Young women in Kandahar province, Afghanistan (Photo via)
I saw a documentary the other day about Afghan women who'd been imprisoned for "moral crimes" – abhorrent stuff like running away from abusive husbands or reporting that they'd been raped. At one point, one of them said: "Prison is much better than my own home; you can watch the outside from here."
This was a recent film – one made last year, not at any particularly repressive point during the history of humanity.
It's because of stuff like "moral crimes" and women being trapped inside without any access to windows that Amnesty International named Afghanistan "the worst place in the world to be a woman", noting that women's rights are regularly targeted and attacked. And with the last of the coalition troops set to leave the country by the end of this year, there are worries that the small amount of freedoms afforded to Afghan women are going to be further eroded when there's no one left keeping watch.
"It's worth remembering that the starting point under the Taliban was incredibly low," says Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It's still one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman, but progress in the last few years has been amazing. There are now about 3 to 4 million girls in school, infant mortality and maternal mortality has fallen dramatically and Afghanistan now has a parliament that is 28 percent women – something lots of Western countries should aspire to achieving."
Additionally, a law was passed in 2011 that brought some pretty major issues up to pace with modern life, criminalising both rape and child marriage, and generally making life for Afghan women a little easier.
A lot of these changes wouldn't have been possible without the presence of the various international armies currently stationed in Afghanistan. Say what you will about their reasons for being there, but they've generally done a good job of keeping Taliban influence away from political decisions, allowing progress in women's rights to be made. Of course, there is the danger that, after they pull out of the country, the situation they have established could collapse. And one of the first things to be lost would undoubtedly be the hard-won improvements in rights for women.
Sadly, in the run-up to the troop withdrawal, it already looks like that process could be underway. In November of 2013, the Human Rights Committee elected five new members, one of whom – Abdul Rahmen Hotak – used to be associated with the Taliban. Following his appointment, according to Heather, women’s seats in the Afghan Parliament were reduced by five percent.
And last year, a provision was inserted into a new criminal prosecution code that banned relatives of a defendant from testifying against them in court – an alteration that would effectively leave female victims of domestic abuse without any chance of seeing their attacker prosecuted. "It basically means that no one can testify against their family members," Heather told me. "This makes most of the evidence of violence against women unusable, because any kind of abuse against women from their family is only going to be witnessed by relatives."
At the beginning of this month, the Upper House of Parliament passed the law, provoking international outcry. But, said Heather, the outrage was a long time coming, considering how long the provision had been public knowledge. "People are starting to feel like the foreign troops have already left, because the sense of disengagement by the international community is so strong," she said. "They don’t want to hear about anything; they just want to declare victory and leave."
A girl attending the 2009 International Women’s Day celebration in Pajshir province, Afghanistan (Photo via)
Thankfully, President Hamid Karzai blocked the law at the beginning of last week, ordering major revisions to be made after a campaign by Afghan rights activists and Western diplomats. But the fact that it made its way through Parliament unchallenged is worrying, and – with the presidential vote on the 5th of April signalling the end of his term limit – Karzai doesn't have much time left in power to veto those kind of decisions
David Cameron declared at the end of last that the mission in Afghanistan is "accomplished". It was clearly a very complacent thing to say in the first place, but this draft law and its parliamentary success proves the job is far from done.
"The reason why this is happening now is because, before last year, people who were unhappy with [the progression of] women’s rights thought, 'Oh, there isn’t anything we can do because of the pressure from the international community,'" said Heather.
So with Western world leaders giving their troops the OK to pack up and pack off, opponents of women leading equal existences to men will again have free rein to impose their repressive ideals on the country. And that conservative backlash could well obliterate any of the newly established women's rights, at least by law. But most Afghan women, I was told, will continue fighting to protect their freedom, even if legislature does start working against them again.
Ramika Khabiri performing in Kabul (Screen grab via)
Ramika Khabiri is a female rapper who's been directly affected by the changes the international community brought to her country. "Before, women weren't even allowed to leave their houses, let alone be artists," she said. "Then the foreign troops brought a more secure environment to Afghanistan, and as an effect women felt safe to become artists. They encouraged us to join projects and work for ourselves."
The first US troops arrived in her hometown when Ramika was still a child. Since she turned 17, she's been rapping about the suffering of women in her country, hoping it will be an effective way of spreading awareness throughout the rest of the world. In her latest song, she calls on people to vote in the upcoming elections and talks about how important it is for the youth to take on political power so they don't end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
Ramika said things have come a long way since her childhood, but in contrast to the assertions of various world leaders, she says there's still a lot left to achieve. "I still can’t walk anywhere without a mask right now," she told me. "Being a musician is still quite difficult for a woman in Afghanistan, and people on the streets still often find abusive words for it."
Since 2011, there has been a platform for her music: Sound Central Festival in Kabul, the first independent alternative music festival for male and female artists. Founder Travis Beard believes that the progress in the arts will survive, despite some of the funds drying out when the international militaries leave. "Kabul is pretty accepting in its attitude, but the countryside is more conservative," he said.
This May, Ramika will perform at Sound Central again. Regressing to a time when women weren't even allowed out of the house – let alone into schools or high profile jobs – is out of the question for her. But she realises that maintaining the improvements for the foreseeable future will take some effort.
Shannon Galpin and Travis Beard delivering laptops to a girls' school in Afghanistan
"I think people forget how much time it takes to rebuild a country that has been at war for so long, and has so little infrastructure," said Shannon Gaplin, founder of the women’s charity Mountain 2 Mountain. "When I look at the projects for women, I look at generational change. You shouldn’t expect change to happen within one or two years – we’re looking at generational shifts of maybe 21 years. It’s most important to empower the youth movement now so that they can be the change makers in the future."
There are, of course, a huge number of issues that stem from troops being stationed in the country – an important one being the resentment against soldiers for the amount of civilian casualties incurred during their time there. And it's about time that governance over the country was put back into the hands of the Afghan people. But it does feel like something needs to be done, in terms of women's rights, to ensure that everything stays on the same trajectory it's been taking for the past few years.
After April's presidential elections, the new government's policies will be a decisive factor when it comes to foreign military presence and influence beyond 2015 – which could be instrumental in establishing whether the progress gained will last, or if the country will go back to doing things the conservative way. Because while they might be able to hold off the Taliban, the Upper House domestic abuse ruling demonstrates there are still plenty of members of the old guard for whom women's rights mean absolutely nothing.
Either way, foreign powers must realise that their role isn't over as soon as the troops pull out – that they have a responsibility to at least keep an eye, diplomatically, on the changes they've helped bring about. The conflict in Afghanistan has been criticised as pointless by countless soldiers, senior officers and observers. Dropping all accountability as soon as troops leave, after over a decade of death, would surely make it impossible for even the most militant of army supporters to find any point in the whole operation.
As Shannon told me: "The troop contributing nations really see the moment when their last soldier gets on the plane and leaves Afghanistan as the moment they’re done. And that’s incredibly damaging."