Hard-Won Gains by Afghan Women Are at Serious Risk

Aug 25, 2015

By Sylvia Maier

Afghan women have made enormous progress since the overthrow of the fundamentalist Taliban regime almost fourteen years ago. However, as domestic and international priorities have changed, and without sustained pressure and continued financial support from the international community, these hard-won gains are at serious risk of being reversed.

On March 19, a young Islamic scholar, Farkhunda Malikzada, was brutally lynched and her body mutilated by an all-male mob in the heart of Kabul after having been falsely accused by a local mullah of having burned pages of the Qur’an. Forty-nine men, including nineteen police officers, were arrested and charged in her murder. After massive citywide street protests and intense international pressure to bring the guilty to justice, four of the men were sentenced to death and eight received long prison sentences. On appeal, however, the death sentences were quietly overturned and all prison sentences reduced. A review of these decisions is currently under way.

How, after more than fourteen years and tens of billions of dollars invested in women’s empowerment programs, can such a horrific attack that harkens back to the darkest days of the Taliban regime still happen in broad daylight, in the middle of Kabul? Why did no one—especially the police—intervene? And why are her convicted killers getting off so lightly? Has nothing changed?

It would be tempting to dismiss Farkhunda’s murder as an isolated incident perpetrated by a mob of sadistic men who release their collective frustration over their social marginalization on a convenient victim. Likewise, it would be easy—and wrong—to let this case feed into the narrative of the alleged futility of trying to bring gender equality to Afghanistan.

Reality, as always, is more complex. Farkhunda’s lynching, the mass protests that followed, and the lenient punishment that her killers received exemplify the paradoxical state of women’s rights in Afghanistan today—a situation in which the tangible results of years of women’s empowerment work clashed with the deep prejudices still held by Afghan men about their own roles and those of women in society. Farkhunda was a student, teacher, and Islamic scholar who worked in a mosque, and the massive street protests following her murder were led by dozens of women’s rights activists. In other words, both were instances in which women assertively and autonomously claimed public space, something that is still deemed unseemly and unsettling in conservative Afghanistan. Most crucially, however, Farkhunda’s case spotlights the systemic failure of government institutions—in this case, the police and the judiciary—to enforce existing laws and to protect women from abuse. As Farkhunda’s case is by no means an isolated incident, this fact should give us serious pause.


From 1996 to 2001, Afghanistan was governed by the Taliban, which had won the passive support of a good portion of the country’s population exhausted from years of brutal civil war. The Taliban’s ability to establish a modicum of stability and law and order in the areas under its control, combined with its professed Islamic piety, modesty, and incorruptibility, made it the only viable governing force in the minds of many Afghans. Far from bringing peace to the nation, however, the Taliban formed an alliance with the international terrorist group, Al Qaeda. It went on to impose a puritanical interpretation of Islam bred in the refugee madrassas (Islamic religious schools) in Pakistan, which systematically denied Afghanistan’s citizens the most basic human rights: girls were prohibited from going to school, women were barred from working outside the home or seeking basic medical care, and both women and men were subjected to a strict dress code requiring burqas (full-body veils) for women and long beards for men. Within a few months, half of the population was purged—practically and visually—from public life, and Afghanistan became the world’s “worst place to be a woman.” For years, the country topped global charts for child marriage, violence against women, illiteracy, and infant and maternal mortality rates. The objective of Operation Enduring Freedom launched by the United States and the United Kingdom on October 7, 2001, was replacing the Taliban regime with a democratic government in Kabul that would be friendly to Western interests and abide by the rule of law. The liberation of Afghan women became the moral rallying cry of the international assistance force in Afghanistan.

iStock_000018926930_LargeAs any student of history knows, the transformation of a post-conflict society into a consolidated democracy requires the cultivation of three elements: (1) democratic institutions and processes, such as regular elections, the separation of powers, and an independent judiciary; (2) a so-called “democratic culture,” including a belief in and active support for civil liberties and human rights; and (3) a systematic promotion by the state of its population’s economic and social capacities. For a democratic transition to be successful, attention needs to be paid to all three elements, a daunting task under the best of circumstances. In a deeply conservative country such as Afghanistan—with little remaining infrastructure or formal institutions following thirty years of war, and a largely illiterate population long denied access to education—the challenge was almost insurmountable.

Yet under pressure from Western governments, which provided tens of billions of dollars in development assistance, significant progress was made in a relatively short period of time. Following the installation of the first democratically-elected government under President Hamid Karzai, Afghan women’s rights activists and international development teams worked together against the fierce resistance of conservative elements to repair the damage created by years of war and help Afghan women rejoin society. Girls’ enrollment in primary schools quadrupled to almost 40 percent; women’s literacy levels increased from 12 percent to 17 percent; women’s fertility, infant, and maternal mortality rates dropped slightly as access to medical care improved; 30 percent of seats in the Wolesi Jira, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, were set aside for women, as were 25 percent of seats (recently reduced to 20 percent) in the country’s 34 provincial councils; gender equality was formally enshrined in the Constitution, along with a woman’s right to education and work outside of the home; female shuras (consultative bodies) were set up in all provinces to incorporate women’s needs into national development plans; and almost all professions, including the military and police, were opened to women. In the 2013 Asia Society’s Survey of the Afghan People, 90 percent of respondents professed the belief that everyone should have equal rights under the law, irrespective of gender. (Source: https://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/2013AfghanSurvey.pdf)


By such measures, women’s empowerment programs were successful. Women clearly have made tangible progress in most areas of life over the past decade with the support of the international community, though these gains are fragile and reversible. Meanwhile, public and private attitudes towards women have changed only slightly, and a deep-seated misogyny continues to permeate the legal system and law enforcement institutions.

