Have Afghan Women Finally Arrived?

In the last one decade, women in Afghanistan have taken giant strides in the political, economic and social realms, outshining their male counterparts and making their presence felt.  

The Taliban rule over Afghanistan is considered the most terrible period for women in Afghan history. During this period, the restrictions and clampdown on women’s political and social rights meant that they were denied the basic civil liberties such as the right to work, the right to pursue education and the right to engage in politics or vote freely.

The fact that women are now allowed to step out of the traditional household has enabled them to contribute to household income, slowly breaking the conventional notion of men being the sole breadwinners in Afghan society 

Among the most draconian conventions applied during the Taliban regime that lasted from 1996 to 2001 was making veil, popularly known as burqa, compulsory for women in public sphere. These regressive rules were based on the most radical notions of Islam that sought to isolate women and cage her. But, after the terrorist attacks on September 9, 2001, the Taliban were ousted and a new democratic period ushered in followed by the formation of a new Constitution. The new political dispensation gave women the same rights and access to opportunities as their counterparts. So, 2001 onwards, women got the right to vote, hold public office, pursue education and work without any hassles.

Liberation of Education
During the Taliban regime, women were not allowed to attend school or participate in any academic or creative activity. There were schools for boys but even they lacked quality books, teachers, access to modern technology, or learning spaces. Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the Ministry of Education says one million male students were enrolled in three thousand schools during the Taliban regime, and that figure has leapfrogged since 2001, for both boys and girls. Approximately 4 million girls are now enrolled in schools. There are 210 thousand instructors teaching in 15,500 schools and 32% of these instructors are women,” says Iman.

The spokesmen for the Ministry of Higher Education, Azim Noor Bakhsh says there are sixty three private higher education institutions with fifty thousand students, of which thirty thousand are female students. Aside from women’s advancement in the education sector, they have also made rapid strides in the political and economic arena over the years, matching steps with their counterparts.

Decision making
Presently, 27% of the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of the Afghan Parliament comprises women. The Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Public Health, and Women Affairs are also led by women. At the sub-national level, prominent positions have been taken up by women. The chair of Provincial Chief Prosecutor of Herat province is occupied by Marya Bashir and the Governor’s office in Bamiyan is held by Habiba Serabi. Since 2001, Afghanistan has also had three female presidential candidates including Massouda Jalal in 2004, Shahla Ata and Dr. Forozan Fana in 2009. The current head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Dr. Sima Samar is also an influential female figure, who held an important position as the only female Cabinet Member in President Karzai’s first administration.
These facts bear eloquent testimony that the women in this country have finally arrived. Their participation in politics is growing at a healthy rate. Although, there are still challenges on various fronts, they remain vigilant and active in the public sphere.

In 2003, post-Taliban regime, the Loya Jirga presented the first opportunity for women to participate in the political affairs of the state. Further, in the Parliamentary elections of 2010, there were 333 female candidates, pointing to the increase in women’s political participation. According to a report by Election Commission, 38.8% Afghanis took part in the last elections, of which 59.3% were men, 38.2 were women and 2.6% were nomadic.

The fact that women are now allowed to step out of the traditional household has enabled them to contribute to household income, slowly breaking the conventional notion of men being the sole breadwinners in Afghan society. The formation of female owned and operated enterprises and markets founded on micro-financed projects especially in rural areas shows that women have also jumped the bandwagon in the financial sector. According to a report by Ministry of Women, the participation of women in the private sector has progressed over the years, and as of 2011, 760 private offices are managed and run by women across the country.

Notwithstanding the myriad odds and challenges, Afghan women are not entirely disconcerted or hopeless about their future, even as the country’s tryst with history inches closer and foreign forces prepare to leave

Human Rights
Many organizations are working to safeguard the women’s rights in Afghanistan and to improve the living conditions for them. Providing secure houses for women who are victims of violence, pursuing the cases of violence against women and presenting legal services to women are some of the efforts taken by such organizations. However, there are still some alarming statistics that show that violence against women has increased, mainly the domestic violence. This is a disturbing pattern that exists because of the weak rule of law, corruption in the judicial sector, and lack of security.

