Edith E. Muesing-Ellwood
Edith Muesing-Ellwood is a freelance writer residing in the Poconos. She has two degrees in political science and has written three books and numerous articles on political and social issues.
Ten years ago the United States and its NATO allies began sending armed forces to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and end al Qaeda's presence there. Close to $100 billion per year is spent in aid to the country. Particularly disheartening is the fact that many Afghans do not want a foreign presence in their country. Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai's rhetoric against the United States echoes throughout the world.
In part because of the war, the plight of Afghan women has come to light. The root of female subservience in Afghanistan is foremost cultural. Afghanistan is a tribal culture as well as being steeped in Islamic tradition. Women do not see themselves as independent individuals but rather as objects of their husbands, of men in general, and of the social order men control.
The holy Islamic book, the Koran, is important to the Afghan people not only as the source of their religion but also as their cultural heritage. According their interpretation of the Koran, a woman is worth only half a man, hence men control women and may have several wives, which further diminishes a woman's worth. Women for Women International reports that in today's Afghanistan over 60 percent of marriages are forced on women, and half of all girls marry before the age of sixteen. Many women do not know they should have marital rights, the right to earn a living, and political representation and participation. They are held back by tribalism and poverty.
A brief look at Afghan history points out important turning points for Afghan women: In 1964 Afghanistan's constitution gave women the right to vote and allowed them to enter politics.
From 1979-1989 the Soviet Union ruled Afghanistan. During the Soviet war some rights were granted to women, but many women and children were killed.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1992, women were denied education and employment and were confined to their homes. They could not leave the home unless accompanied by a mahram, a close male relative. There were beatings, whippings, and stoning of women who broke Taliban law, for example, by committing adultery. If a woman became ill, her husband had to accompany her to the medical facility. If the medicine cost too much, he could refuse to buy it, often with the consequence that she would die.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the political and cultural conditions of women have improved, yet the repression of women is especially common in rural areas. While Afghan law bans violence against women, women's rights are not enforced due to the ambivalence, weak will, and corruption of the Karzai government. This corruption includes ballot stuffing, money laundering, and bribery. Rangina Hamidi, a strong women's rights advocate, has lost much hope for the women because of the corruption of the Karzai government.
Currently, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, and women's rights are nonexistent or in decline. The birthrate is high; Afghan women have an average of seven children, and the population has been doubling about every 20 years. Today it is 34 million. Population and poverty are growing.
Women cannot freely express their grievances in society, particularly when their actions are in conflict with the Koran and traditional practices. For women to achieve any kind of peace and fulfillment, they must cease to serve as objects of gratification for men.
To make matters worse, there is now the possibility of a compromise deal with the Taliban to end the Afghan war. To this end, President Karzai established a peace council in June of 2010. While the conditions of women improved after Taliban rule ended in 2001, many women now fear that their lives will take a turn for the worse should the Taliban gain power. It is already a challenge for women to attend school and work outside the home.
If the war against the Taliban fails or if the Taliban are given a role in governing as a result of a compromise for peace, Afghanistan could sink into a state of violence and misery, and the Koran would again be strictly interpreted. This would exacerbate the plight of women.
In general the population lives in single room mud huts with the opium crop as their only source of income. Once women reach puberty, they wear burkas - black or multi-colored garments which cover their entire bodies. While there are some schools for women, few women run businesses. Yet women are an untapped resource in Afghanistan that if encouraged could stem the tide of poverty and disarray. Unfortunately, women who do get ahead often are so busy securing careers that they lose touch with other Afghan women.
Women seek public office under threat of death. In September 2005 Malalai Joya became the youngest female member of the Wolesi Jirga (legislature). She suffered much intimidation and harassment and was finally suspended from office. Many women have been killed because of their political involvement. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that Sitara Achekzai, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council, was shot dead in April 2009, a few weeks after she shared her views with UN on the plight of women in Afghanistan.
Article 22 of Afghanistan's constitution states that men and women have equal rights and duties before the law. Yet, according to the Human Rights Watch report concerning a July 2009 law, if a wife refuses to obey her husband's sexual demands, he has the right to deny her basic support. She must have sex with him at least once every four days. Guardianship of children belongs to the husband. A woman must get permission from her husband to work. The law effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying her money. International condemnation forced the Karzai government to place the implementation of the law on hold until it is further reviewed.
However, inroads have been made. There is now a Ministry of Women's Affairs. There are local women's councils at the provincial level. Women hold three ministerial level positions. The Constitution sets a quota of 25 percent Afghan women's representation in the Parliament, and guarantees 50 percent for the presidential appointments to the Upper House. Of course, as mentioned before, women face harassment and have even been killed for holding office. While there is room for hope, Afghan women have a way to go before achieving equality.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized that the women of Afghanistan must gain a sense of self-worth and must learn to love themselves. Education can help accomplish this. Women must participate politically and exert pressure for change. Self-immolation out of a sense of futility is not the answer.
Rape must be criminalized. While in the past the Koran has been interpreted to put women in their place, this can no longer be tolerated. Imposing oppressive laws according to religious dogma is wrong.
Because of the little effect brought about by the billions of dollars already spent, aid agencies are reconsidering funding. Afghan women and men must take over their own destiny in a country riddled by government corruption and fundamentalist beliefs. It can be done.
Localities must reform. There must be a grassroots effort for change. It is up to each individual Afghan woman to take control. Women like Malalai Joya are trying. Each Afghan woman who fights subjugation leaves the path open for the next and the one after her until lasting change is achieved for all. *
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