The Afghan Constitution of 2004 is arguably one of the most progressive legal documents in terms of women’s rights in the region, according to afghan-web.com. It guarantees women’s equality before the law (Article 22), women’s education (Articles 43 and 44), the right to work (Article 48), the right to health care (Article 52), support for women without a breadwinner (Article 53), the physical and mental wellbeing of mothers and the elimination of customary practices that are contrary to Islamic prescriptions (Article 54), and women’s representation in both houses of parliament (Articles 83 and 84). In addition, Article 7 stipulates that the state respects the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The problem is that none of these laws are implemented.
For centuries, according to Afghan Web, an Afghan news resource based in the US, women have been denied these rights either by official government decree or by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers. Women in Afghanistan still endure some of the most restrictive societal laws on earth and are forced behind closed doors and pulled veils to keep them removed from life. The government does little to uphold laws enacted to protect women and their rights. Many live in fear. Few escape. Some manage to get to foreign run NGO shelters. Nevertheless, they live in fear, often having had to forego the right to raise or ever see their children, in exchange for living in safety. (see: rawa.org)
Still we, pat ourselves on the collective back for ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, and pretend that this alone has emancipated the women of Afghanistan and given them equality. Not so. Not even close. Change takes more hard work than bombs falling from the sky and a few people pushed into hiding where they harden their stance and spread their venom more intently at a closer range. It takes the painstaking work of people on the ground, creating awareness, changing belief systems, altering attitudes and questioning loyalties to a tradition that is abusive.
Zarin Hamid who serves as a Peace Fellow for the Advocacy Project in Kabul, Afghanistan writes in her blog from the Afghan capital Kabul that “despite this degree of presence on the international and national scene, women are shut out of the decision-making and policy creation that goes on in other areas”. Women’s achievements, she observes, still pale in comparison to the abuse and violence they endure. She writes that “many face violence, discrimination, and intimidation… due to endemic cultural practices and to the conflict that contributes severely to the terrible plight of women in Afghanistan. [Women] continue to face tenuous circumstances and in many parts of the country continue to bear the brunt of the upheavals and brutality of the conflict.” (see: http://advocacynet.org/wordpress-mu/zhamid/)
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many would conjecture that life for Afghan women has improved. Under the Taliban women were forbidden from going to school, working, or even seeing a male physician – which often meant not being able to see a physician at all. The simple act of child-birth had become a perilous tightrope of life and death for many young Afghan women and girls who were married forcibly and bore children before they were ready. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether male or female – have equal rights and duties under the law”. Under Hamid Karzai’s post invasion government women have been allowed to return to work and school. They are no longer forced by law to wear the all covering burqa, and have even been appointed to prominent positions in the government. Despite all this, however, many challenges remain. The repression of women is still prevalent in rural areas where families continue to restrict their own mothers, daughters, wives and sisters from participation in public life. They are forced into marriages and denied a basic education. Numerous schools for girls have been burned down and little girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school (see our earlier posts). http://www.afghan-web.com/
As long as Afghanistan remains a patriarchal society dominated by the notions harbored by men, the availability of health care for women is only as good as the willingness of men to engage in the concept that women need separate and independent health care for their physical well being.
“I will not take my wife to a male doctor even if she dies,” said Pir Gul from Paktika Province, southeastern Afghanistan, explaining that such a thing went against tradition. http://www.afghan-web.com/health/women_paktika.html. His wife’s life hung in the balance during a difficult child birth. Mid-wives are these womens’ saviors, and with little training, child birth is perilous in Afghanistan where 70-80% of girls are forced into early marriage. With no birth control and no education, and a culture that tolerates plenty of abuse, a life expectancy of 44 years among Afghan women seems like a miracle.
Mohammad Tawasoli, an Imam at a mosque in Wardak Province, central Afghanistan, tells the local community to maintain a two-year gap between pregnancies and to to avoid child marriage in order to enable mother and child remain healthy. “Islam does not allow the killing of the fetus”, he explains, “but it also does not want mothers to face health risks because of… constant pregnancies,” Tawasoli preaches. The Imam will have more influence on the community that science ever could. “Islam does not oppose delayed pregnancies if this helps the health and well-being of mothers,” he told IRIN in Kabul, adding that those who think otherwise believe in superstition rather than true Islamic principles.Afghan-Web suggests “religious scholars such as Tawasoli wield strong influence among people in rural communities where high rates of illiteracy and lack of awareness about health issues contribute to the deaths of thousands of mothers and children every year.”
