The extensive media coverage of Afghan women over the past few years has brought devastating stories: Gulnaz, the woman who was raped, impregnated and imprisoned for it; Sahar Gul, the young bride tortured by her husband and in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute; and the famous case of Bibi Aisha, whose husband cut off her nose.
A recent Human Rights Watch report shows that 400 Afghan women today are serving time in prison for moral crimes such as running away from a forced marriage or, as in the case of Gulnaz, becoming pregnant due to rape.
These reports, although horrifying, are a sign of mobilization; an indication that Afghan women may finally get some justice.
On May 5, three of the men who tortured 15 year-old Sahar Gul were given 10-year prison sentences. The convictions were a watershed for Afghan women who endure violence on a daily basis, violence that had thus far gone ignored by Afghan courts. Another indication that women are on the political radar came when the United States promised to prioritize women's rights as troop withdrawal from Afghanistan nears.
But it's not the Afghan or American politicians who are helping Afghan women.
The silver lining in these awful stories is that a quiet underground women’s movement is in motion. Even in rural areas, women are increasingly aware that they have rights and that if they come forward, someone might help. Those who do, like Sahar Gul and Bibi Aisha, are pioneers whose actions encourage other abused women to come forward. They’ve also forced the hand of the Afghan government to confront and prosecute the perpetrators of violence against women – although the recent court sentences don’t constitute institutional reform.
The latest politically motivated attacks against Afghan women occurred April 17, when a bomb injured seven people in a maternity hospital in Khost province, and 150 girls fell critically ill in a separate incident after drinking deliberately contaminated water at a school in Takhar, according to Afghan news reports.
Afghanistan is a society emasculated by 30 years of war. With one million war widows, a 40 percent unemployment rate and 400,000 people disabled from mines, it should come as no surprise that violence against women is high. When men in any society are stripped of their physical or economic capacities, they often turn against their women. Violence is not endemic to Afghan culture.
Yet the torture, acid attacks, stonings and assassinations of women also happened prior to the U.S.-Taliban war -- they just went unreported. Today, the presence of foreign press and an Afghan media sector that has boomed during the last 10 years is informing the world of human rights abuses. Afghan talk shows and other TV and radio programs are tackling the issue of violence against women, and raising awareness within Afghanistan’s fledgling civil society. One television show features women, their faces hidden, sharing their stories of abuse.
The gender debate in Afghanistan is a complicated one, and Afghan women are resisting on multiple fronts, whether it be fighting for the right to a higher education or the right to work. Young Women for Change, a new organization spearheaded by a 20-year-old Afghan woman, fights sexual harassment on city streets. In the villages, women are fighting for safety, basic healthcare, and an end to marriage arrangements where they are bartered in exchange for property. I met a 12-year-old opium bride in a village, who was sold into marriage by her drug-smuggling father to pay off his opium debt. She wanted to escape her marriage to a man 34 years older than her, and she asked me for help. All I could do was write her story. Her willingness to share was her act of defiance, her protest in the face of injustice.
International aid efforts, especially those coming from Western nations, walk a fine line between helping Afghan women and being deemed illegitimate by the very people they seek to serve. Aid groups must provide spaces for Afghan women to fight their own battles, but they cannot fight for them. Pushing Western feminist agendas, such as unveiling or divorce, only causes a backlash that can entrap and endanger women even more. Most Afghan women see themselves as part of the family unit, their individual rights coming second to their family’s well being. In extreme cases, like those documented by Human Rights Watch, women should be provided the resources to escape.
Currently, there are 14 safe houses available to women in Afghanistan, but that is not enough. More shelters, internationally monitored, must be opened. The international community must push the Afghan government to implement Afghan human rights laws already in place. If Islamic law overrides civil law, then Afghan lawyers and judges must be introduced to alternative readings of the Koran and jurisprudence that actually protects women. Sharia law is also open to interpretation by Islamic experts, although Afghan clerics and the Afghan Supreme Court currently implement a misogynistic reading of these laws.
Statistics over the last 10 years paint a picture of Afghan women that can be viewed as a glass half full, or half empty. Afghanistan may be one of the most dangerous places in the world due to ongoing war, but there are also three million girls going to school, a number unprecedented in the country’s history. Average life expectancy has risen from 45 to 62 years, and more women have access to healthcare than ever before.
The foreign media needs to consider the historical context and complexity of the violence against Afghan women. These women are no longer voiceless victims, and Gulnaz, Sahar Gul and Bibi Aisha are a testament to a blooming women’s movement.
Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American journalist and author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey through Afghanistan.
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