Afghan Bill Aims To Criminalize Discrimination
By Farangis Najibullah
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
July 20, 2009
In Afghanistan, anyone who bars a woman from
attending school, going to work, or visiting a doctor
could soon face prison time.
A bill on "eliminating violence against women" that
has been in the works for years is taking final shape,
and is expected to be among the first pieces of
legislation discussed once Afghan parliamentarians
return this week from summer recess.
The bill criminalizes discrimination against women
and envisages various punishments -- from financial
fines to prison terms -- for those found guilty of
violating women's rights.
Women's rights activists in Afghanistan and abroad
have welcomed the draft, saying it could pave the way
for broader rights for women and their greater
inclusion in public life.
The overall situation of women and girls in
Afghanistan has improved significantly since the
collapse of the Taliban. Under the Taliban’s hard-line
rule, the most basic rights of women were severely
restricted, but millions have now returned to work and
millions of girls have returned to school.
Fateh Muhammad, a former mujahedin turned farmer in
northern Balkh Province, told RFE/RL that public
attitudes have changed regarding the role of women in
"Only a couple of years ago, it was beyond our
imagination to accept a woman as a politician, for
instance, but now we go and vote for a female
candidate and it’s completely normal," Muhammad said.
"In our area, Mazar-i-Sharif, no one gets in the
way of their children's education -- no matter if
their child is a girl or a boy,” said the former
mujahed, whose teenage daughter attends a nearby high
school. “Younger girls don't cover their heads. After
coming of age, girls cover their heads according to
Islamic requirements, but they still continue their
education. No one stops them from going to school."
Women ‘Not Valued’
But the situation in Afghanistan's relatively safe
and less conservative north is not reflected
everywhere in the country.
"Silence Is Violence," a report issued earlier this
month by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and
the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, warns that
a common attitude noted throughout the country is that
"women and girls are not valued as individuals with
inherent human rights."
"Women participating in public life face threats,
harassment, and attacks," sending "a strong message to
all women to stay at home," the report warns. This
"has obvious ramifications for the transformation of
Afghanistan, the stated priority of Afghan authorities
and their international supporters."
In Afghanistan's deeply religious society, many
people remain wary of women pursuing an education or
working outside the home. By and large, a woman's role
is society continues to be seen as bearing children
and doing housework.
More than 50 percent of Afghan girls marry before
the legal age of 16, and most marriages are arranged
by relatives. Afghan women are often victims of
domestic violence, and some families even marry off
their underage daughters to settle debts or disputes.
Asadullah, a 50-year-old resident of southern
Helmand Province, says no law or official decree alone
can change centuries-old traditions or beliefs.
"Those who have prepared the bill have completely
ignored Afghanistan's realities," he said. "I don't
believe any woman would ask the police or authorities
to punish her family if they didn’t allow her to
"It would be very difficult to implement this kind
of law in our society,” Asadullah continued. “It is
unlikely that families would allow their daughters to
discuss their problems with government officials, or
let the government interfere in solving their
problems. All issues are discussed inside the house by
Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament
and a women's rights activist, agrees that
implementing the bill, which is expected to be signed
by President Hamid Karzai once it makes its way
through parliament, will be a serious challenge.
"Surely, at this point this law cannot be put into
practice, even in Kabul,” Barakzai said. “However, by
no means should we say ‘we don't need this law because
it cannot be implemented.’ We have to pass the law and
then try to create conditions to realize it.”
“At the same time, we have to work on raising
people's awareness about their rights," she said.
Barakzai says the government, rights activists, and
intellectuals must work to break old taboos and change
perceptions about women's roles and rights.
"The Afghan people, too, step by step, have to
learn and accept a new approach to women's position in
society," she said.