The Atlantic: Worrying Signs Afghan Women’s Rights Will Slip After U.S. Departure

May 20, 2013

A law to protect women failed to pass parliament this weekend, sparking fears that the country’s conservative forces want to roll back the clock on gender.

In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai used his powers of presidential decree to put a law to protect women on the books. This weekend the measure failed to gain parliamentary approval, raising once more the question of whether women’s legal rights will be a casualty of Afghanistan’s political and security transition.

"After 12 years of struggle...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."

Afghanistan’s law on the “elimination of violence against women” is regularly used by women’s advocates and lawyers to jail those who force girls into marriage, marry off girls as young as 10 or 11, force women into prostitution, or use females to settle disputes between families. The law also for the first time in Afghan history defines rape as a crime in the country’s penal code. Marital rape also is also considered a crime under the measure.

The measure has long been a target of Afghanistan’s conservative forces, who see it as far too liberal. The idea of sanctioning women’s safe houses, or shelters, which already exist around the country, and prosecuting husbands for marital rape provoke particular ire. Parliamentarians, whose ranks include conservative clerics, raised both issues on Saturday when female lawmakers brought the measure to the fore. After only a few minutes of debate, the parliament’s speaker shut down the discussion amid calls for the bill to be tossed out entirely.

The strategy of taking the measure to parliament for debate had split Afghan women activists. Some, including parliamentarian, presidential candidate, and longtime rights advocate Fawzia Koofi, viewed the current moment as women’s best and perhaps only shot at cementing the measure into law. Fears abound that as 2014 approaches and the international presence in the country dwindles, women’s rights will become increasingly invisible collateral damage.

“Today I want the MPs to vote for this law for sake of their sisters who have been alongside them at every point,” Koofi said on the floor of the legislature.

Already women say they see signs of appeasement of Taliban and other conservative forces up ahead. Last year Karzai supported a “code of conduct” issued by a group of prominent clerics, the Ulema Council, which permitted the beating of wives by husbands under certain conditions and backed the separation of men and women in schools and offices.

On the opposite side, many women urged against bringing the measure to the floor of parliament, fearing that the discussion would descend from a legislative debate into a referendum on women’s rights. They say that supporters had not assembled a strong enough coalition in support of the bill to beat back the many opponents lined up against it.

“The law should not have gone to parliament at this time,” says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs a network of shelters across the country for female survivors of domestic violence. “It was very premature.”

The debate Saturday proved those fears right and raised once more the broader question of what happens to women’s gains when the world’s spotlight — and its dollars and diplomatic pressure — move on from Afghanistan, a process already well underway. Women have made significant gains in the 10 years since the Taliban fell in 2001. Back then, Taliban rules banned girls from classrooms. Today nearly 3 millions girls are in school and more than 16,000 have graduated from university. With the help of constitutionally enshrined quotas, women occupy more than a quarter of the seats in parliament. The country has a female governor, mayor and attorney general, and women serve in both the police and the army. On the economic front, women lead companies that offer everything from dried fruits to logistical support; Time magazine recently named a young Afghan software entrepreneur to its list of 100 most influential people.

Still, the floor fight in parliament has exposed the fragility of those gains.

“It needed more mobilization in the parliament,” said human rights and women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh, who debated a conservative parliamentarian about the bill live on Afghan television Saturday night. “However, what happened 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.”

The fight also unmasked divisions among women leaders, some of whom thought the law should not have been brought before parliament to begin with. Without the body’s approval, it would still have been law.

“Lots of activists had warned that if it did go to parliament it would not succeed and that the law already is enforceable without parliamentary review and approval,” said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch from her office in Kabul. “It was clear that parliamentary approval was unlikely in the law’s current version.”

Many activists say that it was good that the day ended as it did, with the measure referred to parliamentary leaders for further review after less than a half-hour of discussion, allowing the situation to quiet without altering the law as it currently stands. But what is more worrisome in their view is that opponents of the law may end up energized by the debate. They fear hard-liners now see an opening for the bill’s repeal.

“The best thing would be for it to languish and for the whole thing to be dropped,” says Barr of the current parliamentary review.

Koofi herself remains committed to her path of convincing parliament to approve the law.

“It seems there are some lawmakers who do not want this bill to be passed,” she wrote in an email issued by her office. “What makes the bill more difficult to pass is there are some women who pretend to be women rights advocates … [who] are now going against it and helping the religious fanatics MPs to act like a strong opposition.”