Women of Afghanistan are still hopeful about a better future …
On the surface, our world leaders protrude an aura of optimism when asked about the US-Taliban peace Talks. They talk about a world where the viral spread of terrorism by the hands of such militant groups is nothing more than a distant nightmare. An example of such portrayal is present in an interview given by the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, who said, that ‘For the first time, the possibility for peace is really at hand. The aim of the South Asia strategy is not to perpetuate war; it is simply put as a staple of understanding within a secure South Asia’. Recently, the President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump said that he ‘believes that great nations do not fight endless wars. He wants to end 18 years of war and bring back the US military group from Afghanistan.’ The outlook of the peace talks is believed to be positive, it creates an illusion that our world is moulding into a suburban utopia where everything is perfectly conjoined with one another to make a seemingly flawless wonderland.
However, we forget that even the said utopian wonderland tends to break under the visual perfection of its existence. Upon closer inspection into the US-Taliban peace talks we observe how society causally undermines the suffering of the silent half of the Afghan population, the Afghani women. Prior to the Taliban take over and the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was a relatively progressive country when addressing the rights of women. Afghan women made up 50% of government workers, 70% of schoolteachers, and 40% of doctors in Kabul. After the fall of the Taliban regime, things started to look a bit better for the Afghan women, at least on paper. In the year 2004, a new constitution was approved, and the country held its first presidential elections, proclaiming that Afghanistan is henceforth a democratic state that provides equal rights to men and women.
Under the law, 25% of the new parliament would comprise of women, and out of nine million children who were reported to go to school in 2016, 40% were girls. However, the reality of life in Afghanistan is grim and there are many who are still at risk.
The 40 years of war has changed the mindset of the general society who can’t seem to grow out of their extremist teachings that they were taught under the Taliban regime. Firstly, even though there are more women in the parliament now than they were before, there are also heightened cases of misconduct towards the women in workplaces. A report by BBC news tells stories of women who have come forward with complaints of their assaults. They claim that people in power such as senior ministers and people who have close links with the Afghan government, have allegedly sexually harassed them. These women have denied going to the judicial sector or the police to report their case, because they claim that these people ask them more sexual favours in order to file a case against the people in power.
In a recent interview of BBC’s Yogita Limaye with the spokesmen of the Attorney General, Jamshid Rasooli, it was disclosed that the Attorney General launched a probe into the matter. When asked how they plan on ensuring that the outcomes of the trials are unbiased, Mr. Rassoli replied by saying, ‘The constitution gives rights to the Attorney General to be independent- we have involved activists, Muslim clerics and human rights organization to show that they (the trials) are impartial.’
Furthermore, these peace talks are excluding the dark realities masked by the society and fail to address these issues effectively. It’s still looked down upon for young girls to go and study, much less get a job after they are finished with their education. Some girls choose to dress like boys to get their freedom. Some families who do not have a male head or an heir, make their daughters dress and act like a boy just so they can provide for their family through labour work. This unsaid traditional practice is known as Bacha Posh. It’s spoken of in hushed tones and if an individual is publicly revealed to be a part of Bach Posh, they will have to face dire consequences. Taking from this, the ignorance of such underlying issues within society has an added risk on the security of young boys in Afghanistan. As women are confined inside their houses as it is still taboo for a woman to go out of her house without a burqa, this puts boys as young as nine to 12 years to be at risk of sexual perversion, endorsing child trafficking and promoting the tradition of the Afghan Dancing Boys.
For the women who suffer mental and physical abuse, various non-governmental organizations provide secret safe houses. These secret women shelters are a safe space for women who are ‘victims of forced prostitution, domestic violence and child marriages. These women are hidden behind guarded walls and protected from the outside world.’ No man is allowed inside these institutions unless they are starving. The women in these safe houses are vulnerable; they experience a routine of violence that is perpetuated by the 40 years of war. Dr Sima Samar, a Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says that the women are unaware of the laws that protect them. She believes that the longer women are unaware of their rights, the greater would be the power of the religious leaders who actively work against the laws that protect the women of Afghanistan. Therefore, these safe houses also provide women with an education about their rights under the country’s domestic law, the international law and the Islamic laws, all of which allows women to have autonomy over themselves.
Women of Afghanistan are still hopeful about a better future, as the peace talks between the Taliban and the US commence, however, they fear that their newfound hope will be crushed under the burden of the shackles that would bind them. The Taliban have made sure to exclude the government of Afghanistan from the peace talks, because according to them, ‘the government is a mere puppet of the United States’. This is without a doubt a cause of worry for the women of the country, as the power of the government under which they have been granted rights is not legitimized.
On April 2019, 24 members, 4 women and 20 men, who were a part of the Board of Women for Afghan Women, met with 25 Taliban representatives. Amongst the women was Masuda Sultan who is a women’s-rights and peace activist. In her account of the meeting, she wrote about the unexpected behaviour of the Taliban towards the members. ‘The Taliban expressed their interest in peace. They discussed problems of the war itself, civilian casualties, kidnappings, injustice, narcotics trade and corruption, including the internal displacement of over a million people resulting from forced land grabs by commanders aligned with the Afghan government.’ She further described how polite the Taliban were to allow the women at the table to speak first and even allowed the women to lead the prayers after the meeting. The women talked about their experiences and their concerns about women education and inclusion in the work force. To these concerns the Taliban responded that the conclusion of women’s issues can only be made in the context of Islam. She recalled how she communicated the severity of education in Islam, to which she did not receive any fruitful response. Despite everything Ms. Sultan said she saw a glimpse of hope once they left the six-hour long meeting.
The members of the US-Taliban peace talks have taken notice of this issue and are prioritizing giving rights to women in Afghanistan. However, we have yet to see a plausible scenario that allows women and children basic human right. This is a dire and horrid issue that is veiled from the rest of the world, these issues linger within the society and cause massive destructions. The destructions that they cause are not as visible as political wars, they are wars fought by civilians to live a life of honour and dignity. We can only hope that our world leaders prioritize the rights of women to their political agenda.
The author, Mishal Birgees Khan, is a research intern at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. She is pursuing her degree in Social Development and Policy from Habib University.
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