For generations the people of Afghanistan, especially men and elders of the families, have taken away rights from women by following their own way of tradition and local culture.

In the last 100 years Afghanistan has had eight written constitutions. But tribalism has always prevailed despite the laws. In 2004, the new Afghan Constitution offered women many new rights: the rights to vote, to travel, and receive an education; to work and become independent; and to ask for justice in the court. But while written in the constitution, in practice neither the authorities nor society often honor these rights.

King Amanullah established the first constitution offering progressive reforms when he was in power. His reforms were not always in line with the deeply embedded cultural and societal norms of the time, but from 1919 to 1929 women did gain many rights and freedoms.

Amanullah believed women should be educated. Women were not required to wear the hijab. He stated that “Religion does not require women to veil their hands, feet, and faces or enjoin any special type of veil. Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual.”

King Amanullah was a progressive thinker and believed in education for both sexes. But his views were doomed to fail.

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution has some similarities with the King’s constitution.

It prohibits many kinds of discrimination and gives men and women equal rights and duties under the law. It has allowed many Afghan women to get an education, seek justice, hold political positions, work in society, and travel.

Since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime, women have gained much more freedom and have high hopes for change. Women are no longer banished from the workplaces and schools. They can leave their homes without a male family member.

Despite the gains, local practices and Afghanistan’s conservative culture continue to make it difficult for Afghan women to use their new constitutional rights. In many parts of Afghanistan, people don’t have access to courts or knowledge about law, and elders make decisions based on their own interpretation of Sharia and tribal laws. These decisions do not benefit women and, in fact, decisions are made in the absence of women.

History shows that Afghans have a high level of faith in allowing traditional leadership to solve disputes. Traditional and local councils such as Jirga, Shura, and Jalasa have existed in Afghanistan for centuries.  Members of the local councils are accepted and respected by society. However, these traditional resolutions are not always fair, especially for women.

The worst example of a tribal law could be the execution of 22-year-old Najiba in July 2012. The elders decided that Najiba must die because she supposedly committed adultery. The execution took place in Parwan, only one hour by car from Kabul. Videos of the execution showed the woman being repeatedly shot in the back with a crowd of men watching.

Women cannot get the rights that the new constitution gives them because nearly the entire population of Afghanistan is made up of traditional communities that are strictly attached to their local cultures and customs. 

There is widespread misunderstanding of Islamic values towards women. Many people don’t know that Islam does not oppose women’s participation in sociopolitical and economic issues. Khadija, who was Prophet Mohammad’s first wife, illustrates the intent of Islam. She was a successful and famous businesswoman in Makah.

But because most people in Afghanistan are uneducated, they know nothing of international or human rights laws, and they give religious leaders the right to intervene in women’s rights.

Afghanistan is one of the largest male-dominated societies in the world. Today, even with our new constitution of 2004, Afghan women must take risks by asking for justice, to get an education, or to work outside of their homes.

By Marzia

This is the first installment of a two-part series.

Photo: RFE/RL. Islamic clerics on Afghanistan’s Ulema Council have asked President Hamid Karzai to expand their clout by giving them the power to issue legally binding fatwas.

Islamic clerics on Afghanistan’s Ulema Council are the country’s religious authorities, but their opinions on questions of Islamic law are treated as guideposts rather than legally binding decrees. The Ulema Council wants to change that.

The clerics already have renounced Article 22 of the constitution, which says, “The citizens of Afghanistan—whether man or woman—have equal rights and duties before the law.”

According to Ulema Council edicts issued in March 2012, “Men are fundamental and women are secondary,” women should not interact with men in the workplace or in schools, and women must always be accompanied by a male guardian when traveling.