Broken Promises: Afghan women fear that their newly-resurrected rights may be forgotten as the West leave.

The Guardian, last week, reported upon the uncertain future of Afghan women’s rights; as the USA and the UK gear up to pulling out of Afghanistan, women of the country fear their future in a state whose politics is still very much influenced by extremism.

The Taliban still control much of the country and with the Afghan government making plans for reconciliation with the hardline militia many are concerned. It is this that is striking fear into the hearts of many of the country’s women as such unity was the mechanism for past restrictions upon women and their freedoms of both expression and association.

In November 2001, Cherie Blair made a public statement at Downing Street, surrounded by Afghan women, she called upon UK ministers to “give back a voice” to Afghan women deprived of human rights under the Taliban regime. The question remains, has this promise been fulfilled? Over the past few years, Afghan women slowly began to enjoy more rights, including freedoms of expression and association. As the UN reported in 2010, we have seen important examples of women’s peace activism in Afghanistan culminating in the lobbying of women that took place around the June 2010 Peace Jirga which resulted in the allocation of 5 seats at the donor conference as well as an invitation to participate in the important peace negotiations committee.

However, without legitimate monitoring and dialogue, the fear is that the want for political unity will outweigh that of proper protections and rights for all of Afghanistan’s citizens. Although the government of Afghanistan insists that any “deal” with the Taliban will not affect women’s rights due to the fact that they abide by the country’s constitution, which enshrines women’s rights, such a safeguard must be questioned when the constitution itself states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Whilst it is true that the Constitution of Afghanistan has guarantees of “the right to express …thought through speech, writing, or illustration or other means”  and the education of women is “promoted”, there is always the danger that extremist interpretations of Islamic ideals and aspirations will outweigh the former if extremism is, once again, allowed to permeate Afghan politics and sociology.

In the Guardian’s article, Deniz Kandiyoti, of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ gender studies department, pointed out potential pitfalls within the judiciary and parliament, charged with upholding democracy, as she stated that the Supreme Court is full of “hardline clerics.” Whilst the intricate workings of the judiciary system is beyond the scope of this blog, there is evidence to suggest that Afghanistan’s politics and legal mechanisms are  influenced by intense religious pressure . Such influence was demonstrated in March 2009 when the Shia Family Law, the piece of legislation signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was adopted despite the law clearly legalizing inter-marital rape. The reason for the legislation’s quiet signing was, it has been convincingly reported, due to the fact that the predominantly Shia ethnic minority, with its Shia clerics and some of the leaders of the Hazara Community, holds so much sway when it comes to elections. As such we can see examples already of political will endeavoring to overshadow and, indeed, silence women’s voices. The fact that this law was toned down is testament to the power of women’s voices being heard at the “historic demonstration in Kabul” in 2009.

The West promised amongst many other things, upon the invasion of Afghanistan, to promote women’s rights and, for a while some of these promises were partly fulfilled. However, with the impending departure of the US and UK presence in Afghanistan the international community must watch closely and respond effectively to any political or sociological move or excuse that legitimizes the silencing of Afghan women.

Until then, as the recent UN report, “Harmful Traditional Practices and Implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan” suggested, the responsibility lies with the Afghan Government and one of the first steps towards the protection of women’s rights is the need to expedite implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW law), which criminalizes many harmful traditional practices. Until now, however, the Afghan Government have failed to do so and reports from NGOs and women members of the Afghan Parliament are not positive with respect to this. With the West leaving Afghanistan so quickly and without fully implementing crucial changes needed for democracy to be unequivocally upheld, it is up to Afghanistan’s leaders to implement the change so desperately needed. The West will never be able to protect Afghan women more than the rule of law- it is this that must be promoted, monitored and encouraged.


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