Can Disaster Be Averted for the Women of Afghanistan?

There is a potential catastrophe looming when foreign troops leave Afghanistan, as the central government could well sacrifice women and girls in future negotiations with the Taliban.

Recently, the government showed its readiness to shed women's rights in a new law that would have barred evidence from relatives and medical practitioners against defendants charged with violence or child abuse. As relatives are often the assailants or the only witnesses, the legislation appeared to shield aggressors. Perpetrators of honor killings could also escape prosecution. Moreover, omission of the definition of 'relative' in the law raised the possibility of a wide net within extended families.

Apathy of donor countries to the proposed new law also served to boost the Islamist and patriarchal forces opposed to women's rights.

In response to an international outcry, President Karzai decided to revise the law before signing it into force. The fact that pressure was required to halt progress of the bill reflects the fragility of women's rights in Afghanistan, even in the presence of coalition forces.

Despite any future amendments, discriminatory remnants of the legislation could persist. In 2009, the government introduced the Shia Personal Status Law for the Shia minority. Due to local and international pressure, the law was revised, but the legislation still sanctioned underage marriage for girls, forbade women from marrying without permission of their father or grandfather, and made a wife's maintenance contingent on sexual submission.

If the new bill is passed without meaningful changes, it will weaken the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW) that criminalized rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, and baad, the barter of girls to resolve disputes between families. Although EVAW was a presidential decree, not ratified by parliament and rarely applied, it stimulated reporting of gender violence cases.

During the past thirteen years, attempts were made to invalidate EVAW and undermine Afghan women's rights. However, important gains were made, including shelters for victims of violence, and a quota of parliamentary seats for women. Dozens of female candidates are now standing for the April 5 national election. Over 3 million girls have enrolled at school, and child mortality rates have dropped from one in four to one in ten.

There is a strong moral imperative to support Afghan women, who are trapped on the front line of a war with the Taliban -- Islamist extremists whose first targets are females. Abandonment of Afghanistan by the coalition would intensify subjugation of women and bolster the Taliban's ambition to regain control.

Sadly, many Western feminists are not moved to action by the predicament of their Afghan sisters, nor do they identify with the country's women reformers, who exemplify the most courageous suffragettes. Their indifference renders a great many Western feminists complicit in Afghanistan's gender violence and casts a permanent stain on the worldwide feminist movement.

Talks have begun between the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban. If they are any indication, discussions with the associated Afghan Taliban will be challenging. Abdul Aziz, one of the dialogue members for the TTP, said he would not stay on the committee until Pakistan negotiated within Islamic law. His action left the TTP team with only two members.

In order to disrupt the April 5 election, the Afghan Taliban have escalated violent attacks that include a strike on the headquarters of Afghanistan's election commission, and the murder of nine people, including children, in a hotel considered one of the safest places in Kabul. Yet the United Nations and United States leadership sideline Islamist extremism, an ideology that supports violence, misogyny and transnational radicalization.

What can be done to protect Afghan women and girls against violence and discriminatory laws? First, their achievements should be recognized, to correct the misguided perception that advancing women's rights in Afghanistan is a hopeless pursuit.

Mobilizing human rights organizations, women's NGOs, and individuals, including men, could build the critical mass required for effective political pressure, and provide a global network for vigilance. At the same time, aid should be linked to human, particularly women's, rights.