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.
In his press conference on 6 March, President Karzai endorsed a declaration by the National Ulema Council(1) that focused on issues relating to reconciliation, but also outlined the pro-government Islamic clergy’s vision of women’s rights and responsibilities under Islam (for more discussion and links, see an earlier AAN blog here). The responsibilities included recognition that women are worth less than men, that they should not move in public without a mahram (male family member), and should avoid education and work situations where they would mingle with unknown men. Similar mahram and segregated work place regulations had been in place under the Taleban regime. In his speech for International Women’s Day, delivered on 11 March, the President detracted slightly from his earlier endorsement, re-emphasizing that Afghan women enjoy their Constitutional rights and claimed that Western media had misinterpreted his earlier statement.
Be that as it may, the President’s endorsement of the National Ulema Council statement shocked many of the Afghan women’s rights activists I spoke to. They read the statement as an effort to reach out to the Taleban and as a concession to the conservative elements within the government, they also saw it as an sign that women’s rights are up for negotiation. Most of the women I spoke to expressed concern over the lack of international diplomatic response. None of the key international actors – the United States, the United Nations or the European Union – made direct references to the National Ulema Council statement in their International Women’s Day messages on 8 March (for links to the statements, see here, here and here).
The EU’s and Norway’s joint statement can, however, be read as a implicit response to the National Ulema Council statement, as it asserted that ‘equality between women and men is a fundamental right, a common value of the European Union and a necessary condition for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth both within the European Union and abroad, as well as a key principle in its external action’. Only the Canadian Foreign Minister made a strong statement saying that ‘[t]he recent Ulema Council’s statement represents a dramatic step backwards for Afghan women. We expect the Government of Afghanistan to uphold its constitution and to distance itself from these outrageous remarks’. However, I found myself informing those I spoke to about these statements, as they apparently had not reached even the more internationally-minded women’s rights activists.
On 13 March, the Afghan government’s combined initial and second periodic report under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was launched at an event at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). The report cites the legal and policy advances made for Afghan women, including the adoption of the Law on Elimination against Violence against Women (LEVAW) and the adoption of the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA). It lists security and ‘unappealing customs and traditions’ as some of the core challenges to women’s rights. It also makes the link between ongoing conflict and an increase of physical and mental disorders in the country, which then again, leads to violence against women and children at home. The report also emphasizes the link between poverty, illiteracy and discrimination and harmful customary practices affecting women and girls. However, there was no question and answer session at the launch of the report, which most likely left some of the media present itching to ask how the CEDAW report related to the President’s endorsement of the National Ulema Council statement. This and other questions are likely to come at Afghanistan’s next Human Rights Council review and when the CEDAW committee reviews this report.
On 29 March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report focusing on one of the more worrying issues in the Afghan legal system: Girls and women who run away to escape abusive and violent situations can be convicted for ‘running away’ or zina (sex outside legal marriage). Running away is not a crime recognized in Afghan law, but the Supreme Court issued a statement in 2010 according to which running away was a crime if a woman ran away to a stranger’s house, (rather than to relatives or government institutions) as this act could result in zina. After the UN released its 2011 report on harmful traditional practices, the Supreme Court made a follow-up statement, which reiterated the principles it had previously outlined: Zina is a crime recognized in the Afghan criminal code punishable with 5 to 15 years in prison (more lenient sentences are prescribed for juveniles under the Juvenile Code).
Violence against women is forbidden under the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (LEVAW) and the Afghan Criminal Code, and the Ulema Council statement also emphasized that violence against women was only permissible within strict limits of Islamic law. However, although the new LEVAW law criminalizes many of the acts that result in women running away, it does not provide protection for the women who run away.
The HRW report builds on careful analysis of case studies with many of the estimated 400 women currently in prison for ‘moral crimes’ (about half of all the women imprisoned in Afghanistan). It also got a fair amount of media coverage in Afghanistan (see here and here and here). While these case studies will not be surprising to those who follow women’s and human rights issues, they are still disturbing: Souriya Y. was married at the age of 12. Her husband was violent, and she tried to return home, but was told by her parents to be ‘patient’. After nine years of marriage and having given birth to three children, her husband accused her of ‘running away’. She is now serving a five and a half year sentence. Gulara J. was married at the age of 15 to a boy who had already been engaged to another girl. There was a lot of tensions in the marriage from the start, and Gulara was beaten by most of the members of her husband’s family. The first time she ran away she ended up in a women’s shelter that returned her to her husband when he promised not to beat her anymore (for more on women’s shelters in Afghanistan, readAAN’s earlier blog here). The second time she ran away she received help from a female friend and the friend’s brother. However, when arrested for running away she was accused of zina with the friend’s brother. She is now serving a seven-year prison sentence and does not know what happened to her friend’s brother, who she asserts had only been helping. A report from Mandegar daily (Kabul) on 4 April, tells an maybe even more disturbing story about a woman from Paktia who had been alleged to have committed zina and who had therefore been killed. It is unclear whether her killing was a community of a family decision, but based on Mandegar’s report it is only one of several such cases in Paktia province.
A few of the women I spoke to after the President’s endorsement of the National Ulema Council statement put it that the President and international community face a choice: They can continue acting as if the conservative religious forces are the only political force to reckon with in Afghanistan, or they can stand up to the legal principles of rights and equality they have signed up to, and recognize the diversity of the Afghan political landscape. The President seems to move back and forth, endorsing the Ulema Council statement on 6 March while pardoning women who ‘ran away from their parents’ house to marry their ideal person’ on 8 March. Key international actors have become more careful in choosing their battles, and the battle for women’s rights is not one they seem ready to give priority. One of the women I spoke to stressed that this back-and-forth was irresponsible: ‘You cannot play games with people, opening the door one day and then closing it the next’. This is, however, very much the content of Afghan politics today, many different clienteles – domestic and international – need to be pleased and appeased, and in this game it is principles and those whose power does not count that lose out.
(1) The National Council of Ulema formally is a non-governmental organization. Its members (including on the provincial level and some ‘ordinary’ ulema), however, receive a government salary. This is a continuation of policies started by the Afghan kings and continued later. Lacking a website of its own, the Karzai government publishes (some of) its statements. This, and the position of some of the ‘Jihadi leaders’ who are members and key, although unofficial, advisors to the President and overlap with the country’s judiciary gives the Ulema Council an influential, quasi-governmental position in the set-up of Afghanistan’s state institutions. After the demise of Fazl Ahmad Shinwari who also was the head of the country’s Supreme Court, Mawlawi Qiyyamuddin Kashaf moved into the position of the council’s chairman. He also is member of the Supreme Court, of the High Peace Council and of the Islamic Texts Board at the Ministry of Education. He used to belong to Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami party (formerly Ettehad-e Islami).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020