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View: Progress on women’s rights has been hard fought – now everything is at risk under the Taliban

When the Taliban was in power between 1996 and 2001, women’s rights to education and employment were brutally violated. They could only go out in public if accompanied by a male relative and, even then, had to be fully covered with a burqa. There was severe punishment for disobeying these strict rules.

In the 20 years since the Taliban was ousted, Afghan women have fought for their own rights and have taken a proactive role in the development of human rights in their nation – including the establishment of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Under the government that has just been toppled, there was a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and, in 2009, a landmark law was passed to address violence against women. Afghanistan has also become a signatory to several international human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Now that the Taliban has once again taken over, women fear the worst.

Struggle for justice
Despite progress, the World Health Organization estimates that almost 90% of women in Afghanistan have experienced at least one form of domestic violence and that 17% have experienced sexual violence. This high rate of violence is rooted in cultural values but is also enabled by the way laws are structured and justice is delivered.

Women are often unable to access justice on the same terms as men, be that through formal or informal dispute resolution mechanisms. For example, if an Afghan woman decides to take legal action under the landmark law Elimination of Violence Against Women, she will often face violence from a family member for trying to stand up for her rights.

In many cases, husbands, family members, police, lawyers and judges discourage women from taking legal action. Many women report sexual assault via abusive vaginal examinations, or “virginity tests”, during court procedures. The virginity examination is a routine part of criminal proceedings when women are accused of moral crimes, including sex outside of marriage. In many cases women’s sexual histories are used in court as evidence to justify long prison terms.

Both men and women face delays and a lack of support when seeking legal representation in Afghanistan but women find it even harder because of discriminatory cultural norms and a lack of family support. Women are likely to have a lower level of literacy, lack of information about how the justice system works and have limited access to financial resources. Being dependent on male breadwinners is an important barrier in taking legal action.

In addition to formal obstacles, women face strong societal pressure to resolve marital disputes via informal justice mechanisms such as jirgas (an assembly of local leaders) and shura (a consultation process) – even though these offer them little protection.

Women must be represented by a male family member in informal community dispute resolution gatherings so don’t have the freedom to speak for themselves. And some mechanisms of dispute resolution based on restorative principles, such as the exchange of women between tribes to resolve a disputes, are fundamentally discriminatory to women.

Return to Taliban rule
While the situation in Afghanistan has been difficult for women over the past two decades, there was at least a shift in the right direction and support for change among many important people.

The justice system operated by the Taliban, by contrast, is likely to wilfully violate the constitutional and international protections that are in place to support women. With the international community in retreat, there will be no one to stop the new regime from dismantling these protections. It took significant political pressure to push ahead with what reforms have taken place. That will now disappear altogether.

One major concern is the future of the many women’s rights organisations and other civil society groups that have been operating in Afghanistan until now. International charities and foreign embassies have supported their work on the ground but are now leaving them vulnerable.

The Afghan legal system is highly complex. It is based on religious values, custom and tribal values, often resulting in discriminatory processes. Women, can, for example, be imprisoned for zina (moral crimes) that can include “running away from home” in domestic violence cases.

Even when a court rules in favour of a woman, she may still face violence at the hands of her own family. Patriarchal norms and socio-cultural values carry a great deal of weight and often prevent women from accessing the public sphere – such as courts and police stations – without the accompaniment of male guardians. Taking legal action against spouses is often perceived as a shameful taboo.

These practices continue despite two decades of progress. Now it seems more likely that such practices will become the norm under the Taliban. Their recent statement declares: “We are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks”. This leaves open the question: what is the framework being offered?

The women who lived under the Taliban 20 years ago remember with fear their extreme interpretation of Sharia law. These women have little faith that the new regime will be any different. As a female academic working on access to justice, it’s unbearable to imagine what it would feel like to live under the Taliban’s misogynist rule, where men will be able to spin patriarchal narratives from religious laws.

(This article is syndicated by PTI from The Conversation)
(The author is from University of Essex. Views are personal)

Threats and fear cause Afghan women’s protections to vanish overnight

It took years for Women for Afghan Women to build up Afghanistan’s largest network of women’s protection services — 32 safe houses, family guidance centers and children’s homes in 14 provinces, growing by word-of-mouth and driven by the intense need for their services.

They started closing their doors in a matter of days as the Taliban began their lightning advance through Afghan cities on Aug. 6. Most of the shelter directors grabbed or burned records, packed a few belongings and fled with their clients as word arrived that the Taliban were coming.

A very few safe-house directors — not only those affiliated with Women for Afghan Women, but also with a handful of other long-established shelters — opted to stay where they were, but went silent, fearful that anything they said could bring harm to the women in their care. No one is accepting new cases.

