Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Thematic Dossier VI: Women, Rights and Politics

AAN Team 16 min

Women’s rights have been high up on the agenda of the international community since the start of its intervention more than 13 years ago. How successful has it been? Where do Afghan women stand in 2014 – and where will they be in just a few years time? Observers, national and international, are worried that gains made are already eroding and threats and violence against women are increasing again. The new Afghan government can and should play an important role in safeguarding and expanding laws and other provisions to promote equality, fight discrimination and help along lasting change in the society’s attitude towards the rights and freedoms of Afghan women – but will it do so? Considering the challenges, changes and risks ahead, AAN offers a reminder of current and past debates. We have consistently been following women’s rights issues and, in this fifth so-called Thematic Dossier (see for example the one on elections here or the one on education here) present a collection of our related dispatches and papers. The document provides links to and brief summaries of all our analyses, which, in order to make searching and finding easier, have also been grouped in different categories.

Photo: Christine Roehrs

1. Violence Against Women and Controversies Over Laws

Here, we gather all AAN analyses about the controversies around legal changes to protect women from violence, including the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law or the Criminal Procedure Code. We also include here our dispatches that have analysed the many cases of violence against women and the many controversies around women’s shelters and safe houses. Violence against girls and women is probably one of the most discussed policy areas, and while real – and hopefully sustainable – change has been made in the policy sphere, victims of violence still have recourse to very limited protection and few long-term solutions.

2. Women in Elections and Reconciliation

Under this headline, we group together dispatches discussing the role of Afghan women in the political landscape, particularly during elections and in the peace process.

3. Women’s Human Rights and Civil Society Activism

This part of the dossier focuses especially on women’s rights as part of the wider human rights agenda. It looks at the challenges faced by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the struggles of Afghan civil society activists. Dispatches and academic articles often ‘take a step back’ and look at gains made (and lost) over the course of several years. They also look at the complicated – not always positive – role that the international community has played.

4. Women in culture

This (short) section of our dossier contains dispatches looking at how Afghan women and their fates are being reflected in, for example, poetry or film. Violence against women and controversies over laws


1. Violence Against Women and Controversies Over Laws

Shame and Impunity: Is domestic violence becoming more brutal?

Author: Wazhma Samandary / Date: 30 November 2014

A father raping his daughter over almost ten years without the family daring to intervene (except to help with abortions); a woman burnt after a family fight; another woman mutilated because her husband enjoyed doing so – these are just some of the cases of violence against women and girls that have been reported in Afghan media over the past months. AAN’s Wazhma Samandary (with input by Ehsan Qaane and Christine Roehrs) has gathered the most prominent cases and ponders issues that arise. One is the role of the media: while they contribute to creating awareness of domestic violence and support for its victims, they also often act with little regard for victims’ safety or psychological well-being. Samandary also looks at the claims of women’s rights activists that domestic violence is becoming more brutal and that the increasing level of organisation of women’s rights groups is triggering a wave of violent counter-responses by men. She concludes by calling for more respect towards victims.

A War With No End in Sight: The backlashes regarding Afghan women’s rights (amended)

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 17 February 2014

A man cuts off the nose and lips of his wife. He does this because his wife refuses to give him her jewelry to buy drugs, and he does it in front of the couple’s children. This happened on 13 December in Herat; the incident received considerable media and civil society attention. The woman, Setara, and her children are now safe and taken care of. However, this and other extreme cases of violence we read about in Afghan and international media (find snapshots in text and annex) are only the tip of the iceberg. Most cases still go unreported while human rights activists warn that violence against women remains rampant. Sari Kouvo and Wazhma Samandary (with input by Ehsan Qaane and Christine Roehrs) update about the past year’s backlashes on issues relating to violence against women. They come to the conclusion that the current trajectory of the discussion is empowering the conservative forces in Afghan society, confirming to them that the ‘tide is turning’ and those women’s rights can again be renegotiated.

The EVAW law – an Evil Law? The backlash at Kabul University

Author: Borhan Osman / Date: 26 May 2013

Many worried that debating the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law in parliament might backfire. In the end, the Speaker cut short the discussion and sent it into the shadows of a parliamentary committee for further discussion. However, even such a brief debate brought him existence of the law to the public’s attention and the reactions have mostly been negative. Hundreds of students on Wednesday staged a protest, not only to condemn this particular law, but the whole current political system. They chanted slogans such as ‘democracy is kufr’ and ‘democracy is bestial’. Borhan Osman has been looking at the students’ reaction and how the public perceives the law. Although the demonstration was small, a backlash that was stronger, more broad-based and sustained could surface, he writes, if the law is again put to debate.

