Under the Taliban, the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan was one of the worst in the world. The Taliban regime had banned the right to vote; women’s education and their right to work were un-Islamic and therefore unacceptable. Women had no access to general hospitals. Women (only) were punished harshly for adultery. A strict dress code was imposed on them and their movement outside the home was limited to a minimum, and then only when accompanied by an adult male member.
Women were truly second class citizens under the Taliban and it was believed that with the end of their regime in 2001, women in Afghanistan would be given their due.
To some extent, this has happened.
The fall of the Taliban gave women some of the most basic rights that had been denied to them. For instance, education for women is no longer banned. Women now have the freedom to become teachers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs and even politicians. In fact, the Hamid Karzai Government has reserved one quarter of seats in the Afghan parliament for women. Three female ministers assist Karzai since 2009, and he has indicated that he wants more women in the armed forces and the police force as this is essential to ensure domestic peace.
So, is it right to say that women in Afghanistan now enjoy better lives and higher status?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Even after the ousting of the Taliban, the Karzai Government seems to be in a bind. For example, in 2009, a Shi’ite family law was passed containing clauses that say that a woman may be punished if she denies sexual satisfaction to her husband, and that the wife is duty bound to wear makeup if her husband desires it. Hard to believe, but true. The law also restrained free movement for women. Even when activists and politicians have been quick to point out these mistakes of the government, Karzai responded by sacking a deputy governor when two women performed at a concert without their head-scarves! As one can see, women still live in fear and in repressed conditions in this country.
There are several reasons for the deteriorating nature of women’s rights in Afghanistan:
The lack of political will is one of the main reasons for the dismal nature of women’s rights in the country. Although activists felt that the fall of the Taliban would usher in a bright future, nothing much has happened. It may not be an exaggeration to say that women’s rights as an issue has been a political plaything, not a goal in itself.
Although women’s right activists have been striving hard for change, it is hard to alter age old perceptions without a revolution of sorts – both politically as well as socially. In fact, some of the most harrowing women’s rights abuses originate from rural Afghanistan which clings to highly orthodox views of how women should behave, dress and conduct themselves.
And finally, a further threat to women’s rights is the resurgence of the Taliban. The fragile advances made in the ensuing years may be a thing of the past if the Taliban comes to power again.
International pressure can help reduce the sufferings of women in Afghanistan – up to some extent. But, the will to change has to come from within the community living in this country. In a society that has long considered its daughters as nothing but slaves, empowerment of women is still a dream.