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With Coalition Troops Leaving Afghanistan, Women's Rights Will Take a Step Back

When the last Western soldier leaves the country, will the religious conservatives pass a new slate of repressive laws?

by Greta Hofmann
26 February 2014, 5:00pm

Young women in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Photo via DVIDSHUB

I saw a documentary the other day about Afghan women who'd been imprisoned for "moral crimes"—a euphemism for 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." The film, Love Crimes of Kabul, wasn't a look back at a repressive but bygone past—it was made last year, and Afghan women are dealing with this oppression today.

It's because of stuff like "moral crimes" and women being trapped inside without any access to windows that a 2011 poll of women's-rights experts named Afghanistan "the worst place in the world to be a woman." 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 Afghan women have won are going to be further eroded without Western forces keeping watch.

"It's worth remembering that the starting point [for women's rights] under the Taliban was incredibly low," said Heather Barr, the 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 have fallen dramatically, and Afghanistan now has a parliament that is 28-percent women—something lots of Western countries should aspire to achieving."

Heather Barr

A lot of these changes wouldn't have been possible without the Western armies currently stationed in Afghanistan. Say what you will about the reasons for their deployment, but they've generally done a good job of keeping the Taliban from influencing the political process. The danger is that after NATO and the US withdraw from the country, the tenuous situation they have established could collapse. And one of the first things to be lost would undoubtedly be the hard-won improvements in the lives of women.

Sadly, in the run-up to the troop withdrawal, it already looks like that process could be underway. Last year, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission elected five new members, one of whom—Abdul Rahman Hotak—used to be associated with the Taliban. Following his appointment, according to Heather, women’s seats in the Afghan Parliament were reduced by 5 percent.

Also last year, a provision was inserted into a new criminal-prosecution code that barred relatives of a defendant from testifying against him or her in court—an alteration that would effectively leave female victims of domestic abuse without any chance of seeing their attackers 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 February, the upper house of parliament passed the law, provoking international outcry. But Heather said that 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 Orovince, Afghanistan. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thankfully, President Hamid Karzai blocked the law last week after a protest campaign by Afghan rights activists and Western diplomats, ordering major revisions to be made. But the fact that it made its way through parliament unchallenged is worrying; and with the presidential election in April signaling the end of his term limit, Karzai doesn't have much time left in power to veto that kind of law.

In December, UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the mission in Afghanistan is "accomplished" and that a "basic level of security" had been established. Clearly this is part of the "declare-victory-and-leave" playbook, but it also underscored how little certain Western powers care about what happens to Afghan society when the troops go home.

"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.

With Western world leaders washing their hands of the situation, opponents of women being treated fairly will again have free rein to impose their repressive ideals on the country. And that conservative backlash could well obliterate any of the women's rights that have been enshrined by law, though they aren't often honored in the culture at large. But most Afghan women will continue fighting to protect their freedom, even if the legislature starts working against them again.

Ramika Khabiri performing in Kabul. Screenshot 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 Afghan women, hoping to spread awareness throughout the rest of the world. In her latest song, she calls on people to vote in the upcoming elections and emphasizes 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 progress in the arts will survive, even though some of the funds will dry out when the international militaries leave. "Kabul is pretty accepting in its attitudes, 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 realizes that defending the improvements 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 Mountain2Mountain. "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 foreign troops' being stationed in the country—an important one being the populace's justified resentment against the soldiers over the civilian casualties inflicted during the long occupation. And it's about time that control over the country was put back into the hands of the Afghan people. But it does feel like something needs to be done to ensure that women's rights don't take a giant step back.

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 roll back in the hands of hard-line conservatives.

Either way, foreign powers must realize that their role isn't over as soon as the troops pull out; they have a responsibility to keep an eye on the changes they've helped to bring about. The conflict in Afghanistan has been criticized as pointless by countless soldiers, senior officers, and observers over the years, but abandoning all sense of responsibility for the country's situation would make the decade-plus of war and death even more futile.

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."

Tagged:
Afghanistan
Human Rights Watch
women's rights
Vice Blog
Amnesty
Greta Hofmann
Sound Central
Travis Beard
Shannon Galpin
Ramika Khabiri
Heather Barr