Damage Avoided, for Now? The very short debate about the EVAW law

Author: Christine Roehrs / Date: 18 May 2013

It took only 20 minutes on Saturday morning for the parliamentary debate on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law to get heated – and for the speaker to abruptly stop discussion. He sent the EVAW law back to the Joint Commission of the Parliament, which is responsible for preparing draft laws, for more detailed study. Conservative MPs had stood up and condemned the entire EVAW law, calling it ‘ungodly’ and against Sharia Law. In the circumstances, women’s rights activists were relieved that what they had called a ‘risky game’ has ended without a lot more damage to the law. AAN’s Christine Roehrs and Ehsan Qaane report.

On a Knife’s Edge: The looming parliamentary debate about the Elimination of Violence against Women law

Author: Christine Roehrs and Sari Kouvo / Date: 16 May 2013

The Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (the EVAW law) was celebrated as a major step forward for women’s rights in Afghanistan when it was issued per presidential decree three years ago. It is now on the parliament’s agenda for debate. This is not necessarily good news for women’s rights, however, since a conservative majority in the house might water the law down or abolish it altogether. AAN’s Christine Roehrs and Sari Kouvo take a closer look at the looming parliamentary debate and the politics of women’s rights activism (with input by Ehsan Qaane and Wazhma Samandary).

Speaking Out for Justice: An Initial Victory for Women Victims of Violence 

Author: Wazhma Samandary / Date: 6 January 2013

Recently Afghan TV channels and news agencies have reported on an increasing number of cases of violence against women around the country. Only in the two first weeks of December at least four cases of murder were discussed in the media. In reaction to the violent incidents, civil society organizations and women’s rights activists started an advocacy campaign calling for a better implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW law) by the country’s authorities. Media support through news reporting, short dramas and public service announcements also play an important role in public awareness on the law. The positive steps that include successful prosecutions using the EVAW law are, however, muddled by a reality where many women continue to face extreme violence with little protection from their families or communities and little action from the government. AAN’s Wazhma Samandary takes a look at some of the recent cases and the ongoing discussion about violence against women.

Written in Ice? Protests after the public execution of a woman in Parwan

Author: Obaid Ali / Date: 17 July 2012

There have been fresh demonstrations condemning the public execution of a young woman, Najiba, in a Taleban-controlled village in a province just to the north of Kabul – in June. The video of the execution, which was shown across the world, alerted many to how near the capital Taleban ‘rule’ extended. However, the target of the protesters’ anger was not just the Taleban; they accused the government of failing to protect women, generally, and said Najiba’s case was just one of twelve in that province – in both Taleban and government-controlled areas. (1) AAN researcher, Obaid Ali, has been looking into the Najiba case – uncovering the murky details of how she came to be killed, how her death has given women’s rights activists a platform to try to open up wider debate and how the killing might lead to possible political fall-out on the government side.

The Mud Might Stick: Women’s Shelters Again

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 6 July 2012

On 17 June, the Minister of Justice, Habibullah Ghaleb, said that women’s shelters were safe havens for immorality and prostitution. He was later to apologize after stirring up fierce debate in Afghan media and elsewhere about women’s shelters and provoking defenses of shelters by activists, the Women’s Affairs Minister and his own deputy. Nevertheless, says AAN’s Sari Kouvo, his harsh words are impossible to take back. The mud, she says, sticks and shelter providers are now having to work, yet again, to convince their fellow Afghans that the most desperate women in society at risk of extreme violence from their relations need these safe havens. (With research assistance by Ehsan Qaane).

Mothers behind Bars: What about the Children?

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 14 October 2011

Growing up with few evident opportunities and with conflict constantly lurking at the door is the reality for most Afghan children and youth. A group that gets more than its fair share of brick walls and violence are the children that grow up with their mothers in prison. AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Naheed Esar Malikzay have investigated the issue of co-imprisonment of children and talked to some of the mothers and children who are or have been in prison.

Shelters in the Storm: The Controversy over Women’s Safehouses

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 18 February 2011

The Afghan government accuses women’s shelters of corruption, while women’s rights advocates criticize the government for believing rumors rather than facts and succumbing to the pressure of conservatives. Whatever the outcome of this controversy, the victims are likely to be the women who have sought refuge in the shelters – most of them fleeing situations of extreme violence. AAN Senior Analyst Sari Kouvo analyzes the shelter controversy. With support from Obaid Ali.


