Afghanistan had a harsh history regarding women’s rights during the fundamentalist Taliban regime and although it is ten years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women still are barely recognizable physically and politically behind their hijabs.

Afghan women do not want the Taliban or those tumultuous times of playing football with the heads of women who tried to defend their rights or reject forced marriage to return to Afghanistan. We don’t want to see Islamic law used to defend the horrific treatment of women.

To avoid a return of the harsh treatment of women, President Karzai must consider women’s rights an essential part of his job. He must not sacrifice women’s rights to bring peace to the country while he negotiates with the Taliban—the men he calls “the upset brothers.” While the Taliban negotiate for peace, they have not changed many of their beliefs regarding women.

The president is not listening to the women’s voices. He doesn’t even permit his own wife to be involved in our country’s development. It would be important for women’s development if Afghanistan if we could see his wife, Zinat Karzai, show some involvement in the society. But she is not seen; she stays behind the doors of the president’s palace while women need her support outside.

The old days

It wasn’t always like this for women. The last century had some marvelous times for women.

King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya are highly regarded today for championing democracy for Afghan women a century ago. In 1923, Amanullah Khan proposed a new constitution that included universal suffrage and prohibited bride price and polygamy. They opened schools and sent students abroad to study. Queen Soraya removed the veil from her face in defiance of conservative mullahs who were benefiting from polygamy customs and punishing women for small infractions of their strictest interpretation of Islamic laws. In the 1980s Meena, founder of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, worked fervently on women’s equality and to establish schools and hospitals. At the peak of her success in 1987, she was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists.

During the 1960s and ’70s we had many women in all areas of the workforce. Women were deeply involved in society—academically and politically. Education was available to women. There was no restrictive dress code and women weren’t harassed for the way they dressed. 

First woman governor

Today we have some new women leaders and they need to be listened to. Parliament member Fawzia Koofi, who is a candidate for President in 2014, is a great inspiration for all Afghan women. Hearing her speak always provides me with a feeling of hope. She has worked hard to defend women’s rights, and she warns that if the government wants peace with the Taliban, it cannot be done by sacrificing women. The Taliban will have to change their values.

We also have our first and only female governor, Habiba Sarabi, the governor in Bamiyan Province.  She helped establish our first national park of Band-E-Emir. And there’s Sima Samar, the appointed chairperson of Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. She is another great inspiration. She has done a lot for Afghan women, particularly in opening women’s education centers while in Pakistan.

But it is we women who must take the steps to rebuild our country and remove the customs that harm Afghan men and women’s lives. This includes forced marriage, bride prices, limits on education, and the type of jobs open to women. Wedding customs are part of our culture, but harm us economically. Afghans spend more than $8 million a year in wedding expenses paid to the man’s family. Women shouldn’t be considered property and traded for money. These costs grow because so many women still are not permitted to study, work, and help support their families, but are kept as domestic servants.This creates a complete dependency on men and further lowers the involvement of women in our society.

This cycle is immoral and has to be broken. The role and position of women in Afghanistan must improve. We have huge resources—minerals and the finest fruits to export—yet women are barely involved in our country’s development.

By Gullafroz

Afghan MP, author, and activist Fawzia Koofi in her home in Kabul, Dec 13, 2011. Photo: Jerome Starkey.