When the Taliban fell in 2001, my family and I were already settled in Pakistan after having fled our home country, Afghanistan, like so many others. The new political landscape born in 2001 brought newfound hope to Afghans, including my family. I remember the mounting enthusiasm for women’s rights in Afghanistan, which was shared by the international community and the Afghan government.
In 2004, after 11 years as refugees, we moved back to Kabul. It was a bright and hopeful time. The issue of women’s freedom was still fresh, not only in Kabul but throughout the country and among the international community and aid organisations. In 2004, women were granted 25 per cent representation in Afghanistan’s parliament, one of the highest in the world.
But by 2006, women’s rights, security, education and health had become secondary concerns. Terrible violence broke out that year, pulling Afghan and international attention towards security. In recent years, just a few miles from Kabul, women have once again been denied the right to go to school and some have even had their faces sprayed with acid or were subjected to other violent acts, such as kidnapping, rape and murder.
The growing focus away from Afghan women’s rights, both in the Afghan government and the international community, has made me wonder if women have been used for the sake of political expediency. The presence of women in public and government appears to be merely symbolic in Afghanistan; they hold no real power or influence.
One terrible manifestation of this problem was the approval by Afghan President Hamid Karzai of the Shi’ite Personal Status Law in March 2009 that effectively destroyed Shi’ite women’s rights and freedoms in Afghanistan. Under this law, women have no right to deny their husbands sex unless they are ill, and can be denied food if they do. They are also denied the right to leave the home without the permission of a male family member. An August 2009 revision to the law allowed Shi’ite women to leave their homes without permission only for emergencies.
This law is clearly a step backward for women’s rights.
The Afghan government’s stance on women is confusing: it protests Taliban injustice, exemplified by the story of Bibi Aisha whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband and who was profiled recently by Time Magazine, yet it supports this family law which actually legalises abuse against women.
We are in danger of returning to the point where we were with women’s rights almost a decade ago. If the Afghan government and the international community don’t make women’s rights a priority, the torture and oppression of women will once again become common practice in Afghan society.
To avoid this sad future, both the Afghan government and the international community must be patient and remain committed to their long-term vision, projects and plans. Strengthening the central government is key to establishing security throughout the country, which is especially important for women.
And educational programmes that not only teach the population how to read and write, but also provide them with capacity-building trainings for jobs and workshops that include trauma healing, personal empowerment and a foundation for peacebuilding, are imperative. Importantly, women who work in parliament or governmental organisations need relevant leadership training.
But these programmes will only get us so far.
Based on my experience as an intern with Women for Women International and other non-governmental organisations, I believe that we should not depend on governments and politicians to decide the fate of women in Afghanistan. As the international community debates its course of action and commitments to Afghanistan, it is time for us, as individuals and groups in this community, to reach out to those women who are in desperate need in Afghanistan.
And inside Afghanistan, thoughtful men and women of goodwill must find the courage to stand up and fight for women’s rights. Those in the Afghan diaspora must join them and pressure the Afghan and US governments and aid organisations to prioritise women’s rights.
We all need to live up to the promises made in the last decade. We can — and must — take a stand for Afghan women’s rights, and their future.
* Simin Wahdat is a student at Bucknell University and an intern with Women for Women International in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).