View: Uncertain future of women’s rights in Afghanistan

View: Uncertain future of women’s rights in Afghanistan thumbnail

Sarojini Naidu, the face of women empowerment in India’s struggle for freedom once said, “When there is oppression, the only self-respecting thing is to rise and say this shall cease today, because my right is justice.” This truly fits in the case of Afghanistan with women showing resistance against the undemocratic Taliban regime. Several questions emerge: What was the status of women’s rights in Afghanistan historically? What are the reasons for reversal of women’s rights? What is the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Historically, women in Afghanistan enjoyed liberty and exercised all rights. It is as early as 1919 that Afghan women had their right to vote, almost at a time when women in the UK exercised adult franchise. There were no restrictions on women’s education, movement and clothing. In fact, the period from 1963-1973 is considered Afghanistan’s “Golden Age” as far as women empowerment was concerned. The 1960s saw Afghan women entering Afghanistan’s political mainstream. In 1965, Anahita Ratebzad became one of the first women to be elected to parliament. In the same year, democratic organisation of Afghan women was also established for the upliftment of women. By the 1970s, over 60% of the students enrolled in Kabul University were women.

However, the Taliban rule from 1996-2001 saw a reversal. This period witnessed brutal laws, regressive policies, execution and intolerance against women. They were banned from almost all education and were placed under home confinement only to be escorted by a male family member. Their basic rights to movement and access to employment were denied. Stringent punishments including stoning, lashing and amputation were imposed for violation of such laws.

The return of democracy in 2001 restored women’s rights. The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan ensured women representation with a certain percentage of women holding seats in the Parliament as well as ensured employment in sectors like law, government and media.

Afghanistan is again witnessing a reversal of women rights with the recent Taliban takeover. Although the Taliban promised to adopt a more ‘moderate’ position, with the new rulers declaring to respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law; yet, unfortunately, the Taliban since the takeover has in practice deprived women of their rights.

In one of its first attempts to impose repressive policies, the Taliban formed an all-male cabinet, retracting from its earlier promise to be inclusive. The new Taliban cabinet is almost entirely drawn from the ranks of the militants. It neither includes a single woman, nor is there any mention of a Ministry for women. Besides, the new Taliban regime has prevented women from leaving their homes without a male relative, and in many other provinces, they are being compelled to stop working. There are also reports that the new Taliban regime has targeted protection centres for women fleeing violence and safe houses for women’s rights activists. The new hard-line regime of Taliban has also announced that women would not be allowed to play cricket or any other popular sports in Afghanistan on the grounds that it was “not necessary” for women and would result in the exposure of their bodies.

Continuing with the repressive policies, the Taliban also announced a new dress code for women in colleges and private universities whereby women students, teachers and staff are required to wear an abaya, niqab and gloves covering their hair, body, hands and most of the face. It has also replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Afghanistan has since been experiencing unprecedented protests and demonstrations, particularly by Afghan women against the decisions of the Taliban. Protesting against the all-men led interim government, women protesters held placards that read, “I will sing freedom over and over”, “No government can deny the presence of women” and “A cabinet without women is a loser, a loser”. This was supplemented by chanting “Long live the women of Afghanistan”. In their attempt to curb dissent and protest, the Taliban has resorted to the use of whips and sticks to quell women resistance against the all-male interim government.

To protest against the Taliban’s strict new dress code and its hard-line laws, Afghan women have started an online campaign sharing photos in the social media. Adorning colourful traditional dresses with hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanCulture, Afghan women are showcasing the real identity and nature of traditional Afghan clothes, in contrast to the Taliban mandated dress code.

Afghanistan once provided women’s rights which were at par with western countries. Now it is in the grip of Taliban rule. In order to restore women’s rights, it is important not only for the people in Afghanistan, particularly women, to show resistance to such repression, but also for the international community to collectively stand up and help the Afghan women to uphold their rights. Unfortunately, at this juncture the future of women rights in Afghanistan looks more precarious than secured!

*Avni Sablok is a Senior Researcher at Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC), New Delhi. She can be reached at avnisablok11@gmail.com

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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