The Culture War Over Afghan Women

The culture war over Afghan women is heating up.

Just over ten years have passed since the international community overthrew the notoriously misogynist Taliban regime, and Afghan women are again at the center of a volatile national debate over whether basic rights and freedoms should be extended to the female half of the population. With the US and Afghan governments reaching out to the Taliban for peace talks and conservatives within the Afghan government making statements in support of restricting women’s dress, freedom of movement, and rights to work, to justice, and to be protected from violence, activists fear they are witnessing the beginning of a major crackdown on women.

Influential conservatives have increasingly focused their advocacy on rolling back aspects of women’s progress ranging from hard-won guarantees of rights to expressions of individuality and happiness. A few of their pet projects:

2010: The Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s advisory council of religious leaders, called for the reintroduction of the death penalty as a punishment in adultery cases.

2011: Conservatives within the Ministry of Women’s Affairs unsuccessfully attempted to take over the country’s NGO-run women’s shelters, and the Ministry of Justice proposed a law banning mixed gender wedding parties and wedding gowns that show women’s curves.

2012: The Ministry of Culture and Information sent a letter to television studios stating that, “all female news presenters must avoid heavy make-up and wear a headscarf.”

Then, this week –as if timed to dominate the discourse around International Women’s Day– the Ulema Council released a statement saying that “men and fundamental and women are secondary.” The statement called for the strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces, and for women to veil and avoid traveling without a male guardian. Disturbingly, it also appeared to sanction violence against women under some circumstances. (The line in question reads: “It needs to be said that teasing, harassment and beating of women without a Shariah-compliant reason, as set forth clearly in the Glorious Qur’an, is prohibited.”)

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch summed up why the statement caused widespread alarm among human rights activists.

If this was just the view of conservative religious leaders, it would be discouraging, but just another in a long line of discriminatory statements about women from Afghanistan’s male dominated institutions. What caused consternation, however, was the sense that President Hamid Karzai had embraced the statement. In a departure from usual practice, the statement was posted on the Presidential Palace website, distributed to the media by the Palace, and defended by President Karzai at a news conference.

As regressive and reminiscent of Taliban edicts as the Ulema Council’s most recent statement is, the Council is hardly the only Afghan institution to threaten women’s rights, and, as an advisory body with no law-making power, it’s not the most dangerous either.

It is the Afghan justice system that most grimly embodies the government’s opposition to implementing laws to protect women’s rights, and all of its institutions remain deeply hostile to women. Throughout Afghanistan, four hundred women and girls are currently serving prison sentences for so-called “moral crimes” –usually extra-marital intercourse, including being raped, running away from abusive homes, and fleeing forced marriages. (Global Post just published the story of a woman who is doing time in Kabul’s infamous Badam Bagh prison for refusing to submit to an incestuous marriage to her own uncle.) For Afghan women, aid to the justice sector over the past decade has yielded little more than cleaner prisons for the unjustly incarcerated –a fact that international donors are reluctant to admit.

Last year, the European Union refused to release a documentary it had commissioned about the plight of Afghan women imprisoned for “moral crimes” because the film shed light on the abusive practices of the Afghan judiciary. That move sparked outrage among Afghan activists and international human rights groups who argued the EU’s decision betrayed the women who had agreed to be filmed in the hope of drawing attention to their cases.

Deep-seated fear of a return to the dark days of the 1990’s, when Afghanistan’s atrocities were largely ignored by the rest of the world, pervades the progressive activist community in Afghanistan at this juncture.

“The signs of hope for Afghan women are fading faster than at any other time in the past few years, yet they have not disappeared completely – because our history teaches us that there has always been women who struggled, failed, struggled failed and then succeeded well,” prominent women’s rights advocate Orzala Ashraf Nemat wrote in her International Women’s Day piece for the Guardian.

In my next post: the good news. (There is good news. Really.)