As coalition troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next December, reports of an impending civil war, sensationalized and embellished by foreign press mostly, have dominated many international headlines. These reports cite rampant corruption in the Afghan government, violent insurgency, spectacular attacks by the Taliban in major cities, fears of more restrictions on women's rights, and ethnic divisions as signs of a doomsday awaiting to befall post-2014 Afghanistan.
But if you ask ordinary Afghans about their future in 2015 and beyond, they are more likely to express fears about an economic recession, increased violence by militants, total abandonment by the international community, and uncertainty about President Karzai's replacement than a civil war or a triumphant return of the Taliban to power.
This discrepancy is because the political dynamics in today's Afghanistan are radically different from those in 1992, when various armed factions of anti-Soviet rebels took power. Back then, the mujahedeen, as they called themselves, enjoyed a certain level of public support. There were no independent media outlets, no civil institutions, and no major commitments by the international community to support Afghanistan after the communists' fall. In 1992, Afghans did not have the opportunity to democratically elect their leaders and thousands of armed rebels took positions outside the gates of Kabul, effectively cutting off the capital from the rest of the country. Most importantly, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan's primary patron, not only ended all of its aid to the Afghan National Army (ANA), but ceased to exist as a country itself.
Afghans take these factors into account when they calculate their future. Uncertainty and economic fears may be well founded and prevalent, but no one in Afghanistan believes the takeover of a half-finished construction site by a bunch of violent extremists, whose grim visions are so far away from the realities of today's Afghanistan, is an indication of a looming civil war like the one they experienced in the 1990s. In fact, many are dismayed when foreign analysts and reporters call fighting between Afghan security forces and foreign extremists in the mountains of Kunar and Nuristan provinces a civil war, but consider NATO advisers training and supporting the ANA as part of the invasion.
While some foreign analysts appear to have concluded a post-withdrawal Taliban takeover is inevitable, public opinion surveys inside Afghanistan show that Afghans beg to differ en masse. For example, a 2012 public opinion survey by the Asia Foundation found that Afghans' confidence in their security forces and in their future has steadily risen over the last six years. In fact, the foundation found that this confidence, especially in the ANA, runs in the 90th percentile (93 percent of Afghans expressed a "fair amount" or a "great deal" confidence in ANA). Meanwhile, sympathy for insurgents has declined steadily, especially in the last few years as the Taliban and other militant groups have stepped up their violent terror campaign, primarily attacking and killing civilians in the country. The survey's findings show that almost two-thirds of Afghans now oppose the armed insurgents. This data clearly indicates that the elusive leader of the Taliban is as likely to win a free and fair election for the Afghan presidency as the Newtown shooter would for becoming the governor of Connecticut.
Some analysts have expressed concerns that there will be more restrictions on women, and that gains made over the last 12 years will disappear once the coalition troops withdraw. These are genuine fears, especially as the Afghan government attempts to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban. However, over the past decade, Afghan women have gained the confidence to organize themselves and fight for their own rights. For example, when the Afghan government wanted to take control of shelters for battered women in 2011, female activists successfully fought back. This was a unique victory for Afghan women, who could never have raised their voices under the Taliban, let alone protest.
Also, using local media and support networks across the country, women's rights activists have brought national and international attention to domestic cases of violence against women that have shocked the Afghan public. In December 2011, for example, local media extensively covered the story of Sahar Gul, an Afghan girl who had been brutally tortured for months by members of her husband's family. First reported by local female journalists, it was one of the first cases that allowed the Afghan public to see the level and extent of violence against women in their country. Had the Taliban still been in power, Sahar Gul and the brave female reporters who covered her story would have been quietly suffering behind their all-enveloping burqas. But this is no longer the case. Even though there are still many cases like Sahar Gul's which go unreported, extensive coverage by the local media and courageous Afghan reporters are gradually raising awareness about domestic violence and women's rights in the country.
This is not to say the suffering of Afghan women has ended since the arrival of coalition forces. What is different though is that now Afghan women have at least a fighting chance to protect the achievements they have made over the last 12 years. For many leading Afghan rights activists, fighting for women's rights is more than a battle for equality. It's a fight to ensure the gains they have made since 2001 never again disappear in the alleys of a Taliban-governed country.
Some analysts have also pointed to the pervasive presence of former mujahedeen warlords in the government, as well as the power and wealth they have accumulated over the last 12 years as signs of a potential political resurgence. A flurry of foreign press reports have even suggested the warlords are re-arming themselves and waiting for international troops to leave before they go back to waging wars against each other. For example, Ismael Khan, a powerful warlord from the wealthy province of Herat, was reported to have urged his followers to "coordinate and reactivate their networks" and ready themselves for the upcoming civil war.
What many of these outlets failed to mention, however, is that Khan was removed from his traditional seat of power seven years ago when President Hamid Karzai appointed him Minister of Water and Energy. Khan, who is believed to be around 70 years old, does have influence in Western Afghanistan but his once-feared militia members were disarmed in the mid-2000s. It would take substantial resources to re-arm them, and he cannot justify this rearmament if there is already a national army operating across Afghanistan. Khan may be boasting about his influence in his calls for rearmament, but he also understands there has been a generational shift which is not necessarily in his favor.
This is not to say that the warlords have lost all of their leverage in Afghan society. Ethnic grievances and traditional tribal patronage network systems still exist in Afghanistan, and tensions remain high in light of growing uncertainty about 2014. However, there is a new outlet that allows these tensions to be addressed: local Afghan media.
Tolo TV, for example, a well-known local station in the country, aired a report last January which implicated the three major so-called warlords -- Governor Noor Mohammad Atta of Balkh province, Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Hezbi Wahdat leader Mohammad Mohaqiq -- of being involved in the embezzlement of millions of dollars in revenues from a major land port in northern Afghanistan. The report noted that the three men were "gleaning personal benefits from the Hairatan region's income."
In the past, such reports would have caused violent reactions from these men and could have even led to the death of the reporter. However, instead of staging an armed raid or an assassination, they took to the airwaves to defend themselves and there was no violent reaction from any of them. Even those warlords involved in the armed insurgency have recognized the growing influence of the local media.
Some of them, like the infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose militant group Hezb-e Islami once assassinated a BBC reporter, has given interviews from his hiding place to a select number of local outlets in the hope of rebuilding his image. But Hekmatyar and other warlords are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with larger swaths of the Afghan population, namely because most reporters and media workers in Afghanistan are quite young and grew up in a very different age, with values that are a stark contrast to the traditional views of the aging warlords. In fact, Afghans under the age of 25 make up almost 70 percent of the population, and are more likely to remember the atrocities committed by the warlords than the battles waged against the Soviets. This new generation is also more likely to connect with their friends on Facebook than to find themselves captivated with calls of war by warlords.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups have also failed to make their usual talking points gain attention in the local media. This is primarily because their vision of a post-2014 Afghanistan is radically different from what the majority of the public wants to see. Nader Nadery, a famed Afghan human rights activist, recently highlighted this fact in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Having met with the Taliban delegation at a meeting in France in December 2012, Nadery wrote: "The gap between the perceptions of the Taliban and the rest of the participants was stark."