“Our shelters, our women’s protection centers, are gone. It is highly unlikely that most of the work we do for women, we will be able to do as we have done it,” said Sunita Viswanath, the co-founder of Women for Afghan Women.

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan placed near the bottom of every list when it came to protections for women, and at the top in terms of the need for safe houses, counseling and courts that could help keep women safe.

More than half of all Afghan women reported physical abuse and 17% reported sexual violence, while almost 60% were in forced marriages as opposed to arranged marriages, according to studies cited by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs — and underreporting is rampant.

Honor killings, child marriages, the payment of a bride price for a woman, and the practice of baad — the trading of young girls to pay the debts of the elders, which is tantamount to selling a child into slavery — still occur in rural areas. Everywhere, harassment of women in workplaces and in public is a constant, as is psychological abuse, according to recent studies.

As the insurgency advanced, the first concern of the staff of Women for Afghan Women and others running similar shelters was what the Taliban might do to punish them. As the country’s rulers in the 1990s, the Taliban strenuously opposed women traveling on their own or gathering together.

Relatively recent examples of Taliban conduct have been worrying. When the Taliban briefly took over the city of Kunduz in 2015, the Women for Afghan Women shelter operators and clients all fled as threatening calls flooded in from the insurgents. The shelter director described being actively hunted, and said she was getting calls from the Taliban saying they would capture her and hang her in the village square as an example.

But it is not just fear of the Taliban that has frightened the shelter operators and their clients this time. Taliban fighters have come to some of the shelters in recent weeks. Sometimes they have vandalized the premises and taken over the buildings, but there have been no reports of their harming anyone yet, said Viswanath, the group’s co-founder.

“None of our staff has been beaten, attacked, killed, as far as I know,” she said.

Much of the concern has come from the waves of prisoners set free during the Taliban advance. Among them were men imprisoned under women’s protections laws that were enacted with Western support over the past 20 years. The former prisoners have a grudge to bear not just against the female relative who spoke out against them and humiliated them publicly, but also against all those who supported that effort — the safe house directors, counselors and lawyers.

A woman from rural Baghlan province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has been receiving death threats, described how she is now changing where she sleeps every few nights. Earlier, she had worked with prosecutors to help gather evidence of abuse in cases involving women.

“After capturing cities, the Taliban released all prisoners. Among these prisoners were some who were sentenced as a result of my work,” she said. “Now they are threatening me, and there is no government or system to go to and seek shelter. I am just hiding in one place or another.”

The shelters have long been targets. For many in Afghanistan’s harshly patriarchal society — not just the Taliban — a woman who is on her own or who leaves her family is often viewed as a prostitute. Some see shelters for battered women as thin disguises for brothels.

Over the past 15 years, however, despite the societal antagonism toward protections for women, more began seeking out shelters. Often bearing ghastly injuries — broken bones or internal injuries from being severely beaten — women would again and again knock at the unmarked gates or ordinary homes where women’s aid groups took people in.

Whether those operations will continue is firmly in the hands of the Taliban, who are expected to announce their own laws to govern women’s conduct. That will leave the former Afghan government’s Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, and other protections, on uncertain footing.

For now, Taliban officials have offered assurances that women would be allowed to work and in some cases travel without a male relative’s escort — “as allowed for under Shariah,” or Islamic law. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, surprised some when he acknowledged, after other Taliban officials urged Afghan women to stay home temporarily for their own safety, that many within the Taliban ranks could not be trusted to treat women civilly, and would need to be educated.

But the Taliban made similar statements after taking control of the capital and most of the country in 1996.

“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time, either.”

For Mahbouba, a longtime activist who has worked to protect Afghan women for much of her life, the picture is not yet clear. But she says she is giving the Taliban the benefit of the doubt, for now. She has no quarrel with their assertion that everything must be done according to Shariah law, because that is the religion of Afghanistan.

But how the Taliban interpret Shariah will matter, too, she said.

“We just have to wait and see what is happening. The Taliban have not really started anything — check in one month, in two months, in six months,” she said.

Mahbouba, whom the Times is identifying by just one name to protect her and her organization, oversees a long-established safe house for women. She has not fled, or closed its doors, but she is keeping a low profile and calibrating what she says to the news media, she said.

When some Taliban recently came to her office saying that the women were being kept against their will, Mahbouba said she did not let them in, but went outside to talk with them.

They told her they had heard that “some women are kept prisoners here.” She rejected that, saying instead she was defending the honor of Afghan women.

“I do not let them go on the street to be used and abused by other people; these are the victims of family violence,” she recalled saying. “So, instead of running away and having them go to prostitution, I have kept their honor and I am keeping them safe.”

The Taliban appeared to accept that explanation, and Mahbouba said she was determined to have a dialogue with them.

But she also made a request: Please, she said, “keep watching, and if our world goes haywire and it becomes really terrible, we can let people know.”