The U.S. and N.A.T.O. led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was hailed for attacking, not only the Taliban’s terrorist capabilities, but also their cultural and religious presence. The group’s Islamic fundamentalist doctrine had not only placed them at loggerheads with the West, but had also led them to play a powerful role in gender politics. Laws defended by many as protecting women’s rights and dignity more often resulted in their freedoms being limited. The rights to education, to own property and to move around freely as an individual were all banned.
The triumph of the Western forces in ousting the Taliban from power was celebrated by women’s rights activists within the country and globally. The attempt to introduce liberal democratic practices seemed to offer the prospect of greater freedom and equality under the law. In 2003 the national conference of Women for Afghan Women presented ‘The Afghan Women’s Bill of Rights’, outlining reforms such as the increase of the marital age to 18 and the freedom to vote. The mere fact that the conference was able to present this draft Bill of Rights to the President Hamid Karzai seemed to demonstrate that the situation of women was improving.
However, this success did not go unrecognised. Conservative forces throughout the country have maintained a consistent opposition to any progression of female liberty. The intensity of this protest has increased in the years since the invasion to the extent that some now claim that they fared better under the Taliban. Whilst oppression was institutionalised under the Taliban, this has now been accompanied by random brutality. Traditional punishments of shootings and stonings for women believed to have acted impiously have been added to by attacks involving poison and acid. These punishments can be delivered for actions so simple as attending school or failing to fully veil. Although female education and more liberal dress codes are now permitted under the law, reactionary opposition within the country have prevented many from benefitting from the reforms. Only 5% of Afghan women attend secondary school and female illiteracy is still as high as 87%.
The most recent culmination of conservative opposition to the new prospects of women’s rights came in late March when the President signed the contentious ‘Shia Family Law’. Although only applicable to the Shi’te population which make up around 15% of the population it is seen as representing a shift in tolerance and equality. The law includes stipulations that women cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands and can only seek work, education or a doctor with their husband’s approval. A protest by 300 women against the new law met with violent resistance from both men and women who spat and threw stones until the protestors had to be rescued by police. Although the UN and Human Rights groups have openly condemned the motion by the Afghan government, many have responded that it is an ‘internal affair.’
The awareness of many within Afghanistan, both male and female, about women’s rights generally appears very low. In an interview at Kabul University most were unaware of the existence of the Shia Family Law. Many consider women’s rights to be bound within religion rather than as a cultural condition which can be changed. Attempts to reform restrictions on freedoms and liberties are naturally seen as a challenge to Islam, and one originating from the largely Christian nations of the West. Governments are often criticised for putting pressure on countries to alter decisions which they have made through a democratic process. Instead it may be the role of Charities and other organisations to educate and build change from a grassroots level.