But the Taliban have learned that staging spectacular attacks on Kabul and other major cities in Afghanistan gives them plenty of international media coverage instead. Such attacks achieve little in terms of military significance, but they confirm the narrative that the Taliban are "at the gates of Kabul." As a journalist friend once commented, such attacks throw cold water on reports concerning positive developments in Afghanistan. The insurgents know this and they have masterfully chosen their targets to hit the heart of major economic and diplomatic hubs, something that reaffirms this inaccurate view of inevitable doom. In contrast, the improving conduct of Afghan security forces and police units in repelling these attacks is often given little or no coverage in the foreign press.
For many Afghans, the Taliban's mass suicide attacks and roadside bombs, which are the two biggest killers of civilians, represent nothing but the militants' attempts to spread fear and kill their way back to power, something very unlikely now and in the future. In post-2014 Afghanistan, Taliban militants and terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network may continue to stage suicide attacks on government facilities and major population centers but this will not indicate the beginning of a civil war. If the United States is unable to stop Mexican drug lords from spreading violence into some southern U.S. cities, nobody should expect the Afghan government to end attacks by Taliban militants who operate from safe havens in Pakistan.
It is true that Afghanistan may continue to face an assortment of issues, including corruption, ethnic rivalries, regional power struggles, poppy cultivation, and a weak economy, for some time beyond 2014. But with some sort of democratic continuity and a peaceful political transition, as well as continued international support -- especially from the United States -- for the growing civil society and security forces, Afghanistan can address these issues.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former producer for National Public Radio.
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Most people remember the harrowing cover of TIME in late July 2010 depicting the 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off following a Taliban sentence for her attempt to flee from an abusive husband. Many can recall the penetrating glare of the green-eyed Afghan girl in a refugee camp on the cover of National Geographic. Both images are powerful reminders of the past atrocities, present humanitarian strife, and future aspirations of millions in Afghanistan as the international military presence draws down. Many Afghans ask, "Can my country avoid a relapse into civil war?" Even those who assess this question with some optimism still find themselves asking, "Will Afghanistan be safe enough to raise my children and build a livelihood?"
Preventing an outright civil war is directly related to the national interests of the coalition countries engaged in Afghanistan. A civil war would strengthen the hands of the numerous terrorist groups that operate on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moreover, destabilizing spill-over effects would weaken an already fragile Pakistan, exacerbating the internal cleavages and security threats confronting the state with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the primary objective of the U.S.-led coalition is to ensure a stable and cooperative Afghan political order that denies terrorist groups the capacity and opportunity to conduct large-scale attacks against Western interests.
Human rights perspectives, beyond those necessary to achieve this primary objective, are at best second order issues. If human rights were a primary objective, the international community would have intervened earlier and stayed longer-something that is unfeasible and not in the interest of any of the coalition countries currently engaged in Afghanistan. But this does not and should not preclude an effort to advance human rights in Afghanistan while the international coalition is present. Though a second-tier objective, the international community has an interest in and a moral duty to improve human rights, or at least to do no harm.
The problem is that the human rights agenda has been undermined by unrealistic goals and ineffective efforts, too often driven by a desire to please domestic, Western audiences rather than to help the Afghan population. International rhetoric has often elevated the drive to promote human rights-in particular the equality of women-as a goal on par with the primary security agenda. This reflects measures of both idealism and cynicism. Some have held sincere yet naïve visions of Afghanistan's social and political transformation. Others have simply used the human rights agenda as an instrument to garner political legitimacy and justify the human and material costs.
Both views have led to vast amounts of foreign aid and political attention being squandered. Many schools and clinics have been built irrespective of the local demand. Foreign aid has been conditioned by counterproductive gender quotas. Incredible amounts of time and resources have been spent on largely symbolic cases such as legislation on women's shelters or on Shiite marriages or the recent appointment of the new intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid. But battling atrocious laws or a controversial appointment is the wrong fight. What matters is what affects the human rights that Afghan's exercise in their daily lives.
This raises the question: What is the right fight? What is the realist perspective on human rights in Afghanistan? Without reverting to naïve aspirations and while maintaining a realistic order of objectives, how can the international community more effectively advance human rights?
The single most effective thing the international community has done to promote human rights in Afghanistan and empower women is to send Afghan boys to school. This should certainly not be understood as an argument against girls' schools or female education in general. But under conditions tantamount to patriarchal totalitarianism, the key to promoting human rights resides in the hands of Afghan men. Save a rebellion by Afghan women, only a voluntary shift in the attitudes of Afghan men can empower women and advance the human rights of every Afghan. All Afghan girls should get an education, but unless the men ease their repressive dominance, half of the population will never have the opportunity to exercise their human rights. Such attitudinal shifts are more sustainable if nurtured indigenously and voluntarily through education. Conditioning aid on gender quotas and human rights principles mostly leads to counterproductive tension or symbolic gestures by Afghan counterparts.
In theory, conditioning aid could perhaps entice a shift in Afghan behavior but unless the international community is ready to withhold aid entirely if conditions are unmet-and be willing to jeopardize their national interests at stake-it is very unlikely to occur in practice. Afghans know this. Besides, once the international presence in Afghanistan recedes, human rights gains will erode in the absence of the indigenous preference shifts necessary to sustain them. For change to last, Afghans must want it.
The good news is that primary education is one of the greatest legacies of the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001. Fewer than 1 million children were in school before the intervention and virtually no girls received primary education. Today, some 9 million children receive primary education and about 40 percent are girls. This is a monumental achievement. Unfortunately, it is not mirrored in the higher education sector. Although progress has undoubtedly occurred-Kabul, for instance, has witnessed a surge in newly established universities-the capacity of the higher education sector is still far from sufficient to absorb the influx of students from the primary sector. A more concerted international effort to improve the higher education sector would significantly increase the opportunity of the youth to fulfill their potential and, in doing so, improve conditions for advancing human rights and greater gender equality.
A realistic time horizon is also important to establishing an effective human rights effort. Too much, too soon is too risky. Some say clocks tick slower in Afghanistan. It is safe to say, at least, that past attempts to quickly roll out vast social reforms have triggered civil unrest. Modernizing efforts by King Amanullah Khan ignited revolts and eventually a civil war in 1928. He was forced to abdicate the next year. Only the Soviet intervention in 1979 kept the Communist rule from the same fate after it had introduced its radical reform agenda in 1978.
The lesson is that sustainable social change in Afghanistan is slow. The human rights agenda must therefore be attuned to a long-term perspective. Here is great potential. Navigating between currents of modernization and conservatism, between forces of societal change, tradition, and stagnation, Afghans will chart their own course on human rights after 2014. In doing so, the Afghan youth can be decisive. In a country stricken by an adult illiteracy rate around 70 percent, and where 43 percent of its 30 million inhabitants are aged 14 or younger, the 9 million children currently in school have truly transformative potential.
