In the last ten years, Afghanistan has undergone significant change in its international position, domestic society and security. Amidst this political turmoil, Afghan women have often been caught in the crossfire. Today, the Karzai government hopes to reconcile with the Taliban – remembered for the hostility of its government’s policies toward women. At this pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s history, one wonders whether President Karzai’s policies have done enough to protect and restore the rights of women that have been steadily eroded over the last twenty years, and whether or not they will be enough to withstand the integration of the Taliban.
How far has the Karzai Administration come?
To understand the Afghan government’s hopes for the reconciliation movement, it is first critical to understand the challenges that Afghan women have faced. The Taliban’s war on women extended far and wide. With no constitution or rule of law, municipal authorities used the Taliban’s interpretation of Shari’a law. Severe restrictions on movement, dress and work were in place: women were forced to wear the burqa, were not allowed to wear high-heeled shoes or to be seen in public without a male blood relative and were largely prohibited from working. A woman was expected to be a homemaker that was “neither seen nor heard.” Since women were not allowed out in public, women’s physical and mental health suffered tremendously under the Taliban. With no judicial system but their own, the Taliban “terrorized the city of Kabul by publicly punishing alleged wrongdoers in the Kabul sports stadium and requiring public attendance at the floggings, shootings, hangings, beheadings, and amputations,” says Amnesty International.
President Hamid Karzai’s rise to power in 2001 brought hope to Afghanistan. Karzai was instrumental in reforming the Afghan state and in passing the 2003 Afghan Constitution. On his second Inauguration Day in 2009, Karzai promised to rid the country of corruption and create a safe environment for each Afghan. However, Karzai’s rhetoric is far from the reality of the situation in Afghanistan. Though women have returned to public life and NGOs have been invaluable in providing women with support, Karzai has failed on protecting women’s rights on several fronts. For example, Karzai approved a law in 2009 that, according to the UN, sanctioned marital rape. In March 2009, he approved the Shi’a Personal Status Law, which denied Shiite women numerous rights, including child custody and freedom of movement. Two convicted gang rapists were even granted presidential pardons. Conclusively, Karzai has been unable to resist pressures from radicals within the country, making the possibility of reconciliation even more concerning for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The Risks of Reconciliation
What does reconciliation entail?
In June 2010, Karzai made a speech imploring the “dear Taliban” to be “welcome on their own soil” and “come to us,” explaining that, “[The Taliban] are normal people. They are just like you.” Political reconciliation would allow the integration of the Taliban into the parliament and local governing bodies like the Loya Jirga. Heather Barr, the Afghanistan analyst for Human Rights Watch, speaking to the HPR from Kabul, believes that the push towards reconciliation started about a year ago, when “the international community, specifically the US, suddenly started to sound very serious about leaving by 2014.” Few have faith in the Afghan Security Forces’ ability to hold their ground without international support, particularly with the current levels of conflict as intense as they are in certain regions of the country. Karzai should be preventing those against whom there are credible criminal allegations of war crimes are excluded from the proposed reconciliation process. Unfortunately, Karzai’s recent reconciliation attempts have proceeded without these assurances for women. Instead, as reported by former Human Rights Watch Afghanistan analyst, Rachel Reid, members of the Karzai government, such as the Minister of Economy, Abdul Hade Arghandilwal, reportedly told a gathering of women leaders that they would have to “sacrifice their interests” for the sake of peace in the country. One wonders exactly how the modest gains made by women from 2003 to 2008 will possibly develop into enduring, durable rights if they are under constant attack from fundamentalist factions within the country.
How will reconciliation put women in jeopardy?
Progress in Afghanistan has not come without significant setbacks and scrutiny. Reid noted that in the last few years prominent Afghan women have been murdered in urban areas: provincial counselor and peace activist Sitara Achakzai; senior (and sole female) police commander Malalai Kakar; journalist Zakia Zaki; and Women’s Affairs director Safia Amajan, while women in rural areas receive “night letters” threatening them with violence if they choose to work with government officials. Most human rights activists believe that reconciliation with the Taliban will only worsen the problem. Esther Hyneman, a former professor of W
omen’s Studies and Gender Studies at Long Island University, and current board member of the Women for Afghan Women organization told the HPR that she believes with certainty that “women will suffer.” Women’s activists groups fear that once the Taliban sign the Reconciliation Agreement, they will disregard all its clauses, and will use their regained “political power to literally control 50% of the Afghan population, like they did when they were last in power.” Much of the progress made will either be stalled or even reversed, and that is a path that the Afghan government can certainly not go down.
So what is to be done?
The Karzai government has been backed into a corner, but raising the white flag now would compromise everything that the Afghan government, NATO and NGOs on the ground have worked so hard to achieve in the field of women’s rights. Women in Afghanistan are not yet empowered enough that they can use arms and opium-yielding fields as leverage, which is why the Afghan government must strive to represent and defend them. The idea that women are a part of the trade-off for a more peaceful, stable Afghan democracy, however, Hyneman put it succinctly when she said, “democracy can’t exist without women’s rights.” Karzai’s rhetoric must start to match the reality of his actions; instead of backing down on the issue women’s rights, he should focus on the realistic integration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women document and the bolstering of NGO work in rural areas. Reconciliation in itself is by no means a futile policy, but the reconciliation with the Taliban, a rapidly growing, misogynistic group, would be an absolute betrayal of Afghan women.
Photo courtesy, The Guardian, UK.