In 2003, Orzala Ashraf Nemat had a dream. It wasn’t a big dream or one that would shake the foundations of the earth. But it was one that was important to women. Orzala dreamed of creating a network of women’s shelters in Afghanistan so that abused women would have a place to stay that could protect them from the horrific scenes of violence that we are so familiar with.
She initially began a series of shelters, unmarked and small scattered around Afghanistan run by other women’s rights activists who were willing to stand in the line of fire in Afghanistan. Initially, these shelters were unknown to all but the Ministry of Interior who believed them to be a force for good, a grey area where abused women could hide. The police were not told as the police themselves were seen to have a bias against abused women. Police raided a shelter in 2004 claiming it was a brothel. To a people as socially conservative as these, women only live outside their families like this if they are prostitutes. In 2011 the government wishes to shut down private shelters citing them as a disruptive influence on family life.
Women are second class citizens here. Mules seem to have greater freedom. Our euphoria at freeing them from the constraints of the Taliban was unfounded because we forgot that the worst whips are the ones in the mind. Most women are still stuck in abusive situations with no real changes to their freedoms. In the strategic calculus of Afghanistan, women’s rights are not important. Women MPs have been pelted with water bottles for criticising men, even taliban warlords. Even various american officials have stated that
“Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities, There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.”
We aren’t talking pet projects here. We are talking about the rights of human beings who make up more than 50% of the population who are living in virtual slavery. The modest gains of Afghani women are being rolled back and should we take our eyes off Afghanistan, it will go back to the way it used to be. The new rules bar private safe houses for women who are fleeing abuse. The new rules on those seeking refuge in the country’s public shelters, include the following.
“Women seeking shelter will have to face a monthly forensic exam to monitor their sexual activity, practice and study Islam, and will have to be accompanied to the shelter by either a male relative or a husband. Women will be returned if requested by their families”
Keep in mind this
- The abuse is perpetrated usually by male members of the family or husbands, why would they bring the woman to the shelter? It is a place for women to flee from these individuals.
- Rape is a moral crime, even for the person being raped. If evidence is found then the government would denounce her. The Department for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice still exists with all the madness that it would entail.
- What sort of shelter would return abused people to the people who abuse them? That’s not a shelter as much as a place where your punishments would get worse. And bear in mind a lot of these women are fleeing from attempted honour killings. Women returning from shelters have been killed in the past.
Murder in the form of Honour Killings is common. Physical abuse is even more so. Underage marriage is rife with nearly 50% of women being wed under the age of 16. Very few people are ever charged and that is only if the allied forces “find out” and put pressure on the local police to do so. Often the police are implicit in the abuses. Women are routinely attacked on a daily basis for trying to gain equal rights.
Time magazine brought the issue to light. That women like 18 year old Aisha whose nose was cut off for fleeing an abusive husband exist still.
The truth is far more tragic. Women’s rights are not a priority, neither for the Afghani government nor, in any cohesive way, for the international community. Such rights are seen as a zero-sum game where rights are something limited. Discussing women’s rights makes many Afghan men uncomfortable. The scaremongering of the right wingers and Taliban is becoming louder and louder. The conservatives (social, political and religious) and the warlords are still clutching to power in their slowly devolving landscape. They champion the idea that an equal society would mean the liberation of their personal slaves. Afghan women will run free from custom and convention and the old ways will be lost. Men will be forced to deal with women on equal terms and this is unacceptable to them.
Creating strong networks for protecting women’s rights hits the powerful male chauvinist society in a place that hurts. Their own homes and families. Many daughters and wives of influential men have shown up at these shelters. The worst whips are the ones in the mind, the second worst are the ones wielded by other women who refuse to let their daughters fight and who have been broken. All we need is one generation to break this vicious cycle. And for that we need the shelters and education and to show them strong female role models of our own.
Please write to your government pointing out the hypocrisy of letting such individuals reverse the changes to women’s rights.