Surely the lives of too many Afghans can still be described in Hobbesian terms as brutish, nasty, and short. Immediate and concerted action remains necessary as human rights violations and humanitarian strife across the country must be addressed. It is because of this that many international actors take a short-term view when assessing how to advance human rights and show legible results. This has a persuasive logic, but it also has counterproductive implications. In particular, this short-term lens has led to a strong inclination in the international community to focus on the near-term ebbs and flows of the human rights agenda in insulated Kabul.
International pushback against proposed legislation and specific cabinet appointments has often dominated the human rights agenda. Highly visible international intervention in a specific political or legal case may resonate well with Western audiences, but through Afghan eyes it risks tainting the human rights agenda as an avenue of international social engineering and a principle question of Afghan sovereignty. Such perceptions render Afghan advocates of human rights much less effective and undermine the local ownership which is so difficult to nurture, but so important in order to sustain change.
An incremental, low-profile, long-term international effort holds the greatest chance of success in the promotion of human rights in Afghanistan. A more realistic and effective approach must cultivate and support Afghan agents of change, particularly the educated youth. But their potential can only be unleashed if they are given the opportunity to do so by a stable environment. As security is the basis of any human rights progress in Afghanistan, the primary objective of a stable country bereft of terrorist havens both meets and complements the human rights agenda.
Christian Bayer Tygesen is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Copenhagen University. He conducted field research and diplomatic assignments in Kabul in 2011 and 2012.
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Despite cultural differences, the countries of South Asia share a strong connection through trade, history, and, of course, Indian film. Bollywood is no stranger to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Posters of Indian actors adorn streets from Kabul to Karachi, and bootleg movies are widely available.
But Indian cinema is a male-dominated industry, meaning the portrayal of women in films is a reflection of the woman's role in Indian society from a man's viewpoint. These films mold opinions, and often encourage the poor treatment of women. Often, Bollywood productions focus on the plight of wealthy women, whose treatment at the hands of the men in their lives is offset by their comfortable lifestyles. At the same time, though, most of them omit the difficulties that women of lower socio-economic backgrounds face on a daily basis, such as the harassment on buses and streets that showed itself at its worst in the recent mob rape of two young women. While Bollywood seems to have no problem showing men how women should be treated, it has so far shied away from investigating the repercussions of this behavior.
As a woman of Afghan descent, I watched from a young age as heroines suffered at the hands of the patriarchal society. Even the "good" or "virtuous" women, the traditional housewives, were second-class citizens. The good woman would argue with her husband begging him not to force their daughter to marry a man she didn't love, but he would tell his wife to stay out of matters that didn't concern her. His word was final.
The "bad women," the courtesans that entertained members of the high society, would dance the night away and recite poetry only to be sold to the highest bidder at the end of the night. Sought after for their beauty; they are shown to intoxicate men with their skills, dancing in such a way that would only be seen in such settings. Countless movies display this, such as Umraoo Jaan, Pakeezah, Sharafat and Mughal-e-Azam. They depict men who sitting on cushions, smoking, and chewing betel leaves. The only women in their scenes were the courtesans and the madame who gives her prized possession, the courtesan, to the man offering the most money, displayed in gold coins.
The madame in these films loves her young possessions and raises them as daughters. She appears to do the girls a favor by taking them off the streets where they would otherwise beg for food and shelter. Instead, they become dancers for elite men, regaled with gifts and beautiful clothes. Most of these women were trafficked domestically as young girls and then raised to dance and entertain with a poise not found in other areas of society.
Powerful men in these films visit such establishments with little repercussion, but it is the women who are left to face the real blowback. The men still marry well, hold high ranks in society, and have their lawful wives accept the fact that they have a second life with other women. The most a woman could do was approach the courtesan dancer and ask her to stop luring her husband.
Deemed unclean, these courtesans were not even permitted to enter places of worship. In movies like Mehbooba, the townspeople react with public outcry when the dancer enters the temple to pray. Another movie, Suhaag, portrays a young girl who kills a man about to rape her. She recognizes the realities of the local judiciary procedures where, should she be found out, she would have no due process or justice, given that she was both poor and a female. She escapes her village only to be taken in by a "motherly woman" to become a dancer. Luckily for her, she does not sell her body at the end of the night. Although the main character's story in this movie has a happy ending, women who find themselves in her situation in reality do not share her fate.
According to a New York Times blog post published last December, India has the highest number of human trafficking victims in the world. While authorities have closed hundreds of brothels where occurrences of human trafficking of underage females have been found, prostitution and trafficking continues. Because of the stigma, women who have been forced to live and work in brothels aren't able to escape that life even if given an opportunity. Were they to return to their villages, they would most likely be rejected by their families. .
But with regard to other women's issues, Bollywood has done a much better job of portraying reality. Prostitution and brothels are not the only way Indian women fall victim to the patriarchal society. Widows in India are ostracized and deemed financial burdens. Their presence is considered bad luck. According to tradition they have to flee to the holy city of Vrindivan where they live until they die. Several Bollywood movies, such as the 2005 film Water, portray the lives of such widows. At Vrindivan, they must live a life without pleasure of any sort in order to abide by the traditions. This lifestyle begins with the shaving of their heads. Vrindivan is said to have about 15,000 widows that have been forced to reside there.
In India and parts of Pakistan, female feticide, the act of aborting a fetus because it's a female, is practiced. When medical technology made it possible to determine the sex of a fetus, clinics across the country advertised their ability to perform sex-related abortions. Before the advent of such technology, female babies were often left at doorstops or murdered upon birth. A national census reveals a shocking ratio of 914 girls to 1000 boys under the age of seven. The 2004 film Mathruboomi: A Nation without Women, examines the impact of female feticide and infanticide.
Bollywood movies have shed light on the plight of Afghan and Pakistani women as well (though they continue to play to the stereotypes). The Afghan woman is often portrayed as a warrior, able to fight next to a man. On the other hand, she is still a prize to be won. In the movie Khuda Gawa, the heroine, an Afghan woman, promised her hand in marriage to the hero if he would kill her worst enemy, the man who murdered her father. She was a Buzkash, a champion of the extreme Afghan sport of buzkashi; she had power within her community. Yet, at the end, she was still weaker because she needed this man to carry out her mission, and she was willing to give herself to him should he be successful.
Veer Zaara provides a classic example of the subjugation of Pakistani women. It portrays a loud and quirky girl whose father listens to all her demands in other facets of life, yet her outgoing character cannot overpower her father's decision to marry her off to the son of an influential figure whose election depends on the marriage. When, as a Muslim, she falls in love with a Hindu man, she is ordered not to see him again.
In Indian circles it is common to hear women saying that their daughter's wedding costs their life's savings. According to tradition, the bride's family is to pay a dowry to the groom's family. Women are often criticized, ridiculed and even beaten for not having a large enough dowry. Although India outlawed dowries in 1961, they still exist, and the exchange of the dowry is a common scene in Bollywood films. Lajja is the perfect example of a movie that portrays the pressure a family is under to pay a dowry.
Pakistan has a similar problem with the burdens of the dowry, mostly among the Urdu-speaking communities or those of Punjabi origin, who can trace their lineages back to India. Many women are left unwed simply because their parents aren't able to afford the increasing demands from the groom's family. In Afghanistan, and amongst the Pashtun cultures of Pakistan, there is a reverse dowry system, or the mehr, which is to be paid to the female's family. With it comes the cost of the wedding and all expenses thereof. Thus, females are not a financial burden in Pashtun Pakistani communities, nor throughout Afghanistan.
