Throughout Afghanistan's history, negotiations over women's status and rights in Afghan society have occurred largely in the context of political struggles to take power or to hold on to power. We can see from President Karzai's recent authorization of the Shiite Personal Status Law--a move pleasing to a conservative minority with whom he was unpopular--that for women, very little has changed about this tradition in Afghanistan. The law is currently under review by the state's Ministry of Justice, but remains a worrying precedent and a palpable threat to the advancement of gender equality and justice in Afghanistan. If upheld, the measure will subject women of the Shia minority to restricted movement, mandatory marital sex, limited ability to seek work, pursue an education or visit the doctor without their husbands' permission and special regulation on matters like inheritance.
Women's rights in Afghanistan must be preserved and protected. No action should be taken that further exaggerates the problem Women for Women International Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori calls the "two Afghanistans": one in Kabul where women's rights are preserved as women gain more access to social, economic and political opportunities, and another where socially excluded and rural women are subject to a different set of rights and laws that restrict their socioeconomic development and often endanger their lives and violate their human rights. Issues like forced marriage, self-immolation and honor crimes are still very real issues in this Afghanistan, and they threaten not only individual women but the ability of the nation as a whole to achieve stability, security and development, all of which are intimately interlinked.
Over 16 years working with women survivors of war has taught me that women's wellbeing is the bellwether of society. Restrictions on women's mobility and personal autonomy are detrimental not just at the household and community levels, but to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as well. The quality of life of a nation's women correlates directly with how the society fares overall--where women suffer, it is only a matter of time before entire communities are at risk. When women thrive across all sectors of society--including education and the economy--all of society benefits.
Any blueprint for sustainable peace risks failure without united, local- and national- level efforts to enact gender-equitable policies that dismantle--not construct--obstacles preventing women's full participation in society. In a recent survey of 1500 Afghan women, Women for Women International found that the central government is believed to be more engaged on women's issues than local leadership. If the national government as a model rolls back women's rights, this hard-fought trust in central government will be squandered. This would represent a real misstep in the nation's progress toward development of a healthy democracy.
The women of Afghanistan need access to economic opportunities, access to education in all levels and access to physical and psychosocial health services, without having to seek permission first. They need to exercise their rights without threat of retaliation. They need to be able to articulate their needs, both as individuals and as equal partners in decisions about the future of their society. There can not be a prosperous, strong, economically healthy and democratic Afghanistan without having strong women in the nation who are fully part of shaping the society.
By their own accounts, if Afghan women can participate shoulder to shoulder with men in rebuilding their country, all of society will benefit. But for this to happen, all Afghan women must be able to exercise their human rights, regardless of religious or political affiliation.