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Economics & Finance

Could Women’s Rights be Sacrificed for Peace in Afghanistan?

Jane Williams |

The eventual withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan raises fears of what will happen next? Afghanistan’s female MP, Shinkai Kharokhail, hopes women won’t lose their hard-won gains.

“I have to hope the international community, my government and especially President Hamid Karzai never, ever compromise on women’s rights to bring a superficial peace in Afghanistan,” says Shinkai Karokhail, a female member of Afghanistan’s National Assembly.

Speaking to INSEAD Knowledge outside a women’s conference at the school’s Abu Dhabi campus recently, Karokhail said Afghan women’s greatest fear is a return of the Taliban to the country’s political system.

“It was the darkest period of our lives. There may have been physical peace, but do you think there was peace for women inside the house?  Today we face lots of challenge and lots of argument but generally I’m not much worried. I’m very much optimistic we will be able to protect our achievement.”

At the moment, women find little to be optimistic about. With the Taliban’s network widening and the intensity of attacks by rogue militia on “immodest activities” increasing, Afghanistan’s future after the withdrawal of international forces looks far from peaceful.  The World Bank’s report Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, suggests aid will dry up as foreign troops move out and security concerns increase, leaving a funding hole likely to destabilise the Karzai government.

Meanwhile, the killing and death threats against three Afghan television actresses in August; the assassination of Hanifa Safi, regional head of women's affairs, by a car bomb in July; video footage of men cheering at the public execution of a young woman accused of adultery; reported threats against Afghanistan’s sole female Olympian, Tahmina Kohistani; and the continued attacks on (mostly girls’) schools, all  highlight the depth of feelings against Afghanistan’s women’s movement.

Even President Hamid Karzai, hailed early in his term for passing a constitution giving men and women equal rights, appears to have given in to conservative elements, posting on his website a council of clerics’ proclamation stating men are fundamental and women secondary to society.

A setback for women

“Definitely there has been a backtrack,” admits Karokhail a softly-spoken woman dressed modestly with a loose veil across her head. “There are signals now that there is some support for the Taliban and we have lots of commanders and religious leaders who are not Taliban but who nonetheless are not happy to see women advance but Afghanistan now is not like Afghanistan ten years ago: women of Afghanistan today will not just sit and accept whichever man wants to rewrite their destiny.

“I believe men also want a different life. They want to be connected to the rest of the world, they don’t want their own belief, or religion, to be the way the Taliban describe it. There are lots of Islamic countries with lots of progress and development and equal participation of women, why should Afghanistan stay in the Stone Age?”

In theory, women’s rights in Afghanistan have made substantial progress since the Taliban were chased from power a decade ago. The 2004 Constitution ensures women 25 percent of all government jobs and 28 percent of parliamentary seats. Girls can attend school, have increased healthcare access and choose not to wear the burqa. New legislation has banned violence against women and set penalties for underage and forced marriage, rape and other abuses.

Powerful economic force

In cities, women are becoming a more visible and active part of society. Afghanistan’s female entrepreneurs, says Karokhail, have become a powerful force for growth and stability. Having always contributed to the family’s economy through agriculture, husbandry and handicraft, they can now openly market their goods without relying on men or the black market. But it’s not easy. Access to finance for women is almost nonexistent and segregation of the sexes makes networking difficult.

Assisted by overseas aid programmes, women have established business organisations, foundations and entrepreneurship forums. “They are becoming engaged in how to run their own business and make themselves economically empowered, how to invest and also use the Internet to develop an international market,” notes Karokhail.

Outside the cities it’s a very different story. In rural areas the majority of women remain subject to the strict interpretation of Islamic law adopted by many of Afghanistan’s Pashtun communities.

Girls swapped for cows

“A woman is first the property of her father then becomes the property of her husband,” Karokhail explains, noting that despite changes to the law, many girls are still married off below the age of 12, exchanged for “milk, cows or even trained dogs”. Ninety-two percent of women experience domestic violence. They do not get access to education, they cannot pick their husband, they have no right over reproduction, there’s no inheritance and no identity. More than 90 percent of women suffer domestic violence as families take pride in keeping their daughters housebound and uneducated.

“‛The sun and the moon haven’t seen my daughter’s face’ is said with pride, this shouldn’t be a matter of pride, it should be a stigma for them, it should be considered the worst violence against a child’s rights,” Karokhail insists.

Having grown up in the traditional Islamic village of Chinar in Kabul province, Karokhail experienced first-hand the impact of tribal customs. While her father appreciated the importance of education she was encouraged to sneak out the back door to attend school so the neighbours wouldn’t know. After training as a doctor, Karokhail co-founded the Afghan Women’s Education Centre in 1991 with the firm belief that educating women was the most important step to empowering them to create change.

‘I believe people can change’

The decision to enter politics in 2005 was met with overwhelming support from friends, but a backlash from male members of her family including a brother who refused to speak to her for many years. Despite numerous threats to her life and her family’s safety Karokhail continues to travel to remote areas to talk not only to women but to husbands, fathers and sons. Her brother now assists in many of her campaigns.

“I believe people can change, mostly people are innocent: they are not educated or informed, some consider [abuses of women’s rights] the Islamic way, but this is not Islamic principles, this is lack of understanding. It will take work but we can create change. We can’t go back to our previous life.”

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