That doesn't mean that females are necessarily better off. Many families negotiate their daughter's price, giving her not to the best man, but to the one that can pay the higher price. Laila Majnu depicts the true story which later evolved into Arabic literature and then consecutively into Persian literature. It is indeed dubbed the Romeo and Juliet of the Muslim World, because it is the story of two lovers from enemy tribes, both of whom end up dead, Majnun at the hands of an enemy and Laila taking her own life. In the scene of the "Juliet's" marriage to a King in which the vows are exchanged, the mullah asks the groom if he agrees to pay the one lakh or one hundred thousand for her, and it is agreed upon.
What is the connection between a rape victim and a woman portrayed in Bollywood films? The movies are dramatized reflections of the realities of life in South Asian societies, where the poor are second class citizens and women are what men decide them to be. More importantly, the movies can shape societies' viewpoints, reinforcing the discrimination; over time people can and have accepted that women are inferior.
Bollywood plays an important role in shaping ideologies in India and South Asia as a whole. Lollywood, Pakistan's movie industry, has had its ups and downs in recent years due to increasing levels of violence and militancy in the country. It is, however, slowly recovering, and Pakistani soap operas are widely watched in the region.
For their part, Bollywood films have changed somewhat in recent years to depict the woman as more of an equal to her male counterpart and less of an object; their roles are more career-driven and less subservient. Women are standing up to society and their families where injustices such as forced marriages exist.
These trends are not enough. Bollywood can become more progressive on women's issues by portraying lives of ordinary women living in South Asia, and the challenges they have to face on a daily basis. Behind the opulence that is often portrayed in Bollywood films, the troubling reality of Indian and Pakistani societies is that the injustices against the women of the top 1% most often do not reflect the same gender discriminations of the vast majority of women within society. After all, the wealthiest individuals are not the ones who ride the bus every day.
Humira Noorestani is a Human Rights Activist and the Founder/Director of Ariana Outreach, an NGO dedicated to building bridges between the United States and Afghanistan, primarily through connecting women of both countries.
The long agony for Afghanistan's women ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This past January, Ms. Saira Shikeb Sadat, whose husband disappeared under the Taliban rule, assumed office as Afghanistan's first female district administrator in Jawzjan province. She recently told media that one of her top priorities was to empower women and girls. She said this can be achieved through the development of her district, Khawaja Do Koh, which is home to a population of 5,000 whose access to education, healthcare, and employment assistance, such as income-generation schemes, has been very limited. But she is determined to address these problems during her tenure in office, and the Afghan government supports her in these efforts.
Like Ms. Sadat, thousands of women are politically and socially active in Afghanistan in various capacities. The first female provincial governor and district mayor in Afghan history are currently in office. The key ministries of public health: women's affairs, and labor, social affairs, martyrs and disabled are led by women, as is Afghanistan's Independent Commission on Human Rights. At the same time, the Afghan Parliament continues to convene with a higher percentage of female representatives, 27.3 percent, than the legislative bodies of many of the most established democracies, including the U.S. Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
Yet despite these important advances, the condition of women in Afghanistan is in need of urgent attention. One woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth, the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births). Mountainous terrain and weather conditions prevent timely medical attention to patients and pregnant women. Severe food shortages have resulted in chronic malnourishment among children, and 48 percent of Afghan women are iron-deficient.
Millions of girls cannot attend school because of security concerns or restrictive social norms. Just 12 percent of women 15 years and older can read and write, compared to 39 percent of men. The overall literacy rate for women between the ages of 15 and 24 stands at 24 percent, compared to 53 percent for men in Afghanistan.
This troubling situation is a legacy of decades of war and state collapse in the country. During the past 30 years of conflict, the needs of women stood neglected because Afghanistan did not have effective state institutions that could provide services to the people. Under the Taliban, women were relegated to the confines of their homes and deprived of education and basic human rights.
Afghanistan today is making efforts to recover from the effects of decades of utter desolation and destitution. Improving the condition of women is a priority in our national development strategy. In 2008, we launched a national action plan for the women of Afghanistan to provide a comprehensive, cross-ministerial approach to improving the condition of women. Indeed, we have a long way to go before we can catch up with the rest of the world, but we are working hard.
In the past eleven years, schools and universities have opened their doors to a record number of women. Of nearly 5 million children in grades one through six, 36.6 percent are girls. The number of girls in high school almost doubled from 2007 to 2008, from 67,900 to 136,621 students. Some 8,944 university students graduated in Afghanistan in 2008. Of them, 1,734 were female students. These numbers have continued to rise in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, despite a spike in the number and frequency of terrorist attacks across Afghanistan, often targeting schools, teachers, and students, with most victims being girls.
Public health also has seen tremendous improvement over the past eleven years. Up to 80 percent of the Afghan population has access to basic health care, a massive increase from just 8 percent in 2001. More than 1,650 professional midwives are employed by the ministry of public health, providing health care and childbirth services across Afghanistan. This has helped reduce infant mortality rates by 23 percent, saving 80,000 newborn lives each year.
In addition to taking these concrete steps, we are working to change societal mind-sets. In some parts of Afghanistan's most traditional areas, attitudes hamper the progress of women. Unlike most governments in the world, the Afghan government not only makes and implements policies, but also functions as an agent of social change, working to ameliorate the traditional views that hold women back from fully developing their abilities and contributing to society. We are partnering with local elders and religious figures to ensure that attitudes change through a community-centered approach. Through the National Solidarity Program, more than 22,000 Afghan women are actively participating along with men in more than 10,000 community development councils to assess local needs, receive and implement grants from the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development and lead project design and implementation.
Slowly, we are seeing progress. As the success story of Ms. Sadat and others reminds us, women are the pillars of Afghanistan. With enhanced attention to women's issues, more than half of the Afghan population can be socially, economically and politically empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan's long-term development. The international community must help the Afghan government approach the task of empowering Afghan women as a continual process rather than as a single benchmark, for international experience shows us that even legal equality does not translate into equal treatment.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India. He formerly served as Afghanistan's deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in the United States.
Pakistan has accepted an Afghan "roadmap" for peace, according to news reports this week. If true, this would be quite a breakthrough given the setbacks of the last year, such as the suspension of talks by the Taliban in March, cross-border shelling into eastern Afghanistan, and recent allegations that Pakistan was involved in an assassination attempt on the Afghan intelligence chief last week. Ending a conflict that has claimed so many thousands of Afghan lives is desperately needed, and signs of a shift in Pakistan's attitude to talks could be a positive step towards that. However, a recently leaked copy of the Afghan High Peace Council's "Peace Process Roadmap to 2015,"[posted here], which has not yet been made public, lays out a trajectory that does little to assuage fears that a deal with the Taliban could erode women's rights and human rights in general.
