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Afghan Women and Uphill Battle

Mariam Jalalzada

Foreword: One of the major factors that has a direct impact on mental well-being is environment, which is also described as “external or exogenous factor.”  This includes, but is not limited to, environmental factors such as poverty, wealth, community support, community violence, employment, security, social status, etc. In addition, a major component of mental well-being is the ability to function on a satisfactory level and be useful to yourself and your community. However, if this component is negatively challenged by some environmental factors, a person’s mental health and individual functioning may be exposed to extreme stressors that would make him/her susceptible to mental disorders. One of the most significant environmental factors that can cause situationally distressing problems is social segregation. It creates roadblocks in the way of improvement, limits awareness, and causes resentment. Therefore, segregating people – in this case women – not only causes economic drawbacks, but it also affects the coming generations given women are playing a pivotal role in upbringing children and being a vital member of the family, among other things. We should not expect a thriving generation if 50% of the population is restricted in different aspects. Following is a worth reading piece on the challenges Afghan women have overcome as well as the challenges ahead. Esmael Darman

Photo Courtesy of SA Global Affairs

Remaining hopeful in a war-torn country like Afghanistan is difficult but not impossible. The fight for the liberation of Afghan women has been an uphill battle for centuries. Despite tremendous achievements in the last ten years, the extreme violation of women’s rights continues, domestic violence and self-emulations are on the rise and the opposition forces against women’s progress remain influential. Although these and other factors, such as insecurity, the Taliban resurgence and the United States’ decision to withdraw its military forces in 2014, make the future of women’s struggle bleak, there are also reasons to remain hopeful, though rare.

After centuries of struggle for women’s rights, for every step forward there are one hundred steps back. Afghanistan continues to feature prominently on international gender inequality indexes (ranking 139 out of 145 in the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index) and has one of the worst ratios of women to men in the secondary level of education. Women constitute only 8 percent of the labor force (even though their contribution to the rural economy is enormous) and remain subordinate to men in the household and the workplace. Their freedom in every sense, from choosing their husbands to their movement outside the privacy of their household, is severely curtailed. Whether during the modernization efforts in the nineteenth and twentieth century or the liberalization of the last decade, violent opposition continues to hamper women’s struggle for their rights.

Today however, a positive energy drives young Afghan women to stand taller, speak louder, and fight harder. This mentality, in many ways, was provoked by the harsh realities of the Taliban era. Many Afghan women fear that if the peace process is not handled with care, they will find themselves once again at the mercy of a group that is ultra-conservative, uneducated, and extremely restrictive towards women.

Prior to the Taliban’s taking over of the country and the protracted civil war, women were actively present in the political sphere as agents of egalitarian ideologies promoted by the communist regime and later served as the strongest critics of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Although their presence in political spheres diminished during the civil war, the Taliban’s complete ban on female education and employment shocked not only the people of Afghanistan but also the rest of the world.

Women were forbidden to leave their houses without a male escort, they were not allowed to seek medical care from a male doctor and were forced to cover themselves from head to toe. Flogging, stoning and public executions became commonplace methods the Taliban used for punishing those who did not abide by their rules. The image of a burqa-clad woman being shot in the head by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium remains a shocking reminder of the Taliban’s atrocities.

Although many women were victimized many others resisted. Some women insisted on running home-based schools around the country. They started and managed their own secret enterprises. Kamila, an Afghan female entrepreneur, launched her tailoring business during the Taliban era and recruited hundreds of employees, constantly escaping the scrutiny of the Taliban. Her story became the main subject of Gayle Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

With few resources at their disposal and limited support from their government and society, Afghan women risk their lives by pursuing education, changing the patriarchal laws of their country and for raising their voices against domestic violence, humiliation, sexual harassment and rape. Women who survived the five-year long scrutiny of the Taliban are not only motivated to work harder to avoid returning to that dark period but are also inspired by the resilience and potential of the younger Afghan women. Thus, they remain hopeful and continue to fight for their basic rights and status in the society.

Afghan women learn to play guitar in the northern city of Mazar-i-Shariff August 15, 2006. Photo Courtesy of Reuters/SA Global Affairs

Encouraging this transformation are renewed and more active grassroots movements that work towards the betterment of women’s lives. In the past, the fight for women’s rights was a state-driven phenomenon and was conducted by the urban elite. Today, it is increasingly a mainstream and grassroots struggle. The advocacy of Afghan women and their international counterparts led to the women’s equal rights law guaranteed by the 2004 constitution. It also established a quota of 25 percent women in the parliament, provincial council, and district assemblies. Afghanistan has also seen a record-breaking number of girls continue their education and join the labor force as teachers, doctors, nurses, judges, lawyers, managers, parliamentarians, advisors, and journalists.

The involvement of grassroots (young students, working men and women, literary circles, mass media) has led to a collective call for action against discriminatory and illegal laws against women. In the words of one Afghan female activist, Wazhma Frogh, the active resistance of Afghan women to the government’s restrictive laws was unimaginable a decade ago. The recently published guidelines released by the Ulama Council (the council that advices the president on religious issues) have triggered protests throughout the country. The guidelines explicitly place women as subordinate to men and state that women should not travel without a male relative escort and should be segregated at school and work. Although the Council does not have legislative power, the statement and the President’s backing of it shows the attempts made by the conservative and male-dominated society to curb women’s modest liberty and presence in the public sphere.

Another recent incident regarding 15-year old Sahar Gul, a young girl forced into marriage and tortured and mutilated for six months in the basement of her house by her in laws forcing her into prostitution, triggered a massive outcry from the human rights community. Additionally, the story of Gulnaz, who was raped and jailed only to be released if she agreed to marry her rapist, incited national and international outcry. Assertive advocacy by Afghan women and their international supporters forced the government to detain Sahar Gul’s in laws and expedite Gulnaz’s release from jail with no conditions attached. While this may not seem ideal justice, in a deeply conservative and patriarchal society like Afghanistan where rape and prostitution are taboo subjects, such incidents are certainly a leap forward.

The sad reality is that the more Afghan women become critical of traditional laws and customs, the more hostile the environment in which they work becomes. However, such hostile environments have produced women who are vocal and actively fighting for women’s status. Although only a few have gained international recognition, many unknown heroes fight for women’s rights in their respective constituencies and provide justice as lawyers, chief prosecutors, and judges. Furthermore, the involvement of young and foreign-educated women who are launching social campaigns and supporting women-focused organizations inside or outside Afghanistan, is another hopeful sign for the future. For instance, Young Women for Change founded by two young Afghan women is a group of young women and male advocates committed to empowering Afghan women.

Both at home and in public, women have bravely continued their engagement and activism in political and economic spheres. In the face of increasing insecurity and violence, they have dared to step ahead and take charge of their lives. Women are indeed fighting an uphill battle, but not a losing one.

This article was first published on SA Global Affairs

Mariam Jalalzada holds an M.A in Economic Development and Marketing from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. She is the National Coordinator for Aga Khan Foundation’s Market Development Program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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