Will courage be enough?


Faced with rising violence in the run-up to the withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghan women’s rights activists fear for the future, Lynne O’Donnell reports from Kabul.

Lynne O'Donnell
11 October 2013

There is a lot of fear in Fawzia Koofi’s life. As a high-profile member of Afghanistan’s parliament with ambitions for the presidency, her safety is never assured. In the past year Taliban-affiliated thugs have made clear their views on female emancipation by murdering several women pursuing careers in public office. On September 7, Koofi received a warning: a group of 30 Taliban were planning to attack. Threats and attempts on her life are ‘normal’, she said that evening, but the intensity of this threat was chilling. ‘If there are 30 of them, no one can stop them’. 

Koofi is a survivor. On the day she was born her mother left her out in the sun to die, distraught that she had brought a daughter into the family. The mother changed her mind, and so provided Afghanistan with a strong voice for women’s rights. But as the country faces a double transition – presidential elections in April and the departure of foreign troops by the end of next year – Koofi’s main fear is that the freedoms Afghans have won over the past decade, particularly in women’s rights but also in media, are being reversed. She sees a shift back to conservative values, and she links it with attempts by President Hamid Karzai to broker a peace deal with the Taliban.

 Women’s advocates are now faced with a choice: to prepare quietly to defend their gains and improve observance; or to go out and campaign to enshrine their rights in law. Not surprisingly, Koofi is in the latter camp. Her many critics say her approach is endangering the very progress that she claims she is desperate to protect. Women’s rights in Afghanistan are, like most of what goes on in the country, vulnerable to whatever change comes when international forces leave by the end of 2014.

Many people in Kabul cannot see beyond the allied withdrawal. Elections, due in April, are exacerbating fears of what is to come. President Karzai is constitutionally barred from a third term, though he is expected to remain an influential presence. As an unpopular president in need of a legacy, Karzai is pursuing a peace with the Taliban that could, if successful, lead to the insurgents taking a role in government.

The dark undercurrent of Afghan politics these days is Taliban appeasement; the currency of this bargain appears to be modern freedoms, most obviously legal protection for women. Women are already losing ground and Karzai has stopped publicly supporting women’s rights. From time to time news from Afghanistan reveals shocking cases of young women tortured by their families. Twelve years after the Americans toppled the Taliban, with the declared aims of ending terrorism and emancipating Afghan women, it might seem as if not much has changed.

But the truth is more complicated. These horrific cases of torture and abuse which shock the world come to light because Afghanistan has a law that protects women from such outrages. A decree on the Eradication of Violence against Women was signed by President Karzai before the 2009 elections, to secure the female vote. This is applied, often imperfectly, across the country and is yielding visible improvements in the enforcement of anti-violence measures.

In many areas women have benefited from 10 years of change, some of it profoundly impacting on their quality of life. Death in childbirth is down to one every two hours, from one every 25 minutes in recent memory. Only about one in 10 Afghan women can read today. But that is three times the figure of 2001. Attacks on women, largely unreported, take place every day, says Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who in June escaped a suicide attack on her heavily fortified office.

Among other high-profile incidents, Fariba Ahmadi Kakar, one of 69 women in the 250-seat parliament, was kidnapped by the Taliban and held hostage for three weeks. In September, Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian diarist whose book on living in Afghanistan was made into a Bollywood film, was dragged from her home and shot by Taliban. In Helmand province, the most senior woman police officer was killed in July, and then her successor shot dead in September. With women prominent in public life under threat, in May Koofi set out to have the anti-violence decree enshrined in law by parliament.

Her action caused uproar. Local and international rights groups, embassies and multilateral organizations lobbied her to stop. Koofi refused to budge. The debate went ahead, and for half an hour, conservative MPs spoke of the law as un-Islamic. Debate was cancelled by the Speaker, who, one source said, had been primed by Karzai to ensure the vote did not take place. Karzai told a rights advocate that eradication of violence against women was a goal that could only be pursued ‘quietly’, not before parliament. But many do not believe that Karzai still supports the anti-violence law and is in fact behind the conservative push. People who remember life under the Taliban, and see the insurgents’ influence in pre-election, pre-2014 politics, say that a repeal of the law is not an impossibility. 

Activists tend to agree that if Koofi had not raised the issue, Islamist MPs may have continued to ignore the decree. “It has had a very negative impact,” said Zia Moballegh, the senior advocacy and research officer at the Open Society Foundation in Kabul. Conservatives, whose views are dominant, may feel obliged to gut the law, and then turn their attention to other legislation, including the draft Family Law supported by women MPs and civil society organizations, he said. “Outside the parliament,” says Moballegh, conservative MPs “are sending out the message to judges, prosecutors, civil society and media that this law does not have the power of an enacted law because it has not been approved by parliament. So they are undermining the authority of the law [and] have been very successful in challenging its implementation.”

Moballegh echoes the concerns of many Afghan and Western supporters of women’s rights when he says that after 2014, there will be inadequate international oversight, militarily, politically, economically and socially. “The army and police are not able to provide security. When there is no security, civil society cannot be active, and we are losing all the gains – this is a real fear,” he says.

But that is not the whole story. The pressure of time and politics appears to be turning the many women’s groups – who often compete for foreign funding – into something like an organized united front. Nader Nadery, the head of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think-tank in Kabul, says that women’s activists were as assiduous in their lobbying of Koofi as the international community. “She was pushed back strongly by Afghan women who are no longer too shy to tell her to her face, ‘you’ve got it wrong, so stop’. That’s a very good sign,” Nadery said. “I cannot claim yet that they are a full-fledged women’s movement, but they are certainly a collective voice around major issues.”

In anticipation of further attacks on anti-violence legislation, advocacy groups appear to be coalescing organically to come up with counter-arguments, based on Sharia, to conservative campaigns against pro-women’s rights legislation. Perhaps with some exaggeration, Nadery proclaims: “The Afghan woman as victim is an endangered species.” But so, too, it seems, is Koofi’s bid to be Afghanistan’s first female president. “If I don’t stand, if people like me don’t stand, then we automatically give space to the extremists,” she says. “But it is so costly. I am not worried about gaining people’s support, I have that. The only thing I don’t have is the financial resources that the others do. They spend $50 million on a campaign; I don’t even have zero-point-zero-zero per cent of that.”

This article was originally published in Chatham House's magazine The World Today, Volume 69, Number 8/9 in October 2013. 

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