The roadmap contains five steps. The first includes an end to cross-border shelling, the transfer by Pakistan of Taliban prisoners to Afghanistan or a third country, and pressure on the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaeda. Phase Two (slated for the first half of 2013) includes safe passage for Taliban negotiators to unspecified countries, contact with Taliban negotiators, agreement on the terms of a peace process, and further delisting of Taliban by the United States and the United Nations.
Phase three, in the second half of 2013, envisages a ceasefire. Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for renouncing violence. The plan proposes that the Taliban could transform into a political movement, and prepare to contest elections (presumably including the Presidential elections in 2014). While the emergence of a political party from the Taliban is conceivable, and desirable, the hope that this could be achieved next year seems remote. There are clearly reformers within the Taliban, but many who have engaged in preliminary negotiation efforts have been killed by hardliners or imprisoned by Pakistan, while Afghan negotiators have been assassinated. Consequently the breadth of commitment to politics and peace within the Taliban movement remains uncertain.
Step three also contains the most frank description I've seen so far about non-elected appointments of Taliban as an incentive to reconciling. This will likely include critical governorships, potentially legitimating some of the shadow provincial governments of the Taliban. Appointments remain one of the primary means of patronage in Afghanistan, so it's hard to imagine jobs not being a part of a peace deal, however unpalatable it may seem to those bearing the brunt of the ongoing Taliban violence against civilians. But the roadmap contains no red lines here, such as the exclusion from government jobs of commanders suspected of war crimes and other serious human rights abuses. There's a pragmatic argument for this -a peace process is more likely to last if it can defuse the enmity created by atrocities committed by both the Taliban and the government. Unfortunately, whenever I raise the basic human rights principle of "no peace without justice," I usually get a withering dismissal from Afghan and international officials. This year, though, the principle seemed oddly vindicated when the Taliban cited the corruption of the Afghan government as a reason for not negotiating with them.
When consulted, a majority of Afghans tend to support calls for justice and accountability. But it's not until step four of the roadmap, when the real deal-making has already been done, that the Afghan government plans to "mobilize" support from its citizens. There is much more that the government could do now to reassure its citizens -particularly women -that their protection is the primary goal of any peace agreement.
The roadmap, though, doesn't even mention women until the final paragraph, when a government pledge to uphold constitutional guarantees of freedom is repeated. Given President Hamid Karzai's proclivity for casting off women's rights when there's a political incentive, this isn't enough, and certainly doesn't measure up to the Tokyo declaration of July 2012, which has far stronger promises to respect rights. But the Tokyo declaration was signed when 16 billion donor dollars were on the table, so the roadmap may be the more accurate indicator of the government's commitment to women.
Those foreign dollars can still be made to count. In steps four and five, the roadmap talks of international support in implementing the peace process. It would be better if it allowed for international monitoring of the peace process and its implementation, with a place for women at the negotiating table. Only if women are there to argue for their own protections can this not result in a significant setback. It is areas where the Taliban are active, and where the roadmap might formalize their power, that women in public life are most at risk. One woman I met recently, whom I'll call "Shamsia,"was from a conflict ridden area of southeastern Afghanistan. Before we'd finished our introductions, Shamsia launched into her worst fears about the 2014 transition: "Everyone is afraid. Everyone talks about it, particularly women who are working. After 2014, when the Taliban come back, they will kill those who are working with the government." Earlier this week the head of the women's affairs department in Laghman province, Najia Sediqi, was killed by gunmen, five months after her predecessor was assassinated by the Taliban.
Persuading the Taliban to embrace politics over violence, and equality over segregation will take more than prisoner release and government jobs. It will take leadership, and probably many more years than the current roadmap envisages. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been the clearest international voice supporting women's rights in the peace process, but will soon step down. A female activist recently described her as the "conscience of the world" on this issue. When the U.S. Senate holds confirmation hearings for her successor, they can help ensure that the next secretary will also act as a strong "conscience" for the peace process. The international community should also make sure that the roadmap doesn't abandon justice. If peace rewards all Taliban commanders, no matter how terrible their crimes, and doesn't make room for women in the process, this roadmap could be a dead-end for human rights.
Rachel Reid is the Senior Policy Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Open Society Foundations.
When the United Nations declared November 10 "Malala Day," people across the globe, from Hong Kong to Islamabad, took to the streets in an outpouring of support for Malala Yousufzai, calling for reforms in access to education for girls in Pakistan. Many political parties in Pakistan took to politicking in commemorating the day, sponsoring vigils and demonstrations. But one party had already taken a commanding lead in grand public affirmations of support for Malala last month.
On Sunday, October 14, nearly a month before "Malala Day" over 20,000 people flooded the streets of Karachi in support of the young activist, who had survived a murder attempt by the Taliban just a few days earlier. A sea of photos of Malala fluttered amongst the throng of fervent supporters, united in their seething frustration with the Taliban's violent agenda and the state's status quo. The demonstration, the largest for Malala in Pakistan to date, was also dotted with images of Altaf Hussain, Chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the powerful political party responsible for organizing the rally. Hussain, who pulls the MQM's strings from London where he is in self-imposed exile, addressed the rally by telephone, urging the people to stand up against the Taliban for their attack against "the daughter of our nation."
The MQM's timing was impeccable. The party channeled the public's outrage over Malala's shooting into a massive demonstration garnering worldwide media attention. The rally served as a catalyst for the MQM to wedge itself back into the political limelight, where opposition frontrunner Imran Khan had been comfortably residing for nearly a year. Khan, who heads the political party Pakistan Tehrik E-Insaaf (PTI), has emerged as a dynamic force in Pakistan's fractious politics, embodying hope and change for those in Pakistan who are concerned about the upsurge in violence, corruption, and poverty under Pakistan's current administration.
The MQM's successful and opportunistic rally overshadowed Khan's wave of rallies against the U.S. drone campaign, in which he has led thousands of his supporters and some U.S. anti-war activists in marches through the treacherous tribal regions in the north. While Khan's growing popularity and reformist reputation have drawn thousands in colossal rallies, his response to the Malala crisis fell tragically short. Khan has condemned the violence against Malala while avoiding hardline rhetoric against the Taliban, instead maintaining his position against military operations and U.S. drone strikes in the tribal regions and favoring a political solution to extremism.
Of Pakistan's prominent political parties, the MQM has taken the boldest and most precarious stance against the Taliban, fostering goodwill for the party across the nation. "MQM is trying to convey that it's a political party which is relatively liberal and progressive, unlike some of the criticism of the party as authoritarian, fascist and mafia style," said Dr. Saeed Shafqat, Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, and a former Columbia University Professor. "This provided MQM with an opportunity to put forth an effort to dispel that kind of view against them if there was one."
The MQM's strategic positioning has effectively moved the political party to center stage just months before Pakistan's national elections. The party's role in Pakistani politics has always been complex, however, and its sudden resurgence as Malala's story unfolds suggests motives other than championing education rights for women.
The MQM has an uncanny knack for mobilizing residents of Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, where it enjoys an unparalleled stronghold in local government. A year ago MQM orchestrated an enormous rally in support of sitting President Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after he was publicly disparaged by members of another party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). The demonstration was rumored to have been the prize in a tradeoff arranged by the MQM and Zardari's administration. In exchange for the public endorsement, the government allegedly promised leniency in the trials of four MQM members accused of heinous crimes and the relaxing of police operations in the MQM's hub of Karachi for three days.
