Worrying Signs Afghan Women's Rights Will Slip After U.S. Departure

A law to protect women failed to pass parliament this weekend, sparking fears that the country's conservative forces want to roll back the clock on gender.
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An Afghan woman in Kabul on May 10, 2012. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai used his powers of presidential decree to put a law to protect women on the books. This weekend the measure failed to gain parliamentary approval, raising once more the question of whether women's legal rights will be a casualty of Afghanistan's political and security transition.

"After 12 years of struggle...we are handing over the fate of Afghan women into the hands of these guys, who are ready to take away every right from women."

Afghanistan's law on the "elimination of violence against women" is regularly used by women's advocates and lawyers to jail those who force girls into marriage, marry off girls as young as 10 or 11, force women into prostitution, or use females to settle disputes between families. The law also for the first time in Afghan history defines rape as a crime in the country's penal code. Marital rape also is also considered a crime under the measure.

The measure has long been a target of Afghanistan's conservative forces, who see it as far too liberal. The idea of sanctioning women's safe houses, or shelters, which already exist around the country, and prosecuting husbands for marital rape provoke particular ire. Parliamentarians, whose ranks include conservative clerics, raised both issues on Saturday when female lawmakers brought the measure to the fore. After only a few minutes of debate, the parliament's speaker shut down the discussion amid calls for the bill to be tossed out entirely.

The strategy of taking the measure to parliament for debate had split Afghan women activists. Some, including parliamentarian, presidential candidate, and longtime rights advocate Fawzia Koofi, viewed the current moment as women's best and perhaps only shot at cementing the measure into law. Fears abound that as 2014 approaches and the international presence in the country dwindles, women's rights will become increasingly invisible collateral damage.

"Today I want the MPs to vote for this law for sake of their sisters who have been alongside them at every point," Koofi said on the floor of the legislature.

Already women say they see signs of appeasement of Taliban and other conservative forces up ahead. Last year Karzai supported a "code of conduct" issued by a group of prominent clerics, the Ulema Council, which permitted the beating of wives by husbands under certain conditions and backed the separation of men and women in schools and offices.

On the opposite side, many women urged against bringing the measure to the floor of parliament, fearing that the discussion would descend from a legislative debate into a referendum on women's rights. They say that supporters had not assembled a strong enough coalition in support of the bill to beat back the many opponents lined up against it.

"The law should not have gone to parliament at this time," says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs a network of shelters across the country for female survivors of domestic violence. "It was very premature."

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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