Women in Afghanistan
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report in Kabul called ‘I Had to Run Away’, which documents the plight of women in the deeply traditional society of Afghanistan. The report says hundreds of Afghan women are languishing in prison charged with moral crimes, which include running away from home and being accused of adultery. It goes on to point out that 10 years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime that brutally suppressed women, girls and women are still imprisoned for running away from domestic violence or forced marriage. HRW estimates there are at least 400 women in prison and girls in juvenile detention facilities accused or convicted of offences, including ‘running away’, which is not a crime under the Afghan penal code. The report goes on to bear witness that some women and girls have been convicted of zina – sex outside marriage – after being raped or forced into prostitution. Convictions are often obtained solely on the basis of ‘confessions’ extracted in the absence of lawyers and ‘signed’ without having been read to women who cannot read or write. Conviction routinely attracts long prison sentences, in some cases more than 10 years. In the deeply conservative Afghan society, the 58 women inmates interviewed for the report feared they could be murdered by their families after release for reasons of ‘honour’. Even women who have been raped by relatives or others are ironically happier inside prison where they feel safer for fear they will be killed when they are freed.
The HRW report criticises President Hamid Karzai on at least two counts. One, although the president has regularly pardoned women convicted of ‘moral crimes’, this does not compensate for the injustice in the first place, nor does it change the danger of ‘honour’ killings of these unfortunate women. Second, this month Karzai endorsed an edict by the Ulema Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, asserting that women are worth less than men. The edict said women should avoid mingling with male strangers in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, offices and other aspects of life, in effect preventing women from getting education or going out to work. Most worryingly, the Council has left the door open for domestic and other abuse by stating that “teasing, harassing and beating women” was prohibited “without a Sharia-compliant reason”. The statement implies that in some circumstances, domestic abuse was not only allowed, but also appropriate. HRW researcher Heather Barr expressed the apprehension that with the west preparing to scale down its presence in Afghanistan (if not withdraw altogether), Karzai was readjusting his stance to neutralise both the Taliban and powerful traditionalist Afghans in order to survive in power.
There is of course no denying that the position of women has improved impressively since the medievalist days of the Taliban, when women were not allowed to go out without a mehram (close male relative), effectively cutting them off physically and socially from education and work. While the post-Taliban Afghan constitution and other laws enshrine the rights of women, these are more often than not practiced in the breach. To add to this continuing sorry state of affairs rooted not just in Taliban ideology but also the backward patriarchal culture of Afghanistan, the women of Afghanistan are fearful that both the Americans and the Afghan government, in their efforts to make peace with the Taliban in a bid to end the war, are opening the door to compromising whatever rights women have achieved on paper or in real life. That would be a real travesty and negation of the human and other costs of this prolonged war for a more enlightened society that would have turned its back on the cruel medievalism of the Taliban. It goes without saying that the HRW report has helped highlight the plight of women accused of ‘moral crimes’ and increasingly apprehensive of the creeping shadows of a return of Taliban attitudes if not practices. Pakistan’s enlightened society, especially the Afghan women’s sisters here, must stand in support of the beleaguered women of Afghanistan, who certainly deserve a better fate and future than male politicians compromising with the Taliban and in any case informed by reactionary patriarchal attitudes are able to offer.