MQM's capacity to galvanize Karachi's citizens for a PPP public image makeover validated the party as a power player in Pakistan's politics. Yet the MQM and PPP have not always been allies, and the MQM's past involvement in political violence makes it a curious new proponent for human rights. In May 2007, a political clash between the PPP and then-President Pervez Musharraf resulted in deadly riots and violence that consumed the city, leaving at least 39 dead. At the time MQM aligned itself with Musharraf, and a Wikileaks cable later revealed that MQM may have had a hand in instigating the riots. Later that year, the murder of an MQM provincial lawmaker set off a series of revenge attacks in Karachi, where gangs torched vehicles and buildings and engaged in gunfire that killed at least 45 people. While the unrest might be attributed to ethnic and political tensions that pre-existed in the city, MQM militants were accused of fueling the explosion of violence.
Perhaps the most contentious and bloody incident in Pakistan's recent history was the raid on Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007. The Pakistani military stormed a mosque they suspected of radicalism, using brute force and killing over 100 people and injuring close to 300, many of them women and children. The MQM backed Musharraf's bloody siege of the mosque and still defends the military action at Lal Masjid as questions regarding civilian deaths have recently resurfaced.
In 2010, assassinations of MQM party leaders bred more violence in the streets of Karachi. The riots stemmed from friction between the PPP and MQM, whose organized and armed paramilitary runs the city. Later the same year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan criticized the MQM for calling for martial law and for urging "patriotic army generals" to act out against politicians. The party's consistent policy of strong-arming radical groups and the Taliban by military force is undoubtedly a motivating factor in its aggressive positions in the wake of Malala's attack.
In subsequent meetings with army commanders following the October 14th rally, MQM leaders have continued to insist on military action against the Taliban. And MQM leader Hussain issued an order that government collect information on religious leaders and institutions to be monitored by the government, a belligerent declaration that could curb religious freedom and widen the rift between religious factions and leading political groups. As Malala struggles through recovery in London, the MQM have employed their brawn, influence and resources to once again sow the seeds of divisiveness in the country. Today, in Pakistan's volatile socio-political climate, the MQM's political ploy could have a role in further aggravating ethnic tension or triggering political violence.
Some accuse the PPP and MQM of using the attack on Malala to try to portray a military operation in northern Pakistan as a strategy that serves the country's own interests, instead of one that fulfills requests by the United States for cooperation in the region. Whatever the incentive, the MQM's deft response to Malala's tragedy could in fact steer Pakistan in the direction of another war in Waziristan. And with increased military presence in the region, the Zardari administration could be opening an even wider door to U.S. intervention in northern Pakistan.
So, while most Pakistanis are staunchly opposed to the U.S. drone campaign, the unnerving reality is that launching a military campaign in Pakistan's tribal area could mean deeper U.S. entanglement, an escalation of violence against civilians, and catastrophic consequences for the already volatile region. The prospect of a bleak and turbulent future has now settled in the land where Malala so diligently planted seeds of progress and peace.
Uzma Kolsy is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the former Managing Editor of InFocus News, the largest newspaper in California serving the Muslim American community. Her pieces have appeared in Salon, The Nation, The American Prospect and Raw Story.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Much like the rest of the world, Pakistan initially responded to Malala Yousufzai's shooting by the Taliban on October 9 with widespread uproar and outrage. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, officials and the population displayed a rare show of unity against the Taliban, in stark contrast to the country's response to the assassinations of the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti by extremists last year. As I wrote in an op-ed for the Express Tribune last week, this reaction against the Taliban in the wake of Malala's shooting offered a glimmer of hope for Pakistan. But what should have been a powerful opportunity for the country to silence its inner demons and focus on development has turned to a dangerous pastime: finding someone else to blame.
The shift in the national conversation began with questions about the extensive media coverage Malala received: "why such focus on just one girl," some said, "what about U.S. drone strikes that kill innocent people." Fingers started being pointed everywhere but inward. Afghanistan was blamed for harboring the Pakistan Taliban after the Pakistani army operation against the militant group in March 2009. Elaborate conspiracy theories were hatched, the most insane of which held the United States responsible for first mentoring Malala and then having her shot narrowly enough to ensure her survival, in order to garner support for a potential Pakistani army offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan.
This is not the first time a productive national conversation in Pakistan has been hijacked by convoluted, paranoid thinking. Why does this happen time and again? Perhaps because looking inward is painful and difficult for Pakistanis. According to the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey in Pakistan, a meager 12 percent of respondents are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Pakistan is in a state of malaise, at war with itself, and in a perilous economic decline, and its view of this shooting and the correct response to it have become blurred. Let's be clear about the facts and what Pakistan needs to do.
First, the war against the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan is Pakistan's own war. The Taliban, and no one else, is responsible for shooting a girl who had the audacity to go to school. Pakistanis must get it straight: this incident has nothing to do with drone strikes. If drone strikes were to stop tomorrow, the Taliban would still exist in Pakistan, and they would still be burning down girls' schools, targeting innocent women and children, brutally silencing anyone who dares to raise her voice. This is not speculation or conjecture: the group wreaked havoc over Swat in 2008 and early 2009, before the current level of drone strikes began.
Second, Pakistan needs to invest in development, and in particular, in education. In fact, the long-term solution to rooting out radicalization and militancy in Pakistan lies in girls' education, precisely the thing which threatens the Taliban. The development dividends of female education are clear: a great deal of empirical evidence from across the world demonstrates that investments in female education give rich benefits in terms of economic, educational, and health advancements for the entire population, not just women. Importantly, my recent research establishes that the education of girls also makes them less supportive of terrorism and militancy. Specifically, I use data from a recent, large-scale public opinion survey in Pakistan to show that while uneducated women exhibit higher support for militant groups relative to uneducated men, educated women show much lower support for militant groups relative to educated men. These are militant groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. No wonder the Taliban are so frightened of girls' schooling.
It is a fact that the Pakistani government has not prioritized the country's development. Last year development spending in Pakistan was a paltry 2.8 percent of GDP. It is then no surprise that education, let alone girls' education, has not been a priority. A new UNESCO report shows that two-thirds of children not attending school in Pakistan are girls, and the poorest girls in Pakistan are twice as likely to be out of school as the poorest girls in India, almost three times as likely as the poorest girls in Nepal and around six times as likely as the poorest girls in Bangladesh. Pakistani women desperately want their daughters to be educated, regardless of whether they are poor or illiterate themselves. I heard this from every woman I interviewed in Punjabi and Sindhi villages for a World Bank study I helped conduct a few years ago. The supply of schools is a problem for girls in Pakistan because the government builds one girls' school for every two boys' schools. Compounding the problem of access to schooling are cultural challenges to girls' mobility, because girls cannot travel alone, especially after they reach puberty.