2. Women in Elections and Reconciliation

Elections 2014 (25): Election mobilisation of women in the Pashtun southeast

Author: Thomas Ruttig and Pakteen Ibrahimi / Date: 12 June 2014

For the second round of the presidential election on 14 June 2014, some of the major tribes in Paktia have decided their women should also participate more actively, allowing them to cast their votes themselves. Women turnout in Pashtun-inhabited areas is usually below average, which is increasingly being perceived as a disadvantage by candidates relying on these areas for votes. Thomas Ruttig and PakteenIbrahimi describe the tribal jirga that initiated this particular mobilisation drive and the resulting pact (tarun). They also look at how this is part of a larger campaign by the Ghani camp to close the first round gap with his rival, Dr Abdullah.

Candidates on Camera: Interviewing the next president of Afghanistan

Author: Kate Clark / Date: 12 December 2013

Although campaigning for the presidential elections does not officially start until February 2014, the media has started interviewing the eleven candidates. This is a time for journalists to find out their plans and try to elicit specific promises on what they will or will not do should they become president. Most candidates have pasts to answer questions about: their record in office or accusations of corruption or war crimes made against themselves, their running mates or their parties. So far, though, the candidates have been barely challenged on anything and revealed little of substance. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, asks if we can expect some harder questioning from the fifth estate (with input from WazhmaSamandary, Obaid Ali, Gran Hewad, EhsanQaane and Borhan Osman). This dispatch includes information about the opinions of the 11 presidential candidates on women’s issues.

The Ulama Council: paid to win public minds – but do they?

Author: Borhan Osman / Date: 5 November 2012

The largest religious body in Afghanistan is the National Ulama Council, which was set up by President Karzai almost a decade ago. The president’s hope, expressed at the time, was that the council – with its 3,000 members from across the country, all of whom receive government salaries – would help him win political support and religious legitimacy. The gambit has worked – but only partially. The council almost always publically backs the government, and in return gets frequent access to the president as well as influence on his decisions. Yet, when at home in the provinces, members often preach a different message and, at times, attack the administration and its Western backers, actually helping fuel anti-government feelings. AAN’s Borhan Osman has been looking at the contradictions in this influential and under-reported body. He also briefly discusses the Ulama’s statements on women related issues, for example their stance that women should not travel without a close relative protecting them or that women should not mix with men at public places.

Women and Reconciliation (4): A Response to Anatol Lieven’s Afghan Books Review

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 3 February 2012

Never propose a political system or solution for anybody that you could not live with yourself, not even for women. AAN’s Sari Kouvo comments on Anatol Lieven’s review ‘Afghanistan: The Best Way to Peace’ in the February 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books and notes that Lieven’s ‘best way’ for women is not one she would accept.

Women and Reconciliation (3): One Step Forward and a Running Match Backwards

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 8 October 2011

This week three major reports about women’s participation in a possible peace process and their stake in the future of Afghanistan were released. The key messages of the reports are that women’s achievements are fragile, and that they are now eroding. AAN’s Sari Kouvo had a look at the Afghanistan Women’s Network’s, Action Aid’s and OXFAM’s analysis.

Women and Reconciliation (2): The Dangers of Representing Women as Victims

Author: Deborah Smith / Date: 17 September 2011

Why are the voices and everyday experiences of Afghanistan’s rural, urban poor and working class women still so rarely heard? Why do they continue to be (re)presented as a homogeneous group of victims of their own families, communities and traditions? In this guest blog, Deborah Smith* argues that it is important to move away from essentialist representations of Afghan women and to engage with them as actors who have a stake in how the Afghan state accommodates different political views and in a possible reconciliation processes with the Taliban.

Women and Reconciliation: What are the Concerns?

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 28 July 2011

Peace is not made with friends, it is made with enemies. Peace deals are then about finding a minimum common ground and making compromises: It comes at a cost, but the price is not necessarily equal for everybody. Sari Kouvo, AAN Senior Analyst, discusses some of the key themes that came up in her meetings with Afghan women about reconciliation and what is needed to make peace in Afghanistan. This blog is the first of a series that will discuss Afghan women’s concerns and situation. It is also a first snap shot of ‘opinions’, and there will be many more opinions to express.

The Air Is Getting Thicker in Paktia

Author: Thomas Ruttig / Date: 8 December 2010

Some progress on the women’s front but the security situation spiraling further downwards and a population that cannot find anything good in the Americans anymore – these are impressions from a short visit to Gardez this week that was undertaken by AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig, two and a half months after his last trip there over Election-Day.