Art and Culture
Since 2001, women have enthusiastically engaged themselves in performing arts, particularly in Afghan cinema and the thriving music industry. The performing arts industry has produced a number of promising female singers, actors, dramatists who now feature in various programmes at places like Aftab Theatre Group. The Kabul Theatre and Kabul University also host an annual Afghan Theatre Festival, organized in collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Culture and various international cultural organisations.

Many examples can be drawn from female artists currently engaged in music and cinema such as Farzana Naz, Sahar Afarin, Sabah Sahar and Tamana Amini. There are also many women who are dissuaded by their families to engage in the field of arts, especially in Nangarhar province, where film producers are forced to woo artists from Pakistan’s Khyber Pashtunkhwa due to the unavailability of female Afghan artists.

Fine arts is also an area that has many takers in this country. Kabul University hosts a yearly exhibition on the themes of pollution and environment. The exhibition in 2012 was remarkable as all the 18 participating artists were women and the genre was modern art, a rarity in Afghanistan.
Obstacles and Challenges
Although women have taken giant strides in the political, economic and social realms over the last one decade, they still confront various challenges such as insecurity, lack of education and conservative leanings of the society.

A key impediment to women’s access to education is traditional customs, particularly in rural areas, where families discourage the idea of female education. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Education, there are three million children who are currently not receiving any formal education, most of them girls. Girls are not generally encouraged to pursue higher education in some parts of the country as parents take strong exception to any interaction between boys and girls.   

There are also other factors such as security, household chores, child marriages and domestic violence. Of the 4.2 million Afghan children deprived of education, UNICEF estimates 60% are girls - and most of them live in rural districts and the southern and eastern provinces where NATO-Taliban clashes have been most fierce.

Notwithstanding the myriad odds and challenges, Afghan women are not entirely disconcerted or hopeless about their future, even as the country’s tryst with history inches closer and foreign forces prepare to leave.

“Many girls who are enrolled in schools and universities have taken full advantage of the rights and liberties given to them,” says Shazia, student of journalism at Kabul University. “The youth here is more educated and progressive now and they are in a position to take charge of things.” Like many others, she also believes it’s time for Afghanis to become self-reliant and reduce the dependence on outside support. “We can solve our problems if we stand united and collectively tackle the divisive forces,” says this aspiring journalist, with gleam in her eyes.

Faridah, also a student of Journalism at Kabul University, believes they can march ahead without foreign intervention. “Our freedom will not be compromised even after 2014, provided we remain united and stand firm against mischief-mongers who seek to weaken our social standing.”

Shabanah, student from the Faculty of Islamic Law, holds opposing views. “If women are given the right to study under Taliban regime, then there is no harm in that. We don’t want social liberty that promotes waywardness; we want liberty under the guidelines of Islam.”  

Freba , who is also enrolled in the Faculty of Islamic Law, seconds Shabanah. “The blitzkrieg of western culture in Afghanistan has meant that Afghan females have forgotten their own culture and given up the practice of veil. Any future political party that assumes power in Afghanistan should promote women’s rights in accordance to Islamic laws.”

Marya Bashir, Chief Prosecutor in Herat Province, is concerned about the situation post 2014. “Many efforts have been made in the last 10 years to improve living conditions of women, but there is a need to reach the grassroot level.  The approval of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009 is a remarkable achievement, but it alone is not enough.” Enacted in August 2009, this landmark legislation criminalizes child marriage, forced marriage, trafficking of women, baad (giving away a woman or girl to settle a dispute), forced self-immolation and 17 other acts of violence against women including rape and beating. It also specifies punishment for the perpetrators.

Like many other educated Afghan women, Bashir believes women in this country understand their rights enshrined in Islamic texts and Afghanistan Constitution and know how to claim and safeguard them. With such tremendous emphasis laid on laws and policies regarding gender equality and female education, the women of Afghanistan can look forward to bright future. 


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