However, building more schools is by no means the entire answer. For the lucky ones who get to go to school, often the education they receive is poor and their learning is very limited. According to a large survey in Punjab, children at the end of third grade are functionally illiterate and innumerate. They are not able to perform basic mathematical operations, unable to write simple sentences in Urdu, and unable to recognize simple words in English. In addition, it is no secret that Pakistan's national curriculum is biased and does not promote critical thinking. The education system as it currently stands perpetuates the cycle of poverty because the youth in Pakistan do not get the skills they need to get good jobs and lead productive lives.
Instead of getting mired in a murky conversation about the world machinating against Pakistan, it is time for Pakistanis to think about what we need to do to advance its development and to invest in girls' education in particular. The government is blundering in its response to half of its population's most basic and fundamental rights: to education, to speech, to work, to a dignified and purposeful life. This is a time for introspection: it is time for Pakistanis to take a long, hard look inward, and to get to work.
Madiha Afzal, a Pakistani citizen, is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Above, children sift through the debris of a school destroyed by the Swat Taliban in 2009.
All the claims about Pakistan's most successful military offensive against militants in the country came to naught when armed assailants targeted a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Swat on October 9.
Hours later, while the country's political and military leaders were issuing statements of condemnation along with the usual promise of "bringing the culprits to justice," a Taliban spokesman daringly claimed responsibility for the attack, and warned that they would again target Malala Yousafzai if she survives.
As the ‘Swat Diary Girl' -- known for writing articles during the dark days of Taliban rule in Swat in 2008-9 -- slowly recovers at a hospital in Britain, the entire Pakistani nation from Khyber to Karachi is simmering with anger. The most frequently asked question during the public and private discussions, TV talk shows, and newspaper columns is: Are the Taliban staging a comeback in Swat?
Following the ill-planned and haphazard attack on the students and teachers of the Red Mosque in Islamabad ordered by then-President Pervez Musharraf in mid-2007, the Swat-based Mullah Fazlullah, aka FM Mullah, backed his armed Taliban volunteers, unleashed a reign of terror in the serene valley that lasted almost two years. Their rule culminated in April 2009 with the occupation of Mingora, the commercial capital of Swat, and their advance on the neighboring district of Buner.
It was a time when Swat's women were forced to stay inside the four walls of their houses, girls were banned from attending schools, police stations were bombed, music shops were forcefully closed, barbers were forbidden from shaving men's beards, parallel courts were established to solve private disputes, and public executions of policemen, government officials and those disobeying Taliban became the order of the day.
Under immense pressure at home and abroad, and encouraged by the public outcry over the fact that the Swat Taliban were only 70 kilometers from the capital Islamabad, the Pakistani army launched Operation Rah-e-Raast (Right Path) in May 2009. Earlier, the failure of the first and second phases of the military operation Rah-e-Haq (Just Path) in Swat had forced an influential elder and political leader from the area, Afzal Khan Lala, to tell the army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani that the army and Taliban were "two faces of the same coin."
Lala, who survived an attack believed to have been carried out by the Taliban, earned praise for his exceptional courage by staying put while much of the rest of the population (nearly 2.5 million people) left the area for fear of the Taliban and the looming military operation.
The nearly two-month-long Rah-e-Raast operation, closely covered by this writer, successfully ousted the Taliban from Swat and helped return the displaced population to their villages by restoring public order. However, like what happened with other militant and Taliban leaders, including Mangal Bagh in Khyber, Faqir Muhammad in Bajaur, and Hakimullah Mehsud in the Waziristan tribal agencies, the leader of the Swat Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, miraculously survived and escaped the valley.
Within a few months of the military operation, the Taliban attempted to stage a return, targeting and killing a member of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assembly, Shamsher Ali Khan, in a suicide attack outside his house in Swat on December 1, 2009. Since then, any tribal elder, politician, social worker or journalist who dared to criticize the Taliban or pointed out the Army's failure to root out the militants -- or at least block their entry back into Swat -- was kidnapped, beaten, threatened or killed, by either the Taliban or sometimes even the Army.
One such voice was that of Zahid Khan, president of the Swat Hotels Association and one of the leading figures of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, an organization striving for peace and development in the valley. Khan used to criticize the Taliban for their inhumane practices both in public and in private. I still remember my last meeting with him in November 2009 at his home in Swat. During our conversation, Khan showed me an AK-47 assault rifle that was left behind by armed men who ambushed him near his house after he had returned from a meeting with army officials at the Circuit House in Swat.
Khan's family members exchanged fire with the unidentified attackers in the dark of night, and forced them to flee and leave the AK-47 behind. After the restoration of calm (though not peace) to Swat, Khan began to criticize the Pakistani security forces as well as the Taliban, for what he called the army's failure to kill or arrest the Taliban's leadership.
Zahid Khan is now on a hospital bed after receiving severe injuries in an armed attack in August this year. According to police accounts, the unidentified attackers managed to escape. Khan is no longer likely to attend meetings to discuss peace and development in Swat, nor will he be talking to the media.
Two months before the attack on Zahid Khan, armed men gunned down a local leader of the Pakistan Muslim League party in Swat, Muhammad Afzal Khan, spreading fear among Swat's people. While speaking to this writer soon after the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a number of Swat's notable elders and political leaders questioned the role of army troops stationed in the valley, if not to prevent such devastating attacks on civilians.
Just like the outspoken Zahid Khan, Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai were the real voices for peace in Swat; both of them criticized the Taliban for their medieval practices, and the military for not restoring real peace in the valley. Though a shadow Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for attacking Malala, many Swat observers believe that the aim of the shooting was really to silence her father, who is also the spokesman for the Swat Qaumi Jirga.
So what does all this mean for the people of Swat, Pakistan and the wider world, who believed in 2009 that the Taliban, led by Mullah Fazlullah, had been expelled from Swat once and for all? Are the Taliban gradually staging a comeback? "No", said Mukhtar Khan Yousazai, leader of the Swat Qaumi Jirga. But the threat of their return will continue to haunt the people of Swat, who bravely fought back against the ruthless militants by supporting the army in 2009.
To believe that the Taliban cannot regain power in Swat is not without reason. Before the emergence of Mullah Fazlullah, Swat was a modern and well developed district of Pakistan, not because the government of Pakistan carried out exceptional developmental work there, but because it was a tourist destination, and had enjoyed a golden period as the State of Swat until a merger with Pakistan in 1969.
The level of education among Swat's population is higher than several districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Banr Bazaar, the narrow street of two-story houses in Mingora, has been popular for its dancing girls since the period of the princely state. Such was the secular trend among Swatis that one of the rulers of Swat married one of the dancing girls, in an effort to mix the families of musicians and dancing girls into the rest of the population.
Unlike the people of the tribal areas, who are suffering both under the threat of Taliban violence for their non-compliance as well as the fear of arrests and interrogations by the Pakistan army, the people of Swat united more than three years ago to fight back and forced the Pakistani military leadership to carry out a serious operation against the militants. And when the militants were defeated in July 2009, the people rushed back to settle into their villages without giving a second thought to security concerns or the threat of destruction of their houses and businesses in Taliban attacks and army operations.
Further hit and run attacks such as the one carried out on October 9 cannot be ruled out, but a full return or the establishment of a base in any part of the valley by the Taliban seems to be a distant possibility, mainly because the militants have lost support among the population. Their organizational structure has been shattered, their leadership in hiding, and they have been unable to re-establish a single strong base anywhere in Swat.