Reconciliation in Afghanistan: Can the UN right some wrongs?

Author: Horia Mosadiq / Date: 31 October 2010

Our guest author Horia Mosadiq (*) looks at the United Nations’ role now and then in Afghanistan, with special attention to its numerous attempts to ‘peace deals relying largely on power-sharing’. She sees the latest initiatives for ‘reconciliation’ as a continuation of this approach and discusses its possible implications for justice, with its inherent differentiation of human rights abusers in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones. She also briefly discusses how women have been ignored during the Consultative Peace Jirga, not giving representatives a chance to speak.

2010 Election 16: Will women win both Nimruz seats?

Author: Martine van Bijlert / Date: 27 September 2010

It is interesting to see how candidates narrow down the local parliamentary elections to a competition between a limited number of rivals. The women in many provinces have their own competition, vying mainly for the seats reserved for female candidates. Their complaints thus tend to focus on their immediate female rivals, disregarding the fraud that may have been conducted by the men. In some areas, however, women candidates have entered the competition for the non-reserved seats as well – most prominently in Nimruz.


3. Women’s Human Rights and Civil Society Activism

Some Things Got Better – How Much Got Good? A review of 12 years of international intervention in Afghanistan

Author: Thomas Ruttig / Date: 30 December 2013

2013 marked the year in which the international community started to wrap up many of the initiatives to re-build Afghanistan – arguably the biggest international effort since the post-Word-War-II Marshal Plan. But where did this effort leave the country? For AAN’s year-end piece, co-director Thomas Ruttig has summarised what has happened, what has been achieved – and what hasn’t – over the past 12 years. He looks at the security situation, the rule of law, the domestic political landscape, the economy, education, social protection as well as foreign aid and its impacts, and he assesses the factors shaping them. He has forensically picked his way through major studies and briefing papers, books and press releases, media reports on national and international institutions’ programs as well as AAN’s own substantial body of work. One of his conclusions is that a multitude of problems remains – and as the Western approach became more and more militarised, some were even exacerbated. He also concludes, that the simplified optimism currently broadcast by foreign governments is likely to stand in the way of identifying priorities for post-2014 action.

Dismantling Human Rights in Afghanistan: The AIHRC facing a possible downgrading of status

Author: Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark / Date: 20 September 2013

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) “has been until now”, said Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), “a critical, credible institution.” That ‘until now’ is significant: Pillay was visiting Afghanistan partly to discuss the risk to the Commission of losing its ‘A status’ when it comes up for international accreditation in November. The problem is the flawed way new commissioners were appointed earlier this year. Pillay said she had received no assurances from President Karzai that he might revisit those appointments. AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark report.

Put Principles Back at Centre-Stage: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Author: Ann Wilkens / Date: 13 November 2012

While the international community focuses on transition and disengagement from Afghanistan, women´s rights – invoked to justify the 2001 anti-Taleban intervention and thereafter used whenever handy – have again been relegated to the back burner. The continued prioritisation of prosecuting women for ‘moral crimes’ while – despite some recent high-profile cases – under-emphasising rape cases indicates that the Afghan government remains incapable of effectively defending women’s and girls’ rights. Ann Wilkens, former Swedish ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan and member of the AAN advisory board, who has published a report on her country’s implementation of its commitment to UN Security Council resolution 1325(1), concludes that a lack of principles on women’s rights has not yielded the desired result: security in Afghanistan. She urges the international community to put these principles back at centre-stage and points out that if women are not party to the political process, whatever solution comes out of it risks being unsustainable.

Right Livelihood Award for Sima Samar

Author: Kate Clark / Date: 27 September 2012

Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has won this year’s Right Livelihood Award – along with a British anti-arms campaigning group, a Turkish environmental campaigner and a veteran American thinker and activist for non-violent resistance. The jury said they awarded Samar what is often called the alternative Nobel peace prize for ‘her longstanding and courageous dedication to human rights, especially the rights of women, in one of the most complex and dangerous regions in the world.’ As AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark reports, the prize recognises not only her decade-long stewardship of the Commission, but also her work since the 1980s as a ‘doctor of the poor’ and ‘educator of the marginalised’.

A Slippery Slope: What Happened to Women’s Rights in March 2012?

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 6 April 2012

March was an interesting month for women’s rights in Afghanistan: President Hamed Karzai endorsed a statement by the National Ulema Council according to which women are worth less than men; the Afghan government launched its first report under the Convention on the Elimination on all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that, while focusing on many of the advances of the last decade also points out the challenges; and Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report about the situation of the women imprisoned for ‘running away’ or committing zina (sex outside legal marriage). AAN’s Sari Kouvo argues that these three events exemplify the extent to which women’s rights can be traded for political capital, and the gap between law and reality in Afghanistan.

