Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Saving women’s rights in a post-war Afghanistan
By Andrew Hammond
There have been worrying signs in Kabul over the past week that political and social gains made by women since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001 are at best tenuous.
”Normalising” the country’s profile after the extremes of five years of Taliban rule has been one main justifications for continuing the Western military mission in Afghanistan, and of Hamid Karzai’s government.
Karzai’s interim cabinet after 2001 included a female vice-president and there were three female ministers after his
election in 2004. Next month’s parliamentary polls maintain a quota to ensure at least 25 percent of Walesi Jirga seats are filled by women.
The state has also done away with the austere version of Islamic law applied by the Taliban and its fixed sharia
punishments for crimes such as adultery. Women are not barred from education or the workplace or no longer need cover up completely in public.
Social freedoms, specifically those of women, have played a central role in Western arguments justifying a military operation dubbed by insurgents as an occupation by Crusaders
But as Karzai, a shrewd political operator, looks at ways to bring the Taliban into the system, support for such progressive liberal policies appears to be in danger of collapsing.
On the one hand, July’s “Peace Jirga” talked of social rights for women but only a few weeks later a gathering of
Islamic religious scholars — Sunnis and Shi’ites — called for a return to the sharia “hodud” punishments of the Taliban era.
The ulema were clear that strict Islamic law would speed up the process of making peace with Islamist insurgents, as well as help bring an end to the state of disorder in the country. That desire for order was one reason why many Afghans welcomed the Taliban in the mid-1190s in a country riven by warlords and factionalism.
Reports suggest that the Taliban have made headway in returning to this version of sharia, and with the apparent
approval of at least some Afghans. The governor of the northern province of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, said on Aug. 16 that a man and his lover who tried to elope had been stoned to death after their families asked the Taliban to apprehend them.
The week before, a police official said the group had also flogged and executed a woman accused of adultery in Badghis province in the northwest. Karzai condemned the Badghis execution but his condemnation was over the “extrajudicial” nature of the execution, not the style in which it was done.
The United States’ ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, was in Kabul last week promoting a business venture between a U.S. fashion retailer and a U.S. aid organisation. She praised the entrepreneurial spirit and talent of Afghan women but, asked about the situation for women in light of the effort to create a political resolution, she seemed alarmed. ”The women all tell me, as they tell everyone, they want an end to the conflict, they want peace in this country. But they don’t want peace at any price and they want to be assured as the process goes forward that they are fully engaged in that process and fully participating,” she said. “If women are silenced and marginalised the prospects for peace will be subverted.”
Verveer said she had met Karzai and discussed the issue but gave an inconclusive answer when asked whether she had received an assurance that advances made by women would not be sacrificed in the name of a poltical resolution with the Taliban.
“We talked about the importance of the process,” she said. “I feel that he listened, and I hope with so many, particularly the women of this country, that it will be a transparent process in which they will not be viewed as the bargaining chip.”
Another member of the delegation was more direct. She said government officials had told them bluntly peace in Afghanistan would require compromises — including women’s rights.
The issue is now where, rather than whether, women will take the hit: will education and employment still remain accessible, but only via segregation and a strict dress code?