Will Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Disappear?

Afghan lawmakers on Saturday rejected the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, which would criminalize child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence and the exchange of girls and women to settle arguments, among other things. The law would also make it illegal for women to face criminal charges for adultery for being raped. (You heard that right.)

Conservative religious lawmakers argue that the law encourages “disobedience,” and says the law goes against Islamic principles (the familiar blame-God-for-the-freedoms-we-take-from-you argument). Mandavi Abdul Rahmani, one of the conservative lawmakers who opposes the law, said the Koran makes it clear that a man can beat his wife if she does not obey him, as long as she isn’t permanently harmed. (Hey, bruises go away! Even broken bones heal!) He added, “Adultery itself is a crime in Islam, whether it is by force or not.”

Just days after lawmakers rejected the law, Human Rights Watch released a report revealing that in the last 18 months, the number of women and girls in Afghanistan who have been jailed for “moral crimes” has risen 50 percent—with almost 20 percent of the females incarcerated being under age 18. What counts as a “moral crime” in Afghanistan? Women in Afghanistan can be jailed under Shariah Islamic law for: running away from home, the “intent” to commit adultery, and being raped by a man who is not her husband (under the guise of “sex outside marriage” or “adultery”).

The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women actually has been in effect since 2009, but only under presidential decree—which means it is potentially only in effect until Hamid Karzai’s term is over in 2014. And what will happen to Afghanistan women’s rights with the expected withdrawal of international troops from the country next year? Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher told the Associated Press,

I think it’s possible that as everyone anticipates the departure of foreigners, there is a feeling that in a sense things can go back to normal, and… people will be free to ignore [women’s rights] in the future.

Afghanistan wasn’t always so opposed to women’s rights. In an attempt to modernize the country, King Amanullah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, promoted freedom for women in a number of ways, such as allowing girls to go to school and encouraging women to unveil themselves and adopt what they called a more “Western” style of clothing. In 1921 he created a law that criminalized forced marriage, child marriage and paying for a bride.

Things began to slip backward, however, when Afghanistan entered its post-communist era under the Taliban. Taliban leaders declared that women were no longer allowed to leave their homes without a man accompanying them and that they must wear the traditional head-to-toe-covering burqa. Women during this time were also denied education, health care and the right to go to work. Tim McGirk of TIME writes,

The Taliban often argued that the brutal restrictions they placed on women were actually a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex. The behavior of the Taliban during the six years they expanded their rule in Afghanistan made a mockery of that claim.

Once the Taliban fell in 2001, women finally had the chance to pick up the pieces of their basic human rights. Nearly 3 million Afghan girls are currently in school and more than a quarter of the seats in parliament are occupied by women. After all the progress they’ve made in the last 12 years, women’s rights activists aren’t ready to hand over their freedoms. They are battling against conservative lawmakers who believe legislation for women’s freedoms will lead to social chaos.

One of those women activists, Wazhma Frogh, recently debated the topic on live television in Afghanistan, and says,

What happened [in the Parliament] is a good reminder to the whole world that after 12 years of struggle and sacrifice we are handing over the fate of Afghan women into the hands of these guys who are ready to take away every right from women.

Human Rights Watch is urging international donors to pressure Afghanistan’s government to improve women’s rights in the country. The critical date for activists is April 2014, when Afghanistan elects a new president who will have the power to eliminate the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women. Fawzia Koofi, the head of Parliament’s women’s commission, says,

2014 is coming, change is coming, and the future of women in this country is uncertain.


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.