Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Afghan women clad in burqas walk past a tree in Bagram, north of Kabul on Jan. 3, 2012.
KABUL, Afghanistan – With increased pressure for a U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and potential peace talks with the Taliban, many Afghan women fear their newfound rights could be jeopardized.
Since 2001, Afghan women have made many gains after years of being ostracized and banished from society under the Taliban. Now women are back in the workforce, back in schools and have a sizable representation in the government – things that were all forbidden during the Taliban’s five-year rule.
But the gains are fragile and only represent a small percentage of the population.
According to one United Nations estimate, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse – some analysts believe that number may be even higher – making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places to be a woman.
And although the Afghan constitution provides women equal rights, various government agencies, institutions and many individuals do not abide by those rules.
The latest shocking example of that is the news that a young woman in northern Afghanistan was murdered by her husband and mother-in-law for giving birth to a third daughter and not a son.
Stories like that one, as well as fears about what negotiations with the Taliban could mean for women’s rights, have urged Afghan female parliamentarian, Shinkai Karokhail, and dozens of Afghan women activists from all walks of life, to share their concerns with President Hamid Karzai to try to make him an active player in their plight.
Pushing for action
“Day by day we are a witness of more violence against women around the country,” Karokhail said. “Not only women should raise their voice, what about the president [him]self?”
This past month Karzai invited the women activists to his palace along with religious leaders from the country. Karzai requested the religious leadership’s attendance because he knows they are the most influential element in this conservative Islamic society. The group of women shared stories of the hardships faced by Afghan females, presenting him with a photo album of women and girls maimed, exploited or killed because of cultural and religious ignorance.
According to those who attended the meeting, the pictures and stories “visibly moved” the president. And it drove him to suggest that religious leaders work with women to encourage awareness among Afghans about the importance of women’s rights.
“[They] have to give awareness of the real Islam,” Karokhail said of Afghanistan’s religious elite. “Because in Islam we have lots of rights for women, but what Afghans are doing [is the] opposite of that.”
Karzai announced this past weekend that he will hold a conference in February focused on Eliminating Violence against Women, an announcement welcomed by the international community.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Women and children wait for transportation as it snows in Kabul on Jan. 22.
Karokhail hopes by working with religious elders they can begin an awareness campaign by using the media, mosques and even the legislature to educate Afghans that the Islamic religion forbids such treatment of women.
Uphill battle to end violence against women
But it’s not just the Taliban they have to convince. Their mission is to help change a cultural mindset – a mentality that has been affected by three-decades of constant war.
On the streets of Kabul, the country’s capital, 35-year-old Shekaib, an Afghan man, admitted to NBC News that women have been treated badly by the various regimes that took control.
“Their rights have been stepped on,” Shekaib said. “The international community helped many Afghan women raise their voices against those who stepped on their rights.”
But he says that if the international community abandons the cause for Afghan women when the foreigners leave, those women will suffer from the same hands they spoke up against.
“I am sure if they leave the situation will get bad and unsafe for [women],” he said.
Although foreign governments and their militaries now seldom bring up the plight of Afghan women as they try to wind down their efforts in Afghanistan. Afghan women and their supporters know that if they don’t keep speaking up and fighting for their own rights their future may be as bleak as their past.
“Women have the most to lose,” said Manezha Naderi the executive director for “Women for Afghan Women” which provides shelter for abused women throughout the country. “History has shown that they lose the most – their education, their freedom and the same thing can happen again.”
Naderi, an Afghan-American, has been working in Afghanistan since 2003 and is worried by the lack of interest shown lately by the international community.
“Afghan women are human beings and Afghan women were part of the reason we came here,” she says. “We have a responsibility to make it right for the women and children.”
Naderi has made Afghanistan her home now and is raising three daughters here. She says she can’t give up on this cause because she is now fighting for them as well.
“I’m not going to give up now, or tomorrow, or ever in my life,” she said. “Women’s rights can’t be shoved under the rug.”
She just hopes the world will listen.