Afghan-man-and-his-two-wifes-000015604252_LargeChanging attitudes and beliefs about gender relations—what it means to be a man or a woman—is always a difficult endeavor, particularly if they are as deeply woven into the fabric of a nation’s identity as they are in Afghanistan. Under Pashtunwalî (the traditional ethical code of the Pashtun people), to be a man means to be brave, strong, and willing to defend one’s honor to the death. Having honor in that context means being able to control the mobility and sexual behavior of female family members. Thus, permitting a woman to move about freely without a male chaperone, to get an education or work outside the home, or to raise her voice in public can cause a man to lose his honor in the eyes of the community—a social calamity that only the extermination of the woman can reverse. At the very least, the man is expected to restore his dominance by physically controlling his wife, sister, or daughter. In the eyes of many men—and, shockingly, women—laws that prohibit a man from physically controlling the women in his household are considered to be deeply emasculating and an intolerable violation of the community’s honor system. Police, prosecutors, and judges whose cultural background and views on gender relations often mirror those of the defendant are hesitant to charge “one of their own.” Protecting the most basic rights of women is not a priority for most Afghan men, even less so in the context of a possible trade-off for peace with the Taliban.

The degree to which gender-based violence occurs is considered to be a good indicator of a country’s general support for gender equality. Violence against women, always a problem in Afghanistan, has now reached endemic proportions. According to the most widely cited report by the human rights organization Global Rights on the subject of violence against Afghan women, published in 2008, 87 percent experience physical violence in their lives, ranging from beatings, forced marriage, baad (a tradition in which young virgin girls are traded to settle financial or other disputes), sexual violence (including marital rape), acid attacks, death threats, assassinations, and honor killings. At the same time, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, passed in 2009 only after enormous international pressure over the fierce objections of conservatives in the Wolesi Jirga and passive resistance from President Karzai, remains largely unenforced by the police and judiciary.

The explosion of gender-based violence in Afghanistan over the past four years is the most visible, but by no means the only, worrying trend for women’s rights. Their ability to participate in the public process is slowly being eroded. For example, the quota for women in provincial councils was cut from 25 percent to 20 percent in July 2013. In July 2015, President Ashraf Ghani’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Anisa Rasouli, a highly respected judge and jurist, was rejected by the Wolesi Jirga after conservatives successfully argued that the fact that she menstruates disqualifies her from touching the Qur’an, one of the sources of Afghan law, for a week every month. All across the country, women’s rights activists are physically attacked and schools are shuttered on a regular basis.


While President Ghani has made the promotion of gender equality a cornerstone of his development agenda, and Rula Ghani, his Western-educated, Christian-born wife, has broken many taboos by openly campaigning with her husband and speaking publicly about the need to support women’s rights, neither can escape the reality of national and international politics.

The key problem faced by President Ghani and women’s rights advocates is that the priorities of the international community—along with their allocation of scarce development funds in the wake of the global financial crisis—have changed significantly. Donor countries view a possible breakup of the Eurozone, a newly aggressive Russia, and the Iranian nuclear deal as more important foreign policy concerns, and they regard ISIS as a greater military threat to global stability than the Taliban.

Simultaneously, the drawdown of international troops stationed in Afghanistan until the end of last year has led to a deteriorating security situation all over the country, with a resurgent Taliban eagerly filling the power vacuum. As a consequence, the fear of another civil war has made calls for peace talks with the Taliban leadership, so that they might join a national unity government, even more urgent. Not surprisingly, among the Taliban’s key demands is that women’s rights be rolled back. In particular, Taliban leaders want to reduce girls’ school attendance to five years, limit a woman’s right to work outside of the home to gender-segregated spaces, and rescind the law prohibiting violence against women. Both U.S. president Barack Obama and President Ghani, as well as women on the High Peace Council (which was formed to negotiate with the Taliban), have publicly rejected these demands. However, trading peace for women’s rights may become the price that President Ghani must pay to keep the country from sliding back into civil war.

This must not be allowed to happen.

Research shows that countries that are more gender equal—where women can participate on an equal basis in public life, hold positions of power, and enjoy equal access to legal protections, education, and health care—are measurably more stable, peaceful, and prosperous. Investing in women’s empowerment and women’s rights, therefore, is not only a matter of justice, but also smart politics and smart economics. From both a strategic and moral perspective, turning the human rights of women into a bargaining chip and viewing women’s dignity as a “nice to have” at the negotiating table is morally unacceptable and politically short-sighted. The Taliban will not be satisfied until all women’s rights have been rolled back and women will once again be relegated to life as second-class citizens.

Without international support for women’s rights, the situation is dire. Western donor countries must renew their firm commitment to the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan, both as a matter of prudence and as a matter of human rights. No other young woman should have to suffer the same fate as Farkhunda Malikzada.

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