shifts toward a more gender-balanced society are all imperative.

    A vicious circle of lack of education, poverty, illiteracy, violence and insecurity fuel the highly patriarchal society and even fundamentalism and militancy which still characterise Afghanistan today. Breaking the cycle will take great resolve and courage, as many Afghan women and men have demonstrated—sometimes paying with their lives. Although progress is slow, hope is found in places least expected

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