The South Asia Channel
In President Ghani, Afghan Women Have A Champion Like No Other
A new day is breaking in Afghanistan with women’s rights finding new and focused attention from President Ashraf Ghani.
The story of Afghan women and their struggle for equality and empowerment continues. Despite recent historic gains, much of the world still thinks of Afghanistan as one of the worst places to be female. But the resilience and determination of Afghan women to rise up and the unprecedented support for women’s empowerment by the country’s new leadership should not be underestimated.
Unfortunately, the Western world tends to see Afghan women through the lens of the mutilated, the abused, or the murdered. Too often, such one-sided media coverage denies a voice and an identity to the greater numbers of Afghan women who are succeeding and the millions who are working to bring positive change.
As First Lady Rula Ghani said at a women’s empowerment conference in Berlin last year, “The Western media has depicted the Afghan woman as a helpless, weak individual. I have said it before and I shall repeat it: The Afghan woman is strong, the Afghan woman is resourceful, the Afghan woman is resilient.”
And now, for the first time in history, Afghan women have a government that has made elevating their status and protecting their rights a national priority. A systematic effort is underway to change laws and create conditions that will bring more women into the work force, make it easier for them to obtain loans and own property, protect them from abuse, obtain an education, and access specialized healthcare.
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is committed to women’s empowerment in word and deed. In his inauguration speech, he thanked his wife, Rula. Though a seemingly small gesture to a Western observer, there is no precedent for this in Afghan culture and it sent a message to the country that women should be valued and respected.
President Ghani did something just as groundbreaking during an interview with Deutsche Welle television last December, when he held up a horrifying photo of a 22-year-old Afghan woman being lashed in a remote province after she was accused of adultery.
“This is part of our shame,” he said, the emotion in his voice clear. “We have inherited situations that are shameful, that are absolutely despicable.” With those words, he spoke for the nation. Ordinary Afghans are just as horrified at how too many of their countrywomen are still treated.
President Ghani is using his power to bring about real change. In his first 15 months, he appointed four female cabinet ministers, two female governors, three female ambassadors, two female deputies on the High Peace Council, nominated a female judge for the Supreme Court, and directed all his ministers to appoint at least one female deputy minister. Afghanistan now has the largest number of women in senior government positions in its history.
He also ordered the review of more than 400 cases of women imprisoned on accusations of so-called ‘moral crimes.’ To date, over 200 women have been released. Additionally, at President Ghani’s urging, the Supreme Court in December issued a ruling that banned the interpretation of an article in the Constitution that courts used to jail women who left home without permission from male family members.
The programs, policies, and initiatives taken by the government are significant not only because they are results-oriented and driven by leadership that is committed to women’s empowerment, but also because they set an example at the highest level that the full participation of women in every level of society is needed if Afghanistan is to be self-reliant.
But the government can only do so much. Lasting change only really occurs when public attitudes and behaviors change, and this too is happening in Afghanistan. The past 15 years have seen great generational shifts, particularly in the areas of voting, education, healthcare, and women’s labor force participation. Women constituted 40 percent of voters in the 2014 election; 40 percent of the 9 million children in school are girls; 22 percent of Afghans this year reported that women in their families generate an income (a 10 percent increase from 2009); and Afghanistan has more women in universities and the workforce than ever before.
The current generation of Afghan millennials — who make up over 60 percent of the population — is increasingly well-educated and forward-thinking. When the brutal murder of Farkhunda Malikzada horrified the country in March 2015, I was working at the American University of Afghanistan. A group of male students came into my office to ask how they could commemorate her life. They were frustrated and distraught — they did not want this brutal act to become the face of Afghan men around the world. These young men joined thousands of others on the streets of Kabul to protest Farkhunda’s murder, and to offer support and protection to the brave women who broke with custom to carry her coffin. These are the young men who are leading the ‘cultural revolution’ that President Ghani spoke of in his speech to Congress last year. I am confident of their sincerity.
Sustainable, meaningful change takes time. Afghanistan’s leadership and its people are still pursuing a vision of equality in the country, and there is a president who understands the challenges facing women, who is taking action to address those challenges, and who is leading his country and his people in a positive direction.
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images