Brave Afghan Women on the Front Lines of Change

“We try to save the law, if we lose; we lost 11 years of hard work.”

Date: June 04, 2013

Last week the Afghan parliament — with the support of 60 votes from women members– voted down President Hamid Karzai’s 2009 presidential decree on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW). Invest in Muslim Women’s NGO partner in Kabul,

Jamila Afghani Jamila Afghani, Executive Director of Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO), parsed this staggering fact for me: “The Afghani women parliamentarians represent different political parties and they do not believe in women’s rights. They are beholden to male legislators and follow their mandates.”

Fawzia Kofi, an activist and champion of women’s rights fears worse reversals of women’s rights from legislators aligned with hard core religious parties in the future with Karzai’s decrees being law. A winning vote would have protected women from future abuses.

TOLO News Parliamentarians who opposed the law argued that 6 of its articles were “against Islamic values.” These articles include banning the “BAAD”, the traditional practice of exchanging girls and girls and women to settle disputes between families, making domestic violence punishable up to three years in prison, protecting rape victims from prosecution for adultery or fornication, limiting the number of wives a man can have to two, and establishing shelters for battered women.

The vote against EVAW highlights the key issues on the ground in Afghanistan: men’s rights trump women’s rights; tradition clashes with modernity; tribalism and patriarchy are dominant forces in this feudal society. The unresolved question is who speaks for women and their rights to education, employment and empowerment in the 21st century?

The defeat of the EVAW bill flags how culture trumps faith in many Islamic countries including Afghanistan. I wonder what it is that deters Muslims from taking the right path? The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) courageously railed against contemporary mores in 7th century Arabia, such as, female feticide and the denial of inheritance rights to women? And why is it that Muslim men thwart the models bestowed by the true feminist founders of Islam: Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the entrepreneur who funded the first Muslim community in Medina, Aisha, the jurist and Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter and quintessential care-taker? What prevents Muslim men and women from following the Islamic tradition prevalent in Prophet Muhammad’s life time when women participated in the shura council and voted on key political issues alongside their male brethren?

The impact of this vote is real – I heard a heart wrenching story from an enlightened Afghan imam about a debauched Afghan father trading his 3 year old daughter to settle his gambling debts. It is these kinds of barbaric practices and customs that Karzai’s decree on the elimination of violence against women – if passed as a law by parliament – would have potentially eliminated. The list of offensive and even misogynistic practices as they pertain to women is long, unimaginable and outrageous. It ranges from child marriage and forced marriage, to reprehensible levels of domestic violence against women – conducted and condoned in the name of Islam – even though they violate both the Quran and the Prophet’s example and teaching.

The EVAW law would have banned forced marriages and the tradition of ‘baad’ which exchanges girls and women to settle disputes.

Even if the decree had remained in effect, the threat would not be over. Heather Barr, a researcher for Human Rights Watch cautions: “There’s a real risk this has opened a Pandora’s Box, that this may have galvanized opposition to this decree by people who in principle oppose greater rights for women.”

UN data shows that only 7% of criminal charges filed against men March 2010-2011 were prosecuted and the tenor of the parliamentary debate is revealing: Even now in Afghanistan, women are running from their husbands. Girls are running from home. Such laws give them ideas,” says Khalil Ahmad Shaheedzada, a legislator.

The big questions are what comes next in Afghanistan after the US exits — the Taliban or a civilized alternative? Can one dream of a moderate, human rights based framework for Afghanistan to move forward into the twenty first century. Can women expect security – as they step forward to become key stakeholders in their society?

From Kabul, Jamila writes with a heavy heart: “We are on the front lines with our allies at the Karamah Network of Advocacy & Human Rights. We are struggling to support the law on prohibiting violence against women from an Islamic perspective.“We try our best to save this law and if we lose, we will lose the achievement of the past 11 years”

Afghanistan is not the only South Asian country wrestling with violence against women. (And let’s not forget our own challenges, even at places like the Naval Academy.) India has been going through a wrenching national dialogue all this year (LINK TO EARLIER INDIA BLOG) And a recent FRONT LINE program on PBS starkly described the challenges facing rape victims in Pakistan. At the end of that program, the lawyer who represented the 13 year old rape victim, only to lose in court, argues that whatever the surface looks like, real progress is inevitable. He says that women are not going to stop speaking out and that as they do, change will, and must, come – because women will secure it.

Afghanistan is probably no different. Azad Mohammadi, a development specialist with International Relief and Development (IRD) who has worked in Afghanistan for several years takes a long range view and says: “Social issues – despite the challenges – will not revert to ground zero. For the last 11 years, progressives have been fostering, organizing and creating institutions to advance social issues and Afghani women will not give up.

Khadijah’s daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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