Afghan Women's Liberty Remains in Peril

The Senate is scheduled to vote at the end of September on a $2 billion reconstruction package for Afghanistan, with specific allocations for the Women's Ministry and a Human Rights Commission, as well as a call for additional peacekeepers.

Belquis Ahmadi

(WOMENSENEWS)-Thursday's assassination attempt against the Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai and the same-day explosions in the nation's capital that killed 25 may underscore the need for what many women's rights advocates have been pressing for: the expansion of the International Security Assistance Forces throughout the still-violent nation beyond Kabul.

The belief of women's rights activists, in general, is that the violence against women and other repression is still so extreme in Afghanistan that only soldiers enforcing order will provide women enough safety to begin reasserting their rights.

With warlords armed by the United States and installed in the new Afghan government, women's rights groups, including Feminist Majority and Equality Now, are calling for the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force.

“Without such a force, you can write off women's empowerment in Afghanistan,” said Jennifer Seymour Whitaker of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The probability of the International Security Assistance Forces being deployed outside of Kabul-although not to specifically protect women-rose immediately after the new violence. Pentagon officials who long opposed expanding the jurisdiction of forces in Afghanistan were reported as saying on Friday that enlarging the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and placing its troops outside Kabul may help secure the country and allow American troops to leave sooner.

A powerful Senate committee is already on record in support of the security forces moving beyond Kabul. On Aug. 1, in a rare unanimous vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee allocated $2 billion in reconstruction funds for Afghanistan, including $15 million for the Women's Ministry and $5 million for the Human Rights Commission. In addition, the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 contains several amendments, including a nonbinding resolution urging the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill this month.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California added an amendment that not only authorized the funds for the two commission but also calls for United States assistance to be used to rebuild women's healthcare facilities, to accelerate education for girls whose schooling was ended by the Taliban, and to ensure that the delivery of humanitarian supplies and services doesn't subject women to further sexual and physical abuse, abduction, trafficking, exploitation, or sex discrimination.

The bill was created when U.S. and Afghan women's groups lobbied legislators about the reality of Afghanistan today, outside of the war against Al-Qaeda or celebratory images of women removing their burqas. The day-to-day lives of Afghan women include living in fear despite-and sometimes because of-the new Afghan government told Congress.

Women's rights advocates are elated over the unanimous vote. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Washington-based Feminist Majority Foundation, pointed out that even such long-time foes as Sen. Jesse Helms had put their staff to work on the bill.

“The Taliban taught the world women's rights can't be assumed,” Smeal said.

Charges Against Samar Changed Tone of Loya Jirga

U.S. aid is seen as essential, given the outcome of the June meeting of the loya jirga, Afghanistan's national assembly.

Although women's rights advocates were initially optimistic about the first post-Taliban loya jirga, where at first women spoke out and a woman ran for president, the tone of the legislative body changed by the time it ended in June.

“The warlords and the fundamentalists started to show their influence,” said Belquis Ahmadi, the Afghanistan/Pakistan project coordinator with the International Human Rights Law Group.

Adding to profound concerns about women's status in the new nation is the fact that its leading women's rights activist has been demoted and is living behind barbed wire.

Shortly after the interim government was formed, the Jamiat-i-Islami party, based on quotes in a Canadian Persian-language newspaper last year, circulated pamphlets accusing the then-minister for women's affairs in Afghanistan, Dr. Sima Samar, of blasphemy, for speaking out about past offenses committed against women in the name of Islam by both the Taliban and the mujahideen. The pamphlets stated that Samar had spoken against Sharia, or Islamic law, and demanded judicial action. In June Samar received a summons calling her to appear in a Kabul court to face the blasphemy charge.

Samar then went directly to interim President Hamid Karzai, and the court dropped the charge, citing insufficient evidence. But a deputy chief justice, Fazel Ahmad Manawi, told the BBC that if the government can collect stronger evidence, it will consider reopening the case. Karzai's post loya jirga government shifted Samar from her position and appointed her instead to head a newly created human rights commission. Samar, now referred to as “Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie” by Muslim fundamentalists, recently accepted barbed wire protection around her home in Kabul, according to Toronto's The Globe and Mail.

“It's not only me, it's the whole civil society I am concerned about,” Samar told a teleconference of human rights advocates in July.

Farhat Bokhari of Human Rights Watch said she sees the apostasy charges as having silenced the most articulate critics of the warlords.

After Samar was accused, anyone who spoke out on behalf of women was in danger, added Jennifer Whitaker, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“As the loya jirga proceeded, incidents of intimidation rose,” she said, “one man who spoke for women's rights then went into hiding. Armed men searching for him came to his house in the night.”

Ahmadi of the international law group is worried about what the women who took part in the assembly will confront as they return to their villages.

“What happens if one of them gets accused of something?” she asks. She fears not only that women will be charged with crimes, but also that they will be treated unfairly by the warlords, many of whom condoned or perpetuated abuses against women for many years.

Outside of Kabul, Warlords Reign

After Karzai was elected at the end of the loya jirga, he announced a permanent government that included men such as Defense Minister Muhammad Qasim Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir, and Kharim Khalili.

“These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the former mujahideen government,” wrote Canadian Afghans Adeena Niazi and Omar Zakhilwal, in The New York Times.

As the Foreign Relation Council's Whitaker observed in the Boston Globe, “Chief Justice Shinwari, who publicly upbraided Samar and has called for full support of Sharia, or Islamic law, was reappointed; and the majority of the Judicial Commission, responsible for reconciling Islamic principles with other legal traditions, are graduates of religious schools, called madrassas, with no further education.”

In the rest of the country, fundamentalist extremists and factional warfare continue to make life difficult for women, many of whom may wear the chadhari, or burqa.

Meanwhile fundamentalists, emboldened by years of Taliban rule, are ignoring the soft edicts of the Karzai government.

In April, in the southern city of Kandahar, a woman teacher had acid thrown in her face after a local group distributed pamphlets warning men not to send their daughters to school, Reuters reported. In Mazar-i-Sharif, near where U.S. troops have directed local warlords in pursuit of Al Qaeda, medical professionals interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported treating girls as young as 14 who had been gang-raped. The perpetrators were identified only by their political faction.

An independent journalist investigating the situation in the Zabul province told Human Rights Watch that educational materials printed by the interim government were being kept under lock and key by local gunmen.

“We are being compelled to teach the curriculum published by the Taliban,” a female teacher told the journalist.

“The U.S. is supporting warlords in the war effort,” says Jessica Neuwirth, president of New York-based Equality Now, “giving them money and guns to fight Al Qaeda. That means they're arming and strengthening the people we don't want to strengthen.”

Nevertheless, even those most fearful of the warlords' renewed power express confidence that Afghan women will remain key players in the nation's future. If needed, they will raise the alarm early and often.

“The one thing people learned, from these years of civil war and the Taliban, was to be outspoken,” says Belquis Ahmadi. “Now if anything not in favor of Afghan people happens, the people will react.”

Chris Lombardi is a freelance writer in New York. She was a member of the Women's Enews team at the Beijing + 5 conference in 2000 and writes frequently about human rights.

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, June 6, 2002:
“Afghan Women Debate the Terms of Their Future,”

Human Rights Watch
“Afghanistan: Return of the Warlords-
Threats to Women's Security and Their Rights”: