Whenever Britain reaches a morbid anniversary of our time in Afghanistan or a new death milestone as more and more troops are thrown on the battlefield with armour little more advanced than the average London riot shield, politicians and commentators emphatically insist we are there ‘for the women’.
Despite the rather dubious provenance of this justification, as at the time is was supposedly an attempt to rout out Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, the rhetoric states it has brought about nothing but improvement in the lives of Afghan women as Westernised values seep into the country.
However, whatever American and British propaganda may tell you, Afghanistan is still not the best place to be a girl.
The continuing guerilla presence of the Taliban is normally what captures international focus on women’s rights as their frequent attacks on girl students and their schools capture the world’s attention. The negotiations between NATO forces and the Taliban received intense scrutiny from human rights organisation Amnesty International at the end of 2011 with their campaign to ensure women’s rights were not used as a bargaining chip in the peace talks. The Taliban have now suspend negotiations with the USA because of their ‘ever changing position’ but the continuing focus on the seemingly unending struggle with the Taliban neglects the serious challenges women face in mainstream Afghan society.
Over the past eleven years there have been huge strides in not just women’s, but human rights generally in Afghanistan. With discrimination legislation, access to education and healthcare and the beginnings of a (sort of) democratic system it appears to Western observers that on the surface their mission has been successful in creating a lasting legacy of freedom in the country. Men and women are declared equal under the Afghan constitution and there is a quota of a quarter of all seats in government reserved for women which was exceeded in the elections of 2005 and 2010.
Nevertheless, the cultural war is still far from over. Afghanistan still remains divided along tribal lines, rife with corruption and before the arrival of the Taliban in the late nineties; suffered years of civil war, invasion by Russia and the rule of tribal kings. Its currently ranked 150th in the world for press freedom , 1.4 on the report published by Transparency International in 2010 where 10 is most clean and 0 is most corrupt and 181th for maternal mortality(out of 181).
What people often forget is that although the extremes of the Taliban were rejected by mainstream Afghan society a large part of its attitudes to women were almost as repressive as the group’s and some have even become more radicalised by the speed of Western attempts at change.
Although women are recognised as equal in the eyes of the law, concessions for peace have been made towards non-Taliban radical groups such as a law passed in 2009 that stated men had the right to deny food to their wives if they refused to have sex with them and are (in certain circumstances) forbidden to leave the house without their husbands’ permission. A female senator in Afghanistan upper house said at the time that the law was ‘worse than under the Taliban‘. Although it was seen to be in violation of the UN resolution that stated women should be included in all post-conflict negotiations, a supporter of the law, MP Ustad Mohammad Akbarisaid, said the law actually protected women’s rights.
‘Men and women have equal rights under Islam but there are differences in the way men and women are created. Men are stronger and women are a little bit weaker; even in the west you do not see women working as firefighters.’
The concept of women being equal but still a little inferior runs right through Afghan culture and society.
Although there has been a general increase in girl in school, it comes the low base of none at all ten years ago and many young women are still being sold into marriage at a young age rather than being allowed to purse a career. According to Amnesty International, of the 7 million children in education only 37% are girls. Similarly in 2010 there were 74 attacks on schools in Afghanistan; 26 were directed at girls’ schools, 13 at boys’ schools, and 35 at mixed schools.
Despite laws against violence towards women it still continues, particularly in rural areas as women often act as abusers and enables themselves, as young girls are brutally punished for not producing sons. Such is the case reported in late January of the woman accused of strangling her own daughter-in-law for giving birth to three girls.
Even the non-violent attitudes favouring men over women are prevalent with the cultural practice of ‘Bacha Posh’ where families with no male children simply turn one of their girls into a boy until they’re old enough to be married to prevent bringing ‘shame’ onto the house. Along with the psychological stigma of growing up knowing they weren’t good enough in their biological gender they are given a small burst of freedom as boys because they can go out and play with other boys in the area, earn a small living for their family selling chewing gum and water and other things that they could not do as a girl. Elaha, a university student from north Afghanistan told BBC Online that she does not feel female and being a woman is far too restrictive after having the freedom of a boy for twenty years. She only return to her original gender when she went to university and only because of social pressure.
“When I was a kid my parents disguised me as a boy because I didn’t have a brother. Until very recently, as a boy, I would go out, play with other boys and have more freedom…If my parents force me to get married, I will compensate for the sorrows of Afghan women and beat my husband so badly that he will take me to court every day.”
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director said in Amnesty’s 2011 report on women’s rights in Afghanistan that,
‘The Afghan government and its partners can’t continue to justify their poor performance by saying that things are better than during the 1990s. Wherever Afghans were given security and financial assistance, they overcame tremendous obstacles to improve their conditions. But too often promises of assistance were not kept.’
The invasion of Afghanistan has achieved a great deal in overthrowing a brutally repressive regime but it cannot pat itself on the back just yet as the attitudes and injustices that propped it up still linger.