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Women in power are good for women's rights, right?

Not necessarily.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2012



From the Times of London comes a reminder that the answer to issues of women's rights in places like Afghanistan doesn't necessarily come from appointing more women to positions of power.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Maria Bashir is the country's only female prosecutor. Last year, she was one of the recipients of the State Department's "International Women of Courage" award at a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. She's been hailed a pioneer by numerous foreign press outlets and governments.

Time Magazine wrote last year that Ms. Bashir "is establishing precedents that will become the foundations of a just and equal society. As with the clandestine school for girls that she ran while the country was under the Taliban's rule, Bashir's influence may not be immediately apparent. But in a generation it will bear fruit."

Perhaps. As an educated women who works outside the home, she's certainly a figure of hate for the Taliban. But that's a far cry from making her a feminist in the Western sense of the term. Just as women frequently carry out female genital mutilation in some societies, since they share the same cultural beliefs as men, so Afghan women frequently share the limiting views on women's rights of their male counterparts.

The Times, citing "leaked" (though this word is often used to dress up something more prosaic like "provided upon request") Afghan Interior Ministry documents, reports that 172 Afghan women are jailed across the country for "adultery." Of those, 101 are in jail in Herat Province (just one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces), where Bashir has been the chief prosecutor since 2006. That's 59 percent of all Afghan women jailed for adultery jailed on the watch of the country's only female prosecutor.

The Times spoke with Bashir, who seemed to imply that Herat's proximity with Iran and its more permissive social mores than Afghan society, may be the explanation for the high rate of adultery convictions in her province:

Ms Bashir said that she was unaware her prosecution rate for [adultery] was higher than in other provinces, but said Afghanistan’s more permissive neighbour would be to blame. “If it is higher it’s because we are bordered with Iran, which culturally influences Afghans,” she said.

Women far more often bear the brunt of Afghanista's adultery and other "morality" laws than men, which are frequently used to punish girls who refuse to accept arranged marriages by seeking to run away from home. As Tom Peter noted for us earlier this year, support for controlling women and girls with such laws is widespread. He recounted questions from Afghan reporters at a press conference with Human Rights Watch this March, at which the reporters voiced support for the laws: 

But when the HRW representatives began taking questions from the press, they were immediately confronted with the challenge Westerners have faced for more than a decade as they try to change Afghanistan.

One local reporter asked, “If this is not considered a crime and it becomes rampant in the society and everyone does it, don’t you think that in a society like Afghanistan it will lead to a kind of anarchism here and everything will get out of control? What will be the consequences?”

Several questions later, another local reporter closed his question saying, “I think that to prosecute running away with strangers, it helps families to be more organized and it fortifies the family relationships in Afghanistan, so I think it is better for Afghanistan to prosecute this crime.”

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