Political Instability and Patriarchal Society to Drive Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

By Claire Davaine

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

Afghanistan has a tumultuous past, and political landscape has drastically changed in the last fifty years. The country has been occupied in turn by communist Soviet troops, the infamous oppressive Islamic Taliban and US-led international forces. Recently, fights between the Taliban – still controlling key areas - and government forces in Afghanistan have escalated. The upsurge in violence had devastating consequences for civilians, especially for women and children who have been left particularly vulnerable.

Indeed, women's freedom increasingly rolled back - their rights having been exploited by different groups for political gain. Sometimes being improved but most often being abused – such as under the Mujahedeen and the Taliban rules in the late 20th century.

 “Afghan women were the ones who lost most from the war and militarisation”, states Amnesty International researcher Horia Mosadiq.

Tumultuous History

"As a girl, I remember my mother wearing miniskirts and taking us to the cinema [and] my aunt went to university," says Amnesty International researcher Horia Mosadiq, who was a young girl living in Kabul when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Before 1978 and the Soviet occupation, women in Afghanistan were to be equal to men. Afghan women had access to professional careers and university-level education, shops were selling non-traditional clothing, they could navigate freely and without supervision 

According to a State Department report from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2001: “Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s; and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women were making important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan’s highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women.”

But today, think of women in Afghanistan evokes women in full-body burqas, restrictions and under house arrest.

Indeed, the cold war, civil conflicts and the Taliban rules, shaped violence, oppression and chaos in Afghanistan. The strictest version of sharia (Islamic law) has been introduced. And the price is high for women. Women are not only forced to wear the veil in public, they are banned from going to school and working. Also, they were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative. For defying the regime's repressive laws, women were openly flogged and executed.

Fifteen years after the fall of the Taliban, many schools opened their doors to girls and women went back to work. There was progress towards equality: a new constitution in 2003 enshrined women's rights in it and stated that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman — have equal rights and duties before the law”. In 2009, Afghanistan also adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law.

Although government and administration have relaxed policies around women's rights, violence against women in the country is still rife. Afghan women are still living in terror and violence against women remains high.

No Country for Women

The Taliban and other highly conservative insurgent groups still control some parts of Afghanistan, and violence and discrimination against women and girls continues - all over Afghanistan. In 2011 it was named 'the most dangerous country' to be a woman.

But in war-torn Afghanistan, Taliban are not necessarily the most ferocious opponents of women’s rights. Most of the time, their own families pose the greatest threat to women. In a society that is primarily male dominant, they struggle to gain freedoms.

"It's a question of control and power," said Sima Samar, a prominent women's rights activist and chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "You use religion, you use culture, you use tradition, you use gender to keep the power, to keep control."

Global Rights estimates that almost 90 percent of women experience physical, sexual or psychological abuse or forced marriage. Overwhelmingly, it is their families who are committing these crimes.

Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where it is commonly believed that men are entitled to make decisions for women, include those pertaining to engagement and marriage.

Young girls are routinely used as barter to settle disputes or arrange marriages between families in Afghanistan. Particularly outside cities. According to Trust in Education, today, more than 50% of Afghan girls are married or engaged by 12 and almost 60% of girls are married by 16.

These common arranged marriage have increasing with a lack of security from three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage.

While the current government affirmed its commitment to human rights, it failed to address violations of women’s rights. More, men keep control on women’s right they reduced when it feels it is politically expedient.

Many of women, like Afghan Shi’a women, are still denied access to their basic rights such as education and employment without their husbands’ express permission. The current president, Hamid Karzai, also signed a law that would basically legalise rape of a woman by her husband. The Article 132, states: "Women [are required] to obey their husbands sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least 'once every four nights while traveling."

Moreover, as most of Afghan women are illiterate, they are not engaged in processes of any kind and their rights can be easily bargained away.

"There is a lot to be done before the equality of political rhetoric becomes an everyday reality for women in Afghanistan," says Amnesty.

All 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.