Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM
Fawzia Koofi, a woman who was elected from Badakhshan province as a member of parliament in the Afghan National Assembly (2nd r.) chats with other female MP's outside parliamentary chambers in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012.

Afghanistan: Women in parliament receive threats - from fellow lawmakers

A backlash of conservative parliamentarians and protests against a key piece of pro-women's rights legislation may indicate the beginning of political efforts to once again curtail women’s rights.

It takes a lot to rattle Shukria Barakzai, a staunch defender of women's rights and one of more than 20 very outspoken women members of parliament in Afghanistan.

But even though she’s run two successful parliamentary campaigns and has taken on conservative members of Afghan society, she is shocked by how easily some male members of parliament are now publicly threatening their female counterparts in the middle of parliamentary meetings. 

“A [male] member of parliament stood up in our general meeting yesterday and said parliament is not a place for women, your time is up here, you must not pursue this fight for women’s rights,” says Ms. Barakzai.

For many of the Afghan women leaders, dealing with sexism and discrimination isn’t anything new. But women's rights activists say that male parliamentarians have recently intensified a war of words inside parliament. It’s a war that many Afghan women worry echoes a greater issue in society and could reverse public tolerance and support for women’s rights. 

“I’ve noticed the rhetoric around women’s issues has changed, and conservative members of society and parliament are once again feeling safe to verbally attack women publicly,” says Barakzai. “The Afghan government isn’t doing anything about these kinds of public threats and attacks on women. It is almost as if they agree with the conservatives.”

The actions of the male parliamentarians are just one of many reminders to Barakzai and other women here that as the international security forces, foreign diplomats, and advocacy organizations prepare to leave the country in 2014, Afghan women will be left without a key source of support.

“I feel like Afghan women are right at the gate of realizing their civil and political rights but the international community is too busy packing up to notice that these rights are already starting to erode,” says Horia Mosadiq, a Human Rights Researcher for Amnesty International.  

Rise in violence against women

High levels of domestic violence against women and the targeting of women leaders by the Taliban and other armed groups only compound matters.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documented more than 4,000 cases of violence against women from March 21 to Oct. 21, 2012 – a rise of 28 percent compared with the same period for 2011. Though some of the increase in violence is attributed to growing public awareness and better reporting of violence against women, it is still concerning, say activists.

Several women leaders were also killed in 2012, including two directors of the Department of Women’s Affairs, a branch of the Afghan government, in the eastern province of Laghman. Both women were strong advocates for the equal treatment of women.

“Afghan women have faced these challenges all along, but the difference now is that the timeline for the international community to completely disengage is nearing, after which these conservatives will feel even more forceful in imposing their restricted views and values over people and reversing many of the legal and professional gains Afghan women have made in recent years,” says Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan women's rights activist and founder of the nonprofit organization Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA).

‘The mood is changing’

In mid-May, conservative members of the Afghan parliament lashed out against a 2009 presidential decree that was signed into law by President Hamid Karzai on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. They claimed that the EVAW law does not represent the fundamental tenets of Islamic law and is being imposed on Afghan women by Western countries.

The law is widely considered to be one of the country’s biggest accomplishments for women in the past decade: It criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women, including marital rape and child marriage. But recently some conservative groups, including male members of parliament, have publicly said that if Afghan women push for too much freedom, it will divide society and intensify the conflict. 

“The mood is changing and we see in parliament and elsewhere that conservative forces are publicly pushing back on women’s rights because they think Afghan women don’t have support from foreign countries and advocacy organizations anymore,” Ms. Nemat says.

Barakzai and other Afghan women’s rights activists say that the United States, Britain, and Afghanistan’s other key allies need to continue to push the Afghan government to support laws such as the EVAW law, and action plans that not only increase women’s rights but protect the hard-earned gains Afghan women have made since 2001.

One of these plans is the 10-year National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan, which was launched by the Afghan government in 2008 and calls for changes in six sectors that are critical in accelerating the improvement of the status of women in the country.

However, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is charged with most of the responsibility for implementing this plan, is allocated only 0.1 percent of Afghanistan’s $6.8 billion national budget.

“What the Afghan government allocates for the ministry of women’s affairs and women’s issues across all of the Afghan ministries is not enough. We still need countries who are contributing to Afghanistan’s national budget to allocate at least 25 percent of their contribution strictly for women’s issues,” says Barakzai.

Two years ago when the talks about a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan were picking up in Kabul, some Afghan women leaders and activists believed that the protection of women’s rights would be a top priority and a nonnegotiable part of the transition.

But some leaders of women’s nonprofits in Afghanistan report that since late 2011, funding for critical programs supporting women’s shelters, advocacy campaigns, and education initiatives for women and girls have dried up.

Marzia Shukoor, a sophomore at Kabul University, says when she started her studies two years ago she had hopes of opening her own architectural consulting business when she graduated.

“Now I don’t know. I have to wait and see what happens with the security and if there will be any restrictions placed on women who work,” says the 20-year-old.

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