As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, Afghan women may have less to celebrate and more to fear–at least if a proposed law to bring women’s shelters under government control is allowed to pass.
Along with the displacement and instability caused by 30 years of war, Afghan women have long been oppressed and held to a subordinated status in Afghan society. Before the war, only the few educated elite women had a chance for success in the public sphere. Eighty percent of the population still lives in rural areas, with no idea what it means to have women’s rights. There are deep historical roots of gender discrimination in my country, which have been carried out by tribal systems and a weak central government.
Since 2001, after the defeat of the Taliban regime, the presence of the international community and aid organizations have helped Afghan women find a place in the public sphere, including parliament, the Women’s Ministry, local community development and civil society movements. Afghanistan now has highest rate of women’s participation in parliament in its entire geopolitical region.
These strong gains and achievements of Afghan women have come about as a result of the targeted aid of the international community, which has assisted women without the intervention of the Afghan government. But the move to control women’s shelters by the government signals an enormous threat to the work of women rights activists across the country. Despite women’s gains in Afghanistan, conservative forces still say that a woman’s place is in the home, or in the ground.
The government’s attempt to control women’s shelters is symptomatic of a larger underlying battle. As Hamid Karzai‘s government struggles to demonstrate its moral and political legitimacy, it chooses to use its power in the only areas where it has previously proven it can be successful: family law, cultural purity and religious doctrine. The government maintains its fragile political base by drawing its support from conservative factions that believe the emancipation and empowerment of women–and their ability to seek refuge from abusive family members–threatens the very fabric of cultural pride and tradition. These conservatives believe women’s protection, safety and rights are best determined by the men who threaten them and deny them these very rights.
If the international community will not raise a voice against this effort to suppress women in Afghanistan, the rights and freedoms of Afghan women will once again be curtailed, weakened and denied. With the overall current focus on ending the conflict in the country, gender issues will once again be the first compromised and scaled back.
Thirty years of war, victimization, destruction and hardship have changed the role of Afghan women. Through our resolve and determination, we are no longer purely victims. We are breadwinners for our families, survivors who never want to go back to the life we had. We are awake. Afghan women are decision-makers, politicians, activists and community leaders who struggle to better the lives of their families, other women, and their communities.
The passage of the Shia Family Law in 2009, and now the attempt to control women’s shelters, reflect the growing power of extremists in Afghanistan and demonstrate that President Karzai has joined arms with them to lead the country in the wrong direction. That direction will only bring a return to darkness and gender slavery that prevents women and civil society movements to advance and create a more equitable future for all.
Zareen Taj is a women’s rights activist from Afghanistan. As a child she witnessed the Russian invasion of her country and the brutal oppression of her people. She lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for awhile, continuing her activism (which began at age 14) there. When the Taliban threatened her life, she sought refuge in the U.S. in 2000. She was college-educated in this country thanks to a scholarship from the Feminist Majority Foundation. She now has a master’s degree in women studies with an international concentration.