“I was put into chains for a whole month by my father. I ran away twice but was returned home by the police. Everybody says I am the guilty one, that my father has the right to beat me,” says Fahima, a poor Afghan girl who embodies the life of the countless girls who often resort to suicide as their only way out.
According to Amnesty International women in Afghanistan continue to suffer widespread abuse that remains largely unaddressed. In a report released in 2008, the London-based rights group says few Afghan women are safe from the threat of violence. In the report entitled Afghanistan: Women Under Attack, Amnesty International finds Afghan women are at daily risk of abduction, rape, and forced marriage, as well as being traded as chattel to settle disputes and debts. (see our post: http://womenfound.org/2010/03/16/12/) .
Afghan education authorities say they are facing a difficult task of convincing parents to send their daughters to school as attacks on female students have increased in recent months. (see: http://law.rightpundits.com/?p=1509).
Three girls sustained severe burns in the southern town of Kandahar this year when unknown men sprayed acid on up to 15 girls. One of the girls might permanently lose her sight. In a land where an educated woman is a demanding woman, education for girls and women is frowned upon.
Registered cases of physical violence against women and girls in Afghanistan have increased by about 40 percent since March 2007.
UN agencies caution that the dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of violence against women does not necessarily mean that gender-based violence has increased. “There is an increased awareness among the law enforcement authorities, so it is not [necessarily] an increasing trend of violence but that there are more people coming forward to report the violence” said Ramesh Penumaka, representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Afghanistan. The expectation is that nobody would or should talk about gender based violence when it happens within the confines of the private home. Women and their rights be damned, we have an image to protect, goes the logic. When the woman dies it’s called protecting the family “Honor”.
However, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) estimates that gender based violence has reached “shocking and worrying” levels in Afghanistan and efforts must be redoubled to tackle it. “Our findings clearly indicate that despite over six years of international rhetoric about Afghan women’s emancipation and development, a real and tangible change has not touched the lives of millions of women in this country,” said Suraya Subhrang, a commissioner on the rights of women at AIHRC. See a story of abuse: http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/domestic_violence.html
Sarah, 20, set herself ablaze in a desperate bid to end her life after four years of marriage to a drug addict in Sheendand District in western Afghanistan. Her family extinguished the fire and took her to the hospital. “I was sad when I opened my eyes in the hospital,” the severely burnt woman told IRIN. Sarah’s husband is a jobless drug addict who often beat her for alleged “insubordination”.
“I wanted to die and never come back to this life,” she told IRIN from her bed in the Herat city hospital. (see: http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/self-immolation.html)
“Domestic violence against women not only has serious physical and mental effects on women but also causes other grave problems such as self-immolation, suicide, escape from home, forced prostitution and addiction to narcotics,” according to a study by the AIHRC in 2007 [http://www.aihrc.org.af/Evaluation_Rep_Gen_Sit_Wom.htm].
Afghan-web.com estimates that in one month period nearly 50 self-immolation cases were recorded by Herat city hospital alone. Only 7 were saved. “Ninety percent of the women who commit self-immolation die at hospital due to deep burns and fatal injuries,” said Arif Jalai, a dermatologist at the Herat hospital.
More than six years after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001 many women still suffer domestic and social violence, discrimination and lack of access to unbiased say women’s rights activists. The Russian invasion was scary, the Taliban was a nightmare, and now the War on Terror has been disappointingly similar to what came before it. Violence and tribal fueds still control the streets, corruption still runs rampant in government, joblessness and hunger abound and women remain unprotected and frightened in a landscape that is both physically and emotionally brutal to them.
The Afghan Girl:
In a follow-up story by Cathy Newman on a Photograph by Steve McCurry which was featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, a woman named Sharbat embodies the difficult life of an Afghan woman lucky enough to survive the string of armed conflicts that have plagued Afghanistan.
Here are excerpts from the story. See the entire article at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text/1
“There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,” a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.
“We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,” said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. “The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.” Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm. “You never knew when the planes would come,” he recalled. “We hid in caves.”
It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? “Each change of government brings hope,” said Yusufzai. “Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors.”
Update: TIME Magazine cover: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20100809,00.html