Afghanistan's Women after 'Liberation'

Znet.com, Los Angeles Times, Sydney Morning Herald,
December 29, 2003
by Meena Nanji

Last week in Afghanistan, at the Loya Jirga's (Grand Assembly) convention to debate Afghanistan's new constitution, an extraordinary thing happened. Malalai Joya, a 25-year old female social worker from the rural province of Farah, said what no-one up to now has dared say: that many of the Jirga's chairmen were criminals who had destroyed the country and instead of being given influential positions in the Jirga, they should be tried for their crimes in courts.

A furor ensued with many in the mujahideen-(holy warrior)-dominated Jirga shouting "death to Communists". Joya's microphone was cut-off and she was temporarily removed from the room 'for her own safety'.

It was an extraordinarily brave stand by Joya. Many Afghans share her sentiments yet most are too afraid to voice them in public. With death threats received, Joya herself is under UN protection for the duration of the Jirga.

The 'actions' she was referring to took place largley during the reign of the Jehadis (most religiously conservative mujahideen) from 1992-6. The Jehadis, notorious for throwing acid in the faces of women, slicing off their breasts and other atrocious acts, gained power during the 1980's when the U.S saw fit to fund, arm and train them in the fight against Soviet occupation. During their rule, they terrorized the civilian population with blanket rocket shellings, rape, torture and killing, to such a degree that when the Taliban emerged in 1996, they were initially welcomed.

After the fall of the Taliban these same Jehadi leaders, including Buhruddin Rabbani, Abdul Sayyaf, and members of the Northern Alliance, have re-emerged, with disastrous consequences for Afghans, especially women.

Earlier this year, I visited Kabul to finish shooting a documentary about Afghan women. Two of the three women I had been 'following' had refused to return to an Afghanistan dominated by the mujahideen, who, they said, would only bring more violence to the country. They remain in Pakistan. The one woman who has returned now lives a life of almost total sequestration.

For most women, life has not changed much since the ousting of the Taliban. While ostensibly there are increased opportunities: women can go to school, receive health care and gain employment, in reality few women can take advantage of these possibilities and they are largely restricted to Kabul. According to the many aid workers and Afghan women that I spoke to, women continue to be very fearful of the armed US-backed mujahideen who exert control over much of the country. Most women, even in Kabul, still wear the burqa (the head to toe garment that covers the whole body) as a protective measure against public humiliation and physical attack. The U.N and international human rights groups recently released reports detailing increased incidents of beatings, kidnappings and rape by U.S-funded regional warlords and their militia, stating: "local militia commanders…violate women's rights and commit sexual abuse with impunity".

In addition, women are still subject to the demands of their husbands or male relatives, many of whom do not want to grant them any degree of independence. Women face a lack of choice in their personal lives and vocation; forced and under-age marriages are common, and education for girls is still contested.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs, ushered in with much fanfare by the U.S and the U.N., is of little help in advancing women's rights. Many believe it exists largely in name to keep international donors happy. With an ill-defined mandate, it has no legal jurisdiction and no implementation power. Additionally, many women working in the Ministry are from the elite and deeply conservative themselves, with little interest in changing the status quo.

Faitana Gailani, the wealthy founder of the Afghan Women's Council, an NGO purportedly working for 'women's rights', exemplifies this perspective. The New York Times reported that after Malalai Joya's impassioned plea in the Loya Jirga, Gailani explained to her that for the country to move forward with unity, women had to proceed carefully.

"Till when should we keep quiet?" Ms. Joya asked

Gailani's response: "Till we are strong, till the country is strong, till our democracy is strong, till women's situation in this country is strong. Then we can open our mouths."

Meanwhile, the few rights women do possess are being curtailed. This is largely due to the role of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, an ally of the pro-Wahabbi Saudi-backed fundamentalist leader Abdul Sayyaf. In violation of the existing constitution, Shinwari is over 80 and has training only in religious, not secular, law.

For women, President Karzai's appointment of Shinwari is a nail in their coffin. He has packed the 9-member Supreme Court with 137 sympathetic mullahs and called for Taliban-style punishments to implement Shari'a law. He has also brought back the Taliban's dreaded Department of Vice and Virtue, re-named the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which now deploys women to stop public displays of "un-Islamic" behavior among Afghan women.

If a woman reports being beaten or raped, and by some miracle her complaint reaches court, the overwhelming attitude is: "what did she do to provoke this action?" She is held responsible while the perpetrator is considered merely reactive. Shari'a law is invoked to support this belief. Women who do report abuses are often put in prison, and held indefinitely against their will, purportedly as a protection for themselves. The real reason they are held, speculate some, is to serve as examples for other women: "if you report a man for his abusive behavior, you will go to jail".

The litany of laws passed this year governing women's conduct reads like a page out of the Taliban handbook. They include the banning of co-education classes, restrictions on women's ability to travel, the banning of women singing in public. The biggest blow yet to women's rights was dealt in November, when a 1970's law prohibiting married women from attending high school classes was upheld. This is a major step backwards for women and girls, as many under-age girls are forced into marriage and now have no hope of improving their lives. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has done nothing to protest the law.

In areas outside Kabul, conditions are much worse. Girls' schools have been set on fire. In Herat, under Governor Ishmael Khan, women cannot travel with men who are not related to them, and if women are seen with 'un-related' men, police may send them to hospital for "chastity tests". In addition, male teachers are banned from teaching women, a move endorsed by Chief Justice Shinwari.

What is particularly ominous about Afghanistan's situation is that the oppression of women is once again being given legal and religious sanction: State apparatus is being actively used to de-recognize their human rights. It is vital that Americans speak up now against this. Malalai Joya's courageous stand must be supported and her charges investigated. The U.S should stop its current support of fundamentalists and demand that women's rights be explicitly protected in Afghanistan's new constitution.

Meena Nanji is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles and New Delhi. She is currently working on a documentary about the lives of three Afghan women, entitled View from A Grain of Sand.


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