The South Asia Channel

For Afghan Women, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As the West packs up and heads home, women in Afghanistan are struggling for rights.

AFGHANISTAN, KABUL- JULY 06 :  Afghan women hold posters of 27 year-old Farkhunda who was beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning a Quran, during a protest held by the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan at the site of the attack in Kabul, Monday, July 6, 2015. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
AFGHANISTAN, KABUL- JULY 06 : Afghan women hold posters of 27 year-old Farkhunda who was beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning a Quran, during a protest held by the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan at the site of the attack in Kabul, Monday, July 6, 2015. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Basbibi, 25, begs on the streets of Makrorayan, a neighborhood some 200 yards from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Wearing a burqa to hide her youth and avoid sexual harassment, she likely makes $0.80 a day, hardly enough to buy a small loaf of bread. An Afghan woman’s monthly income rarely exceeds $50 — less than half of what men make on average. “It’s hard to be a woman in Afghanistan,” she says. “I can’t even get a Tazkira [national identification card].”

Because she is a woman, Basbibi is especially vulnerable to poor conditions borne of social instability, insecurity, and widespread poverty. She lost her job at a dried fruit processing company after the 2014 economic depression prompted layoffs, and she does not have access to government aid because of gendered ID laws.

Basbibi’s experience is common for women in Afghanistan. However, Afghan women have come a long way since the fall of the Taliban regime. Billions of dollars have been spent on reconstructing the ravaged country, with a large portion allocated to support women. Millions of girls go to school. Over 25 percent of Afghan parliamentarians are women, at least four are ministers, and many more serve in both the public and private sectors, including numerous nonprofit organizations. However, this is largely limited to Kabul and a few other major cities.

The U.S.-led international intervention in 2001 was the key instigator for this focus on women. Following the intervention, huge sums of money went to nonprofit organizations and the central government. This distribution was primarily motivated by security and politics rather than social change. As a result, the long-term viability of the progress made so far is in doubt.

As international forces in the country shrink, and foreign aid along with them, Afghan women are increasingly suffering. According to Soraya Sobhrang, deputy chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, the first half of 2015 saw a 31 percent rise in the cases of violence against women. The savage beating and murder of Farkhunda Malikzadah in Kabul, the public stoning of Rohkshana in Ghor, and the mutilation of Reza Gul by her husband in Faryab, are some of the most recent and egregious examples. In many cases of violence against women, the legal system has either reduced or suspended punishment for the perpetrator, despite assurances from the central government that victims of violence will get justice.

With Taliban and Islamic State elements gaining ground in parts of the country, Afghan women increasingly fear a reversal of their last decade of progress. A 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Afghanistan as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. When the Taliban took control of Kunduz in October 2015, they looted the offices of women’s rights activists, women’s shelters, and female-run radio stations. They also issued threats that compelled dozens of activists to flee the city.

The declining security environment is not the only problem for Afghan women. Powerful institutions are equally threatening. The hostility towards women is fueled by conservative powerholders — mainly parliamentarians or public preachers.”The unsatisfactory and adverse situation of women in Afghanistan is the product of democracy,” said Nazir Mohammad Motmaen, a prominent conservative political commentator. “Women themselves are to blame for their bad situation because they tried to see themselves from a Western [perspective]. The laws and programs were Westernized and often designed in ignorance of Afghan norms, which not only provoked resentment from people, but also failed to help women.”

Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution declares that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law” and prohibits any discrimination. However, little has been done to provide protection for women in terms of substantive laws and policies. The lack of diversity among the political parties within parliament remains an obstacle to collective action for better legislation. Even the 66 female parliamentarians have not been able to persuade their own caucus to reach a consensus on women’s rights legislation.

An example of that failure is the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which has been waiting for parliamentary approval for seven years. “It’s about male dominance and the patriarchal structure,” said Nilofar Ibrahimi, a lawmaker and women’s rights activist.

Ibrahimi highlighted another critical problem that hinders women’s progress: political capital. The presence of women in institutions does not alone cause social change; social values have the determining role here. “Government focuses only on symbolic acts and paper promises,” she said, adding that the “appointment of women should not be used for propaganda on the international stage. The government needs to ensure that it hires capable women and provides them with opportunities and a suitable environment in which they can succeed.”

While the rule of law remains poor, and women are denied access to a fully functioning justice system, deeply-ingrained social norms also deprive them of their rights. The traditional society of Afghanistan defines rigidly women’s roles, duties, privileges, and obligations. The first-ever female nominee for Afghanistan’s Supreme Court was rejected by Parliament last year. Conservatives campaigned against her, saying that a woman could not serve on the Supreme Court. Similarly, a survey by the Asia Foundation found a year-over-year decline in the percentage of Afghans who supported allowing women to make autonomous voting decisions without any input from men.

This kind of rhetoric sanctions discriminatory views of women that have become a part of Afghanistan’s social fabric. Not only does it limit women’s access to justice or free participation in public life, but it entrenches a culture of violence against women as an accepted status quo. More than 87 percent of women in Afghanistan have suffered from psychological, physical, sexual, or domestic abuse, or forced marriage, according to a 2008 report by Global Rights, an international human rights capacity-building NGO.

As foreign nations exit the conflict in Afghanistan, we should place emphasis on strengthening the institutions already in place to protect women. The fear of violence is an unfortunate experience shared by all women in Afghanistan — and it is only getting worse.

Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Metra Mehran as an activist that works for women empowerment and grassroots democracy building in Afghanistan.

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