Afghans May Vote, But Women’s Rights Remain Elusive


On August 20th, 2009, Afghanistan’s citizens voted in the country’s
second direct presidential election in its history. 
The growing unpopularity of President Hamid Karzai, whose continued viability in government is considered by many to depend on his political
masters in the aid-giving Western administrations, has left him in
a defensive spot. With the pro-democracy election slogan "ballot over bullet," thousands
of polling centers across the country opened for voting even as millions
of Afghans were expected to choose a new president. And yet insecurity
and repeated threats ensured that turnout in many places, like in southern Afghanistan, was as low as one percent.

Ironically, reports of election fraud
that have surfaced have indicated the registration of high numbers
of women in traditionally and culturally conservative provinces. Figures
from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission show a suspiciously
high number of registered
women
voters. Figures
from Khost show around 72,958 women registered compared to 38,500 men.
The suspicions are that where
women could not register in person Afghan men might have registered
multiple women. Figures from less conservative regions, like the more
liberal northern province of Herat, where women move about more freely,
show that 55,483 women registered compared with 104,946 men, making the allegations
of tampering more serious. An armed insurgency, drugs, corruption
and a feeble government, the controversial Shiite law, electoral malpractices
and Taliban threats all point to the significance that women might come
to play in healing Afghanistan’s troubled history — if they were able
to enjoy political and social freedoms like their counterparts.

Despite coercion to prevent voting
and threats to punish those seen with the indelible ink on their fingers
and even actual rocket attacks that kept voters away, for many Afghans
democracy lies at the root of any sustainable solution to the country’s
stable future. And yet every step forward appears to be at the cost
of half the population of the country — as witnessed in the passing of
the controversial family law that dramatically abrogates women’s freedoms recently. In April this year national and international
outcry had forced President Karzai to promise a review of a bill that opened up a contentious debate on right to cultural
identity and women’s rights.

With a dwindling support base, the
passage of the law is seen by many as the outgoing president’s latest
sell-out to the radical clerics and fundamentalist leaders amongst the
political elite of the country. In a country in which women still are not
as politically active the law may actually help the chances of the beleaguered
president.

The
revised legislation
, which retains many of its earlier provisions allows husbands to starve
wives who fail to obey sexual demands, passed
quietly in the days leading up to the crucial presidential elections. As in the earlier version, the law grants guardianship
of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires
women to get permission from their husbands to work. A minor alteration states that women can leave their homes in adherence with "local
customs," but otherwise, the law largely remains unchanged.

What this has done in
effect is to shift the enforcement of the law completely into the hands
of the law enforcers and the husbands. According to Human Rights Watch, it effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution
by paying "blood money" to a girl injured when raped. The international
chorus of condemnation surrounding provisions legalizing marital rape
evidently did not pull many strings in favor of the Afghan women. The
rehashed version continues to contradict the Afghan constitution and
international treaties signed by the country. The truth is that the
code of conduct laid down for women by the law are not very different
from what most women face on a daily basis in the country. Hence, the
hue and cry over the law is seen by most, including many women, as an
unneccessary interference in local affairs.

While the language of the law might
have been watered down, its actual provisons remained the same and it enjoys the backing of hardline Shia clerics who are believed to influence
the voting patterns of some of the country’s Shias. The large
number of candidates has increased the possibility of a second round
of voting and that is when these back room deals and contentious laws
might really count. Women’s rights are hardly a huge price to pay
for the guarantee of a victory. The irony really is that laws like these
that once were seen as the stamp of the Taliban militia are now being
approved by the head of a democratic government, a government that the
US administartion and its Western allies help set up.

Malalai Joya, a Member of Parliament
who was expelled from the Wolesi Jirga (the National Assembly) for likening
her fellow members to zoo animals, sums up the condition of women in
the country: "The killing
of women
is like killing
a bird today in Afghanistan." While the Taliban succeeded in pushing
back women’s rights by centuries, the past eight years of international
presence in Afghanistan have not shown very significant progress to
getting women back to the conditions they were used to in pre-war years. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and has thus committed
itself to working to ensure equality for women. Under its Constitution,
25 per cent of members of parliament must be women. However, women’s
presence in parliament has not translated into tangible improvements
in their situation in the country. The United Nations Assistance Mission
in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) report, published in July 2009, is an indictment
of the tremendous risk – to their lives and that of their families
– those defending women’s rights and the equality agenda face.

Entitled "Silence Is Violence:
End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan
,"
the report describes the pervasive violence against women in Afghanistan,
which has inhibited their participation in public life. A woman provincial
council member was killed early this year in Kandahar.
Another high-ranking policewoman was also murdered in the same province
in 2008. The year 2005 witnessed the murder of a 25-year-old poet-activist
in Herat and a popular veejay of a musical show in Kabul. And even as
the list of women murdered seems endless, it is also country that has
seen a tremendous increase in the rates of suicide. Recent statistics
show that about 25%
of women
in the country
are subjected to sexual violence, 30.7% women suffer physical violence
and another 30% suffer from psychological violence. For many women this
is the only way to end the constant cycle of violence both inside and
outside their homes. The kind of abuse
faced by women ranges from beatings to electric shocks and burns. And
the victims are girls married as young as twelve. Even
today 43 per cent of the female population is under 18 years
when they marry. Consequently, Afghanistan has one of the worst maternal
mortality rates in the world as one woman dies every 27 minutes due
to pregnancy-related complications. Forced
marriages, domestic violence, poverty and lack of access to education
are some of the main reasons for suicides. In a country where 80 percent of the women are illiterate their ability to turn to the democratic
structures for redress also remain stunted.

It is only recently that women are
turning to the method of divorce to get out of abusive marriages, otherwise
considered taboo. And women who manage to get a divorce hide from their
family out of fear of what are referred to as "honor killings" because
of the disrepute a divorce brings to the family name. While Afghanistan’s
law allows a man divorce without his wife’s consent, a woman needs
the approval of her husband and witnesses who can testify in court that
the divorce is justified. Often for battered women the price of freedom
through a divorce means losing custody of their children, a prospect
that dissuades many battered women. Many women compensate their husbands
for a divorce. Consequently literate women work several jobs to pay
their husbands back for their freedom.

Afghanistan’s presidential elections
had two women candidates in the fray. The pictures of women candidates
displayed across the country was itself seen by many as a crime against
Islam. And of the 3,000 provincial council candidates, 328 are women.
Even as their posters were torn down, they suffered abuse and feared
for their safety these are women who have promised to work on the women’s
agenda in Afghanistan. And while these steps might be pitifully slow
for some the agonizing situation of the women is summed up by an Afghan
woman when she said "…we are not helpless, history has forced helplessness
onto us." And even as the political game has induced a sense of cynicism
these elections are still seen by many as the change that Afghanistan
has been long hoping for.

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