Getting it Right for Afghan women

02 April 2014

by Belquis Ahmadi

Human rights lawyer Belquis Ahmadi reflects on BAAG's Getting it Right Gender Conference

Listening to the candidates in Afghanistan’s forthcoming presidential elections, you might be fooled into thinking they are all supporters of women’s rights.

Technocrats, liberals, conservatives, former mujahedin leaders, - all have been portraying themselves as stalwart champions of Afghan women. 

Even the most conservative candidate, the MP and former mujahedin leader Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, has changed his tune.  Mr. Sayyaf, who once infamously compared women to a honey jar which had to be covered at all times, now says that “our sisters have rights, the rights Islam has given women.”

Many women’s activists regard such statements as a significant step forward.  It is the first time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 that politicians of all stripes have felt it necessary to at least pay lip service to women’s issues. 

On the surface, this suggests that the many millions of dollars spent on women’s programmes in Afghanistan might finally be bearing fruit, transforming fundamental male attitudes and prejudices.

I discussed this with some fellow Afghan women’s activists at a BAAG women’s conference in London last week. The conference, “Getting it Right”, examined past women’s programmes in Afghanistan and drew up recommendations to improve their effectiveness in the future.  

But, as delegates, we realised that our recommendations could not be seen in isolation.  The success of future programmes could hinge on the results of the forthcoming elections.  In effect, the new President could help to make, or break, future progress on women’s rights.

And so far, we all agreed, candidates’ statements had raised more questions than answers.

Looking more closely at their election pledges, we found them to be disturbingly vague.  We also noted that some of those now promising support for females, including Mr. Sayyaf, have done little to fight for women’s rights in the past. Most of them stood by when parliament reduced the quota for female candidates for the provincial elections.  They did so again when a law was proposed which would legalise rape within marriage, and when proposals were introduced to water down a landmark law protecting women from violence.

So how do you get politicians to transform campaign rhetoric into concrete action?  The conference came up with a number of recommendations which could change minds – and, eventually, policies.

These included building long term programmes to re-educate all Afghans about the role of women in society.

That means moving away from the “quick fix” women’s programmes favoured by donors and NGOs over the past 13 years.  It means educating men and women, boys and girls. It means changing school and university curricula to help transform negative attitudes into tolerance and respect for human dignity. It means recognising the potential of both men and women to help rebuild the country.  And, in a country where it has been reported that around 80 per cent of women suffer some form of abuse, it means changing deeply ingrained attitudes towards violence.  This includes educating police and other officials to ensure that laws prohibiting violence against women are enforced. 

And, perhaps most of all, it means reaching out to Afghanistan’s religious scholars. They clearly have a major influence on individual communities in Afghanistan. However, they also influence the actions of governments.  Politicians may be reluctant to adopt pro-female policies for fear of provoking a backlash from conservative mullahs.

So if you can change the attitude of a few influential religious scholars and mullahs to women’s rights, it is likely to be more effective than foisting 100 “awareness-raising” workshops on (sometimes reluctant) Afghan males.

As a gender expert working in Afghanistan, one of my most successful programmes brought together mullahs, religious scholars and civil society activists.  We asked mullahs to make a presentation on issues ranging from child marriage to female participation in public life.  The civil society activists then engaged them in debate. At first there was friction and disagreement. But the programme was eventually a remarkable success; some of the scholars now proudly call themselves women’s rights advocates.

Changing attitudes is more difficult than building roads – it takes time.  But programmes like this one demonstrate that it can be done.  The past 13 years have seen many such small changes. Taken together, they are gradually starting to transform society. 

It’s true that progress has been slow and uneven. But strong leadership from the new Afghan President could help to consolidate positive change.  If he is to represent all Afghans, not just men, he must be brave enough to take decisive action.  He should impress upon people that by educating a mother, you are educating the nation.  He should ensure that more women are promoted to key government positions. And, above all, he must ensure that women have a strong and effective voice in the political, economic and social decisions that affect everyone’s lives. It’s true that current gains are fragile.  But they can be built upon. This is a chance for us to get it right.