Women’s Day in Afghanistan: Where the ‘Personal is still Political’

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 8 March 2012

International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to reflect on the legal advances made by Afghan women over the past decade and what challenges remain to turn laws on paper into reality. It is particularly needed after the President’s endorsement of the recent Ulama Council statement that, among a number of other points, addresses Afghan women’s rights and responsibilities. With a detour via the history of the 20th century women’s movement internationally, AAN’s Sari Kouvo takes a look at how Afghan women have come to negotiate their participation in public life over the past decade. She finds that what has made the difference is the stubborn determination and nothing-left-to-lose mentality of Afghan women’s rights activists.

Nobel Peace Prize: Not Sima, Again

Author: Thomas Ruttig / Date: 7 October 2011

Congratulations to Tawakul Karman from Yemen and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia for this year’s Nobel Peace Price. The citation given by the Swedish committee that awards the prize is also to the point: it was given for the three laureats’ ‘non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work’, hoping that the prize would ‘help to bring an end to the suppression of women that still occurs in many countries, and to realise the great potential for democracy and peace that women can represent’.

Women’s Rights after 2001: Progress, but much of it on paper only

Author: Thomas Ruttig / Date: 5 October 2011

Ten years ago on 7 October, the first US bombs fell on Afghanistan – the ouverture to the US-led international intervention on Afghanistan. Thomas Ruttig, an AAN Senior Analyst, interviewed AIHRC commissioner Dr Soraya Rahim Sobhrang* to get her view on the balance of this intervention, with a particular focus on women’s rights.

Where Fear has Replaced Trust: Some Reflections after the World Humanitarian Day in Afghanistan

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 5 September 2011

Probably not so many of us know, but on 19 August, we celebrated the World Humanitarian Day. On that day, AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Naheed Esar Malikzay stumbled into a small ceremony in Kabul celebrating humanitarian work* and were inspired to explore the situation of Afghan humanitarian and development workers.** The stories Sari and Naheed received were stories about extreme needs, in a context where security threats, fear and lack of trust is making humanitarian and development work increasingly difficult.

Towards a More United Voice of Afghan Civil Society: Step Two

Author: Fabrizio Foschini / Date: 5 June 2011

During the last week of May a delegation of Afghan civil society activists visited Italy in a follow-up to the Kabul conference of two months ago, by the title ‘Promoting Dialogue and Peace in Afghanistan: Strengthening Afghan Civil Society’. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini followed to Rome the members of the steering committee composed of several Afghan civil society organizations he has been working with in Kabul.

Feminist Perspectives on Contemporary International Law: Between Resistance and Compliance?

Author: Sari Kouvo / Date: 20 April 2011

Sari Kouvo and Zoe Pearson, Hart Publishing Ltd. The edited volume reflects on the role of international law in the post-9/11 era. It includes a chapter by Sari Kouvo discussing the international engagement for women’s rights in Afghanistan 2001 to 2010.

A ‘Quick and Dirty’ Approach to Women’s Rights – A Case Study of Afghanistan

Author: Sari Kouvo Date: 21 May2008

Feminist Legal Studies No. 16 (2008), pp. 37-46

4. Women in Culture

The first Human Rights Film Festival in Afghanistan; a collection of inhuman true stories

Author: Naheed Esar Malikzay / Date: 9 October 2011

‘There are about 33 human rights film festivals around the world, however, none of them taking place in the very Middle Eastern or Central Asian Countries which are gravely affected by human right violations’, the director of AHRF (Autumn Human Rights Film Festival) Malek Shafi’i told reporters. For the first time, from 1-7 of October, a human rights film festival was held in Afghanistan, gaining thus the distinction of being the first in a Middle Eastern or Central Asian country. AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay watched some of the Afghan films screened in the festival and talked to some of the directors and actors.

Pashto Women’s Poetry – A Mirror of their Social Status?

Author: Naheed Esar Malikzay / Date: 30 September 2011

“My love will gather us both together on the day of resurrection Brutes have placed stones between us in this world.” – On Friday, 16 September, the Mirman Baheer Association, a Pashtun women’s socio-cultural network, met in Kabul.* It was the third gathering of Pashto women poets by the Association and it brought together more than 100 women poets from all over Afghanistan. AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay reflects on Pashtun women’s poetry and about how it mirrors their status in society.



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