The South Asia Channel

The long arc of justice in Afghanistan

No one knows who killed Islam Bibi. The 37-year old police lieutenant, the most senior female officer in southern Afghanistan’s dangerous Helmand province, was riding a motorcycle to work in early July with her son-in-law, when she was shot and killed. During her career, she faced many threats, only some of them related to the ...


No one knows who killed Islam Bibi. The 37-year old police lieutenant, the most senior female officer in southern Afghanistan’s dangerous Helmand province, was riding a motorcycle to work in early July with her son-in-law, when she was shot and killed. During her career, she faced many threats, only some of them related to the violent insurgency and rampant narco-trafficking that threaten all Afghan police officers in the province. In April, Bibi told a journalist that her family opposed her working as a police officer, and that her own brother had tried to kill her three times.

In spite of these daily hazards, both inside and outside the home, she took great pride in her work. "I love my country. I feel proud wearing the uniform and I want to try to make Afghanistan a better and stronger country," she said. "I am a policewoman and I will be a policewoman in the future. I’d be proud if my daughter wanted to follow me."

It has been 12 years since the fall of the Taliban government but threats and attacks on Afghan women in public life provide tragic examples of how far away equal rights for women are in Afghanistan. Some Western observers, arguing for a swift disengagement from Afghanistan, seem increasingly convinced that the effort is doomed. This chorus holds that perhaps women’s rights are a "Western" imposition on Afghan society that just won’t stick. Or perhaps Afghans just aren’t ready for these ideas. Maybe even Afghan women themselves don’t believe in these rights. In such a traditional society, people say, shaking their heads, what can we do?

Unfortunately, such myopic arguments for scaling back international aid and involvement in women’s rights in Afghanistan, at a time when coalition troops are preparing to withdraw from the country, is increasingly common. This thinking displays a clear lack of understanding that the frontline fighters for women’s rights in Afghanistan since 2001 have been brave, resilient Afghan women who don’t have the luxury of ending their struggle next year. The foreign rush-for-the exits impulse in Afghanistan, and willingness to write-off women’s rights along the way, doesn’t just overlook the sacrifices that Afghan women have made in fighting for their rights. It ignores the fact that the battle for women’s rights has been a long, painful, and continuing process worldwide.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." When did the feminist movement begin in the United States, or in the United Kingdom, or in Iceland – which has been ranked several times the best country in the world for women? How long did it take these countries to achieve full gender equality? Wait, ignore that last question – no country has yet achieved full gender equality.

In 1848, the first U.S. women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Seventy-one years later, in 1919, the U.S. constitution was amended to give women the right to vote, but it was not until 1984 that the last state, Mississippi, ratified this amendment. Today, women in the United States earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In the United Kingdom, women have had the right to vote since 1928, but recent research shows that women’s progress towards pay equality has stalled over recent years. And Iceland, the paragon of women’s rights, has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for four years. The first women’s rights organization in Iceland was founded in 1894, and women gained equal voting rights in 1920. But in 2011, Icelandic women were earning 10% less than men, and in 2012, the (female) Icelandic  Prime Minister warned that the pay gap had grown.

Similar to the fight for women’s rights in these progressive Western countries, the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan will also be a long one. Many historians believe it began in 1880 with reforms instituted by Amir Abdul Rahman Khan and his liberated wife that included raising the age of marriage for girls and granting women the right to divorce and own property. In the 1960s through the 1980s, some Afghan women, at least in urban centers, enjoyed freedoms unheard of today. Photographs of women from that era, showing them with uncovered heads in knee-length skirts wandering about town or rapt in university studies, are akin to postcards from a lost world. But these freedoms were largely unknown in rural areas and have long been at odds with conservative male interpretations of the role of women in society.

The Taliban government that took power in 1996 aimed to, and largely succeeded at, turning back the clock on the fight for gender equality in Afghanistan. Activists kept working – running underground girls’ schools, sheltering women fleeing violence, etc. – but they did so at risk of their lives and with the greatest secrecy.

When the Taliban government fell, women seized their new opportunities with joy and passion. They sent their daughters to school and joined the workforce, with many choosing to serve as police officers, soldiers, lawyers, judges, or members of parliament. By entering public life, these women demonstrated that they craved equality as much as women in, say, Iceland. And, thankfully, many Afghan men have also supported women’s rights. Afghan men send their daughters to school and support their wives who work. Some have even devoted their careers to fighting for the rights of women.

The West didn’t introduce Afghans to women’s rights or push them to adopt an unwanted system of gender equality. The main contribution of the international community to women’s rights in Afghanistan over the last 12 years has been creating a space — by putting the government under international scrutiny and providing extensive funding — that has helped the Afghans fighting for women’s rights begin to take back all that was stolen from them by the Taliban.

But today, as foreign military forces and donors withdraw from Afghanistan, there are inescapable signs that the space is shrinking and a rollback in women’s rights is under way. Since mid-May, opponents of women’s rights – including one of the men Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently appointed to head the country’s human rights commission – have been fighting to repeal a key post-2001 law that punishes violence against women.

Then in July, a court reversed the 10-year prison sentences handed down to the in-laws of tortured 13-year-old bride Sahar Gul, unknown assailants assassinated Islam Bibi, a 25% member quota for women on the country’s 34 provincial councils was reduced to 20% (after the lower house of parliament tried to ban it entirely), and a new law passed by the lower house of parliament and pending in the upper house could effectively end prosecutions for underage and forced marriages and domestic violence by banning victims and witnesses from testifying against family members in court.

The countries that have committed significant amounts of their national "blood and treasure" to Afghanistan should remember that the road ahead in the struggle for women’s rights is a long one – as it has been in every other country. But continuing to put political pressure on the Afghan government to protect these rights, and providing financial support for schools, clinics, hospitals, shelters and legal services for women and girls can make the road shorter and less harrowing in Afghanistan.

Heather Barr is the Afghanistan Researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Heather Barr is a senior researcher on women’s rights with Human Rights Watch.

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