Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Afghanistan pushes to stone adulterers? You shouldn't be surprised.

Triumphant coalition statements about how much Afghanistan has changed should be treated with skepticism. 

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    The women's section of a Kabul voter registration drive earlier this month.
    Anja Niedringhaus
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Human Rights Watch reports that a draft of the new penal code being produced President Hamid Karzai's justice ministry contains provisions for stoning people to death for the crime of adultery. Unmarried people found to have engaged in sexual relations will have it a little easier – 100 lashes.

The rights group's Asia director, Brad Adams, called the proposal "absolutely shocking" and added, "President Karzai needs to demonstrate at least a basic commitment to human rights and reject this proposal out of hand."

Perhaps Mr. Karzai will. But these kinds of practices are very popular in Afghanistan, and have remained so during the 11-year NATO war there. While press releases often toot triumphantly about gains in basic rights for women that have been accompanied by foreign aid and influence, claims of great progress often aren't seen much beyond the outskirts of Kabul.

Karzai is seeking to incorporate the Taliban, a movement that elevated stoning from an informal cultural practice to the law of the land when they began to rule Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Karzai apparently doesn't see much of a problem for women in that incorporation. In October, he said that Afghan women have nothing to fear from the return of the Taliban. The country's legal system under Karzai has routinely violated the rights of women – for instance, the practice of jailing women for "adultery" (many of whom in fact are simply young women or girls trying to run away from arranged marriages) has been prevalent.

At least 172 women were in jail across Afghanistan in 2012. Of those, 101 were in jail in Herat Province. The significance of that? Herat's chief prosecutor is Maria Bashir, the only woman in that role in the country. She explained away her comparatively higher rate of prosecutions for adultery on the proximity of Herat to "permissive" Iran, the influence of which leads to more adultery in her province.

Ms. Bashir's standing is often cited as evidence for how much better Afghanistan has become for women since the Taliban were toppled in 2002. The Obama administration gave her an "International Women of Courage Award" and Time Magazine wrote in 2011 that Bashir is "establishing precedents that will become the foundations of a just and equal society."

Well, maybe.

But after a decade of war the argument that "not Taliban" equals "good for women" has been accepted far too readily. The Taliban were a catastrophe for women, of course, but the Taliban were also an organic, Afghan movement that ironically, perhaps, began in part to rise in the mid-1990s after lawless Afghan gangs began raping women across the country, willy-nilly, after the Soviets pulled out.

The Taliban attitudes toward women stem from widespread cultural beliefs, as Tom Peter pointed out last year after a mother-in-law strangled her daughter-in-law to death for giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son. 

Many in the international community are quick to blame such behavior on the Taliban or its influence, but the group appears uninvolved. Mistreatment of women is common across Afghanistan's political and ethnic spectrum and incidents like the latest murder stem from traditional practices in Afghanistan that predate the creation of the Taliban. The recent conviction in Canada of wealthy Afghan immigrant Mohammed Shafia, who murdered three of his daughters for not following his strict rules, was another reminder of such traditions.

... While murders like the one in Kunduz are at the extreme end of the spectrum, violence against women is widespread. According to a recent report by Oxfam 87 percent of Afghan women reported experiencing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse or forced marriages.

Gains for women have not been the only "successes" that aren't all they are cracked up to be after further examination. Improvements in health care, for instance, have frequently been overstated.

But as the US and its NATO partners continue to lean on Karzai to approve a bilateral security agreement that would keep foreign troops in the country beyond 2014, they should remember that the government they support will frequently condone practices that their constituents at home find abhorrent.

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