New constitution for Afghanistan: Women and the warlords

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 4:54

By Cathy Nugent

"The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women… The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable."
Colin Powell

"Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man."
Sighbatullah, Chair of Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga
On Sunday 4 January Afghanistan's Loya Jirga (a part elected, part appointed national decision-making body) agreed a new constitution for the country. Essentially a deal has been struck between the US-backed interim Premier, Hamid Karzai, and Afghanistan's warlords (the former mujahedin leaders who were ousted by the Taliban). The warlords will retain some power in the new state, which will be both an Islamic Republic and a bourgeois democracy with a strong Presidency.

Western leaders seem to believe that this new set up - backing up Karzai (who is set to run for President), and entrenching the warlords - is the best available model for "stability". Whatever the outcome for "nation building" in Afghanistan the future for women looks bleak. The warlords are all fundamentalists. They hate women's rights. Under the constitution women will be guaranteed some representation in government. Will they be allowed to take their place?

Since the invasion of Afghanistan and ousting of the Taliban in November 2001, the US military forces have cooperated with (and strengthened) warlord commanders in areas within and outside of Kabul. The rule of the warlords, together with a lack of security and rule of law in the country, has had drastic effects on the lives of women in Afghanistan.

After the fall of the Taliban, many Afghan women were hopeful that their lives would improve. In some small ways, and for some women, that has happened.

In Kabul - a city of three million people - some women felt able to ditch their burqas. But even in the capital city women are fearful of attack for being "un-Islamic". Many have replaced the burqa with other heavy coverings.

One million girls are now enrolled in education. However, because of poor security, many do not attend or attend only sporadically. Girls' schools face cuts and attacks by fundamentalists.

The rule of local despots and tribal heads is nothing new in Afghanistan. Much of the suffering of women and girls remains a matter of "custom and tradition", the particulars of their family life. But these problems are exacerbated by the conditions of the country: minimal infrastructure, poor security, corruption in public life.

Right now women have no protection against violent or abusive family members. In most parts of the country, fleeing from her home may result in arrest and prosecution. Women have no way to contest male family members' decisions about whom they will marry or whether they can attend school or work. Women are supposed to have equality before the law under the constitution. But whether the law be sharia law or secular, "bourgeois", law, remains to be worked out.

Recent reports by the US group Human Rights Watch highlight a number of areas where there is special concern for women's rights. They produced a report on conditions in Herat, a province in the west of Afghanistan, where the local governor is former mujahedin commander and Northern Alliance warlord Ismail Khan.

During the early 1990s Khan ruled under the unstable "mujahedin" government. He created an independent mini-state in Herat and was supported in part by Iran. In a traditionally liberal area, Khan, then as today, restricted women's and girls' freedom of expression, association, movement, and rights to equality, work and education.

Herat fell to the Taliban in 1995. Heratis formed secret schools and literacy classes for girls and women. Khan's return to power in November 2001 was backed by the western coalition. Again he turned Herat into a dictatorial mini-state. This time the vision of Islam was even more fundamentalist. Khan has demonstrated no real allegiance to the Kabul government and has repeatedly refused to allow officials appointed by President Karzai to take posts in Herat. Will he obey the new constitution?

According to Human Rights Watch, in Herat:

  • Women and girls can leave their homes during the day without being accompanied by a close male relative (mahram). However, they may not walk or ride in a car alone with a man who is not a close relative, even a taxi driver.
  • A police task force patrols Herat city, arresting men and women who are seen together and suspected of being unrelated or unmarried. Men are taken to jail; some women and girls have been taken to a hospital to undergo forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse.
  • Many male Heratis have been arrested for "vice crimes" and, without trial, have been beaten, had their heads shaved and blackened with kohl, and shown on television to humiliate them and send a message to the public.
  • Women and older girls must wear a burqa or chadori (large, tightly bound head covering). If they go without it, they may be harassed and threatened by the police.
  • The wearing of the burqa or chadori is imposed by police, employers, and school administrators, as well as by some families and private individuals in the street.
  • Younger girls must wear large scarves. If they do not follow the dress codes they may be beaten.
  • The government has intimated there should be a strict dress code even indoors.
  • Women are not permitted to drive cars, and they cannot ride bicycles.
  • Women have been denied permission to form organisations. The one organisation in Herat women are allowed to be involved in was the Herat Women's Shura council. Khan has handpicked the leadership and controlled the subjects the shura can address.
    When the Women's Shura decided to discuss the issue of self-immolation - women in forced and abusive marriages have committed suicide by dousing themselves with cooking fuel and setting themselves on fire - Khan said "They are not good women." End of discussion.
  • Public transport is non-existent or inadequate, leaving women and girls with few ways to get to school, work, the market, or medical care.
  • Girls and women have gone back to school in large numbers, but they are not allowed to study music or play sports. School and university education is open to some, but not all women.
  • Herat University's dean, Abdurrauf Mukhlis, is the former head of Ismail Khan's religious police from the early 1990s. Students and professors fear discussing anything political, and women's behaviour is tightly regulated (e.g., no clicky high heels). Women and men study separately.
  • Few jobs are open to women and those that are come with significant limitations from the government.
  • Ismail Khan has pressured women not to work with international NGOs or for the United Nations, although these agencies need women to administer many of their emergency aid and reconstruction programs.
  • Almost no women have been invited to work in the Herat government.
  • When women appear in films and other foreign programs on TV not sufficiently covered up, the TV bosses substitute a blank screen or an image of flowers for as long as the woman appears in the picture.
  • Police have targeted women seen shaking hands and, in some instances, speaking with foreign men.
  • Many professions - journalism, law, engineering - are now closed to women.
  • Khan uses government-controlled television, radio, and newspapers to propagate an image of a kind and generous leader

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also produced reports which highlight abuses in other parts of Afghanistan.

  • When women are arrested for adultery in Jalalabad, they face the risk of sexual abuse and transfer to different police stations where they are further abused.
  • Women speaking out on issues of women's rights have not been protected by the security forces.
  • In Ghazni, Kabul, Kandahar, Logar, Sar-e Pul, Wardak, Zabul, Jawzjan, and Laghman provinces from August 2002 to June 2003, there were more than thirty attacks on girls' and boys' schools in which educational materials, tents, and building have been burned or bombed. School attacks often coincide with the anonymous distribution of threatening documents. These warn parents not to send girls to school or threaten Afghans working with the government, with foreigners, or with so-called infidels.

Of course much abuse is "age-old". Women can be very reluctant to report abuses. They do not want to bring shame on their family. How much worse must this be in an atmosphere of increased political tension and insecurity.

Pashtun communities in particular place a high value on women's chastity. Historically, some communities have sanctioned "honour" killings in which a woman could be killed by her own relatives for bringing "dishonour" upon the family by breaching community norms of sexual behavior - including being a victim of sexual violence.

A girl or woman who has been raped may be considered unmarriageable or may be cast out by her husband. Boys who are raped can also face discrimination.

That is why victims will never speak up.

Under the Taliban, life for Afghan women and girls was a living nightmare. It is not quite the same nightmare in Herat and other parts of Afghanistan today, but it is getting there. The Taliban eradicated women from the public sphere and stripped them of power in the private sphere. The Taliban's interpretations of Islamic law were foreign to many of Afghanistan's people, especially those in urban areas. But it was rooted in the fundamentalism of the early 1990s.

Afghan's warlords retain that fundamentalist outlook.

The fundamentalist, monolithic set of social standards which the Taliban imposed alienated huge sectors of the population. That is why the question of women's rights may become the focus for political and ideological conflicts in the future.

In the 1970s and 1980s increasing numbers of urban women worked in government and business and attended school and university. Some women and girls who fled to other countries (even Iran) have enjoyed better access to education. In neighbouring Iran and Pakistan the sitution for women, though dire, is much better. Many women have lived in those countries and refugees.

Afghan women continue to have expectations for themselves, and desire greater freedom in the future.

When they organise we must give them our solidarity.

More information:

  • Human Rights Watch "Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us": Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan, July 2003
  • Middle East Report, Fall 2003 Afghan Women and Girls Still Held Hostage, Zama Coursen-Neff,
  • Amnesty International report 2002, "No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings".

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