Recent press analyses of the Afghan crisis frequently allude to the issue of women's rights as a central source of contention between the regime attempting to establish a new order and its tradition-oriented opponents. It is.
Too often, however, readers are left with three false impressions: That governments previous to those of Taraki- Amin-Karmal never addressed themselves to the subject of reform for women.That the reforms pertaining to women decreed by the Taraki regime are revolutionary innovations. And that the Mujahideen (freedom fighters) are opposed to all rights for women, especially their education.
In fact, laws for the betterment of women's position in society were introduced in the 19th century by Amir Abdur Rahman. These outlawed chiled marriages, forced marriages, the levirate (marriage of a widow to her deceased husband's brother), and exorbitant payments for brides. And they secured for women hereditary rights and the right to seek divorce.
Laws do not guarantee change. Thus, the very same issues were included in the family code promulgated in 1921 by King Amanullah whose ardent espousal of feminist programs, including schools for girls, precipitated hiw downfall. In 1929 the conservatives rose up in arms, as they have today, and demanded that women remain behind the veil and that the girl's schools together with all other vestiges of the suffrage movement be suspended.
Thirty years passed before women appeared unveiled in public. During these years the concept of education for girls gained acceptances, especially in the urban centers. When, therefore, in 1959 the government of Prime Minister Daoud gave its blessing to the voluntary removal of the veil, Afghan women emerged fully prepared to participate in multifaceted community endeavors. The group was small, and at first largely limited to the capital city of Kabul, but their number steadily increased each year.
Women were automatically enfranchised by the 1964 Constitution promulgated under Zahir Shah. Article 25 made no specific reference to women but stated that all Afghans, "without any discrimination or preference, have equal rights and obligations before the law." Among other things, the 1964 constitution entitled women to dignity and liberty with "no limitations except the liberty of others," defense counsel, compulsory education, freedom to choose work, and equitable labor laws. A positive framework was established.
The Republic of Afghanistan founded by former Prime Minister Muhammad Daoud in 1973 promulgated a new Constitution in 1977. Here Article 27 stated that "the entire people of Afghanistan, women and men, without discrimination have equal rights and obligations before the law." The stated rights and obligations were substantially those contained in the 1964 Constitution.
The Taraki-Amin-Karmal Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which came into violent being in 1978 abrogated the 1977 Constitution and issued Decree No. 7 to address the problems of women. Its stated purpose is to ensure "equal rights of women with men in the field of civil law and for removing the unjust patriarchial feudalistic relations between husband and wife and for consolidations of further sincere family ties."
Considering its goals, Decree No. 7 is a sketchy document of seven articles which outlaws child marriages, forced marriages, and the levirate, and limits cash exchanges to brides to under $10. This limitation in fact protects the male, not the female, as does the rather remarkable article: "No one shall compel the bridegroom to give holiday presents to the girl or her family."
The similarities of the goals described in Decree No. 7 with those articulated by Amir Abdur Rahman 90 years ago are striking. Despite legal safeguards, afghan women still find it difficult to demand the right to make crucial choices for themselves. The family, still the most powerful institution in Afghan society, not the individual, decides what a girl can or cannot do.
Conflicting views on the role of women constitute one of the more divisive ideological controversies among the Mujahideen at this moment. The most conservative manifesto calls for women to return behind the veil. However, it also stipulates that women have the right to education and work opportunities, albeit in separate institutions. The liberal Mujahideen leaders, on the other hand, call for full participation by men and women together in the nation-building process.
The women of Afghanistan are strong. They will demand a continuation of the evolutionary processes which were proceeding steadily if slowly and with admitted restrictions on opportunities for complete self-fulfillment.
It must be emphasized that the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan did not, as it claims, initiate a feminist movement. It has addressed itself only to a minute fraction of the problems already recognized by past regimes, and in such a way that it has invited the attack of the reactionaries, thus widening the gap between reformers and traditionalist.