Women’s Rights in Afghanistan – Still a Far Cry from Ideal

By Sabine Thier — January 22, 2013


On Dec. 12, 2012, Najia Sediqi, acting head of women’s affairs in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan, was assassinated. Ms. Sediqi was gunned down by two attackers on a motorcycle in a drive-by shooting as she was getting into a rickshaw on her way to work. She was killed in broad daylight.

Ms. Sediqi’s predecessor, Hanifa Safi, was assassinated just six months prior, in July 2012. Ms. Hafi was killed by a bomb that exploded under her car. The New York Times reported that Ms. Hafi had received threats prior to her assassination because she had helped a young girl who married the man she loved instead of the older man to whom she was promised.

So far, nobody has come forth to claim responsibility for these assassinations, and no arrests have been made. However, even without a responsible party, these killings receive a lot of public attention and send a clear message to the Afghan people: women working for the government on behalf of women lead a dangerous life.

These violent deaths are tragic, and they have implications for the bigger picture of women living in Afghanistan. These assassinations have the potential to intimidate women, and therefore undermine the progress that the government and foreign organizations have made for women since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

These developments raise the question of how far women’s rights in Afghanistan have come in the decade since foreign forces entered the country, and what the current issues are that women face prior to the impending withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

Overall, things have certainly improved for women since U.S.-backed forces ended the rule of the Taliban in 2001.  With the Taliban no longer in power, women have re-gained some of the basic rights that they were denied under the strict reign of the Taliban, such as better access to healthcare and education.  Many women had the opportunity to become employed, start their own businesses, and participate in politics.


The Effects of the Constitution and the EVAW

In 2004, Afghanistan adopted a new constitution that espouses democracy and human rights, guaranteeing men and women equal rights.  Five years later, in 2009, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) was introduced. It banned violence against women and set forth new penalties against perpetrators of the new law.
A few of the violent acts that EVAW specifically criminalizes are child marriage, forced marriage, forced self immolation, selling and buying women under the pretext of marriage, and the custom of “baad,” which means giving away a woman or a girl to settle a dispute.

Despite the new constitution and the introduction of EVAW, violence against women is still rampant across Afghanistan, and women’s rights still have a long way to go before Afghan women are treated equally and experience justice in their own country.

Hamid Karzai and the Ulema Council’s Code of Conduct

A big problem is the fact that Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai’s record on women’s rights has been less than encouraging. For example, in March 2012, Karzai endorsed the code of conduct issued by the Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s highest Islamic council. This endorsement is considered a giant step backwards for women’s rights.  The code of conduct is a set of guidelines that religious women should follow voluntarily. It says that women should not travel without male guardians and they should not mingle with strange men in settings such as schools, offices, and markets.  The worst part is that the code of conduct allows husbands to beat their wives under certain circumstances.

It appears that by backing the Ulema Council’s code of conduct, Karzai is trying to reach out to the Taliban in an effort to appease the group as part of the overall peace process in the country. Women’s rights activists across the globe were outraged, as they felt that women’s rights were sacrificed over peace negotiations.


“Moral Crimes”

Another issue that works against women is the fact that they are still incarcerated for so-called moral crimes, such as running away from home to escape a violent domestic situation.  Moral crimes would not be considered real crimes in most countries, and running away is not even a crime under the Afghan penal code. For a very long time, however, Afghan families and authorities have punished women for leaving the home without permission, and this has not completely changed during the last decade.

To this day, Afghan women have very little freedom of movement, and they usually only choose to leave their homes in a desperate attempt to escape a violent situation. Unfortunately many of these women end up in jail due to very limited protection from the court system and the police.  This is possible because the Afghan court system, police, and prosecutors tend to be biased against women. Police often do not investigate the underlying issue of the moral crime, such as abuse, and only focus on the fact that the woman left the house without permission. Police and prosecutors mainly rely on the testimony of the abuser, usually the husband, who in most cases goes unpunished while the woman ends up in jail.

In March 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading independent organization dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, released a report that highlights the problem of moral crimes and its consequences for women in Afghan society.  According to this report, about half of the women that are currently in prison in Afghanistan are kept there because of moral crimes. This report features 58 case studies of women who were in jail for moral crimes.

One case study mentioned in the report is the story of 20-year-old Marjan W., who was given to a man in an arranged marriage. Marjan’s husband was very abusive and eventually threw a mirror at her. Marjan fled the house the same night. She tried to find help in her community but nobody helped her. Marjan went to the police who took her to a shelter. But the police also contacted her husband who accused Marjan of stealing jewelry and money and accused his wife of running away. Marjan was arrested and put into jail.

It is hard to believe that this kind of injustice against women can still take place in this day and age. But Marjan’s case, among many others featured in HRW’s report, represents the plight of many Afghan women and makes it obvious that women’s rights in Afghanistan still are nowhere near ideal.

Since the court and police, and often their own families, do not protect women from domestic abuse, many women do not speak up and quietly endure the violence they experience in their own home. Many women do not have a safe place to go – shelters are scarce – and they basically have to choose between staying in a bad domestic situation or run the risk of being thrown into jail for running away from home.

Courtesy Image:  Arghand.org


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