On Jan. 10, Afghanistan’s Council of Ministers, at its regular weekly meeting, decided that women’s shelters needed to be brought under government control, reflecting a long-simmering discontent with women’s shelters in Afghanistan. It’s a discontent fanned by a media campaign spearheaded by right-wing broadcaster and ideologue, Nasto Naderi, who has pushed the idea that shelters are simply fronts for prostitution.
It wasn’t until several weeks later the news of the ministers’ decision hit the media. Afghan President Hamid Karzai insisted that women’s shelters should be brought under the control of the government. He wanted more oversight and more monitoring, despite the fact that the Afghan central government has neither the resources nor the will to run these shelters effectively. Although the shelter debacle ended in a seeming win as women’s rights groups pushed the government to back off, the rights of Afghan women are more precarious than ever, even as Karzai gives speeches in honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day today.
From the beginning, women’s rights in Afghanistan have been more of a political plaything than an actual goal — not just for Karzai’s government but for the international community as well. The drive to bring the war to Afghanistan has, from its inception, been dressed up in the language of bringing freedoms to long-suffering women. In November 2001, barely a month after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, American first lady Laura Bush said, "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." Who could object to the idea of more rights for Afghan women?
Yet the distance is growing between the international community and the Afghan government — and this is not lost on Afghan women.
Back in 2003, the euphoria that had come to Afghanistan with the toppling of the Taliban still lingered. The West was going to help Afghan women with education, income generation, political participation, and all around freedoms. Afghanistan’s women had endured a kind of mass isolation during the previous two decades that few can claim to know. Rigorous cultural norms compounded by almost constant war followed by codified seclusion ensured that women who had remained inside the country had learned to fight for even the tiniest bits of agency. So by 2003, women who had for so long remained cloistered stepped out, ready to take some control over their lives.
One of the women willing to take up the challenge was Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan women’s rights activist and pioneer of the shelter movement who is currently working on her doctorate at the University of London. To Nemat, the pressing need for safe places for women was clear. She, along with other women’s rights activists, decided to build safe places for women away from their homes where they could find refuge from violence, abuse, and sometimes, forced marriage. The idea was popular among many women, but it wasn’t easily accepted across Afghanistan.
In the early days the shelters were unmarked, sitting anonymously on quiet streets. The Ministry of Interior knew where they were, but the local police were left in the dark.
"We said if these shelters were under the [control of the Afghan] government then it would defeat the purpose, so we had negotiations with the minister of women’s affairs and she agreed that we should not be telling the police [where the shelters were] and that it should be private," says Nemat. "In 2004 the local police ended up doing a raid on the house, accusing the women of prostitution. We told them it was an official [shelter], but they said if it was official then [the police] should know." In a country as socially conservative as Afghanistan, women living together without their families could only mean something as nefarious as prostitution.
But Nemat learned a lesson from that raid: If women’s rights activists wanted to offer safe shelter for women, they needed to let the police know. They wrangled a formal arrangement with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and reached an agreement that the ministry would be the shelters’ voice in government. The shelters, however, would continue to be run independently. That agreement was derailed when Karzai announced the government was taking over.
In the particular strategic calculus of Afghanistan, women’s rights are subordinate to other needs — security, politics, patronage — and as 2014 approaches, they are also subordinate to an expedient Western transition to Afghan security control. A senior American official recently told the Washington Post, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities.… There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."
But in truth, women’s rights were never a priority — neither for the Karzai government nor, in any serious way, for the international community. Such rights are seen in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game: More rights for me means fewer rights for you. Add to that the fact that merely discussing women’s rights makes many Afghan men uncomfortable. There’s an insistent scaremongering of conservatives — social, political, religious — and of those clutching to power in a quickly devolving landscape. They push the idea that a slightly more equitable society would mean watching Afghan women running free from custom and convention. Women would cease to serve the family and would demand to have public, independent lives.
Creating and supporting strong networks for protecting women’s rights hits powerful men in a place that hurts — their own homes and families. Nemat says there have been several occasions where women from the families of influential commanders, warlords, and politicians showed up at shelters. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the shelters came under intense pressure from officials to turn these women over to their families, says Nemat.
Yet amid all this, I’ve met many who have said they’ll try to gain as much as they can for women’s rights as long as there’s at least some international pressure on the Afghan government — even if it is often only a second thought. Once the spotlight moves, Afghan women will, once again, be on their own.
Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She lives in Toronto.