Susanne Schmeidl is co-founder of the Afghan NGO, The Liaison Office.
In 2009 Afghan President Hamid Karzai enacted, by presidential decree, a law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW). The law, which provided broad protections for for women and girls from a range of violent actions including forced prostitution, sex-trafficking and the trading of young girls in the tribal Pashtun custom of Baad, was patchily applied but was still a significant advance for women's rights in Afghanistan.
In many ways EVAW was a gradual, bottom-up way to provide tools for protecting women's rights that could slowly gain wider acceptance. Last month, however, a female member of Afghanistan's parliament attempted to have the law ratified by the parliament — some alleged, in an effort to build her profile ahead of next year's presidential election. Not all female MPs and women's rights activists were in favour of this move, fearing that it would provoke a conservative backlash against the law.
This is exactly what happened. When the law came up for debate on 18 May a number of Afghan MPs branded it anti-Islamic. The speaker of the parliament suspended the debate and the law is now being considered by a parliamentary committee. There have also been public protests against the law at Kabul University.
As has so often been the case in Afghan history, a very public attempt to advance women's rights backfired and is being used by religious fundamentalists to point to the negative influence of the West on the country. Indeed, this case highlights some key issues about Afghanistan and how the international community engages with it on promoting issues such as women's rights.
First, Afghanistan may be one of the few countries where kings and politicians have been made and undone by struggles relating to the status of women.
Historically, women's emancipation has been used as the most visible measure of development and change in Afghanistan, and for opponents of women's rights, the level of Western influence in the country. Certainly, since the US-led intervention twelve years ago the advancement of women's rights has been used by NATO as a yardstick and a symbol of progress (often reflected in pictures of smiling girls going to school used by development agencies). Not all this was to the liking of women's activists themselves, especially in rural areas, who often preferred slower, more grass-roots and less publicised change.
Secondly, what has happened to the EVAW law underlines that the Taliban are not the only opponents of women's rights in Afghanistan. In reality, many mujahideen who have come back to power (and into parliament) since 2001 are only marginally removed from the Taliban in their thinking on social and religious issues.
This needs to be kept in mind by those who advocate for bringing 'moderate' Taliban into the government. Afghan women in rural and urban areas, as well as other progressive elements in Afghan society, fear that a political settlement between Tailban and conservative elements in government will only see the patchy progress that has been achieved since 2002 sacrificed in the interest of political expediency and deal-making.
Third, the fact that the EVAW case was largely ignored by the international media bodes ill for the future, although to their credit, some international actors have continued to lobby for the law behind the scenes. What are the chances that anybody will notice or care that the 'moderate' Taliban returning to the political scene will once again demand that beards remain untrimmed and Afghans avoid the dangerous vices of music and smart-phones?
Is the international community now going to sacrifice the work of the last twelve years and billions of dollars spent dangling a more progressive future in front of Afghans only to wrench it away in the interests of a quick exit?
Finally, the EVAW law is less about religion than a struggle between the old and younger generations. Few Afghans, whether rural or urban, male or female, really want to go back to how things were. Often it seems that outside observers are far happier to believe that the West failed in Afghanistan because Afghans are too conservative, backward and fundamentalist and that it had less to do with how the international community actually managed the intervention.
But inconsistent messaging, too much top-down change introduced too quickly (especially without bringing the rural population along), too much political posturing and window dressing; all of these things worked against creating an enabling environment where Afghans could promote change themselves. This might be the ultimate lesson for us to take home from Afghanistan and consider for our engagement in the years to come.
Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.