The questions and concerns of the people of Swat remain, with one question coming above all others: was there any truth to the military's tall claims about the successful military operation? The Swatis also question the role of those hundreds of intelligence operatives and the surveillance devices deployed to spy on local journalists, politicians, notables of the area, and common people.
In addition to the Swatis, other Pakistanis are searching for meaning in the recent back-to-back statements from Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Kayani and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in which they reiterated that the country's security forces are ready "to render any sacrifice" in the fight against extremists.
A similar statement was issued by the Army Chief on Independence Day this year, and the Pakistani nation hoped for a while that their all-powerful military forces now meant business. Nothing came of their promises. But perhaps Malala's cry, which awakened Pakistanis from Khyber to Karachi, will compel the top brass to make a decision. Let's keep our fingers crossed!
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Khattak has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has also written for Christian Science Monitor and London's Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Taliban's shooting last Tuesday of a 14-year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, a tireless campaigner for girls' access to education, has plunged the entire Pakistani nation into a state of disbelief. Many in Pakistan and around the world have lauded her bravery, and some have questioned whether this incident is going change Pakistan, or is just another example of the ignored militant threat. The assault on Malala raises questions about the safety of female activists all over Pakistan.
In this article, we discuss ten major incidents over the past decade, all involving women, which shook the foundations of Pakistani society and increased public expectations for improved conditions for Pakistani women. These tragedies involve many different forms of violence against women, along with lax official responses that encourage a culture of impunity among the perpetrators of the assaults.
Malala Yousafzai: Taliban gunmen singled out Malala on October 9, 2012 in a school van full of girls returning home for the day. They shot her in the neck and head. She had infuriated the Taliban with her blog posts for the BBC that exposed the insurgent group's ban on girls' education in her native Swat, in the northwest of Pakistan. The Taliban consider girls' education to be un-Islamic and they began to destroy schools as a tactic to stop education for girls. According to TIME Magazine, they destroyed 473 schools between 2007 and 2009. The destruction and closure of local schools compelled Malala to speak up against the Taliban's actions. She met personally with top officials, including senior U.S. diplomats, to request them to help Pakistani girls receive uninterrupted education. The Taliban have vowed to kill Malala if she survives, and she currently remains under treatment in a hospital in England. Malala has emerged as a child hero epitomizing resistance against the Taliban.
Ramsha Masi is a teenaged Pakistani Christian girl, who according to some reports suffers from Down syndrome, and who was detained by authorities in Islamabad on blasphemy charges in August 2012 for allegedly burning pages of the Quran. She could face the death sentence if charges against her are proven. Ramsha's case spotlighted the vulnerability of Pakistan's religious minorities, who can easily be subjugated by Muslim clergymen under the controversial blasphemy law. It turned out that a Muslim cleric had actually planted evidence against the Christian girl but he was eventually granted bail by a court. Ramsha's physical safety still remains a major concern.
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a filmmaker, made her country proud in 2012 by becoming the first Pakistani to win an Oscar award. Saving Face, her award-winning movie, however, stunned the world as it courageously exposed the despicable phenomenon of acid attacks on women. The movie instilled courage among the victims of acid assaults and drew international attention toward the unknown ferocious practice employed by abusive husbands, angry fathers, and Taliban militants alike.
Rankil Kumari: The case of this 17-year old Hindu girl has helped to draw public attention to another disquieting practice: Forceful conversion of Hindu girls into Islam, and their subsequent forced marriages with Muslim boys. On February 24, 2012, an influential Muslim politician kidnapped Ms. Kumari from her residence in Sindh province. When the girl resurfaced after a few days, she, apparently concerned about personal safety, said she had ‘willingly' embraced Islam and married a Muslim man. The Hindus, on their part, say young girls from their minority community are wholly unsafe in Pakistan, where each month at least 20 to 25 girls are forcefully converted to Islam and compelled to marry Muslims. According to one estimate, 300 Hindu girls are forcefully converted in Pakistan each year.
Asia Bibi is another Christian woman who became a victim of the blasphemy law. In November 2010, a court in Punjab handed her a death sentence for committing blasphemy against Islam. If the superior courts uphold the judgment, she will become Pakistan's first woman to be killed under the blasphemy law.
Ms. Bibi's case also indicates the improbability of abolishing or reforming the blasphemy laws. For example, Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab governor, was shot dead by his own security guard when he publicly spoke in support of Asia Bibi and proposed a review of the draconian law. His killing was immediately followed by another high-profile murder of the minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. The killings in the wake of Asia Bibi case have nearly silenced the debate over scraping the discriminatory blasphemy law.
Chand Bibi: In April 2009, a YouTube video showed the Taliban publicly flogging a 17-year old girl, Chand Bibi, in Swat Valley. The video shocked the nation by exposing the Taliban's barbaric ‘justice system'. The teenaged girl was flogged on charges of adultery in front of hundreds of people. A spokesman for the Taliban confirmed the incident, depriving the Taliban of public support in the area. Public backlash to the video was so intense that it paved the way for the Pakistani army to carry out an operation against the local Taliban in Swat.
The Baba Kot Girls: In August 2008, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported that five young girls had been shot and buried alive on the instructions of a powerful tribal elder in Baba Kot town of Balochistan province. The girls, whose number is often disputed, were buried alive after they opted to marry for love instead of accepting marriages arranged by their families. When the tragedy was reported in the media, it triggered a massive public outcry. A Pakistani senator, surprisingly, defended the incident in the Senate and justified it as "our tribal custom". The perpetrators of the Baba Kot murders were never punished. Every year, hundreds of girls are killed in the name of honor, mostly by their own male family members.
Benazir Bhutto inspired a full generation of Muslim women in 1988 when, at the age of 35, she became the first Muslim woman to head a government. Ms. Bhutto was twice elected as Pakistan's Prime Minister, and became a symbol of female courage. On December 27, 2007, Bhutto was assassinated after an election rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. Many Pakistanis, including Bhutto's opponents, believed their country would never be the same again after her tragic murder. Despite a United Nations investigation, who exactly killed Bhutto remains a mystery, and her murderers remain at large until today.
Dr. Shazia Khalid, 32, is a physician who was raped on January 2, 2005 in the gas-rich town of Sui, allegedly by a Captain in the Pakistani military. While the Pakistani army headed by General Pervez Musharraf endeavored to cover up the case, the incident was eventually made public and triggered cacophonous reactions from the powerful Bugti tribe, considered the captain's action an assault on the local customs.
General Musharraf publicly declared the captain "100 percent innocent" and went on to say, "a lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped." Dr. Khalid's rape triggered the country's worst conflict between the Pakistan army and the Baloch tribesmen, which continues today seven years later. The Pakistani army never put the captain on trial, and faced with death threats, Dr. Khalid had to flee Pakistan to England.
Mukhtaran Mai is Pakistan's most high-profile victim of gang-rape. In June 2002, a tribal council in Punjab Province endorsed her gang rape. She was paraded naked in front of hundreds of people and raped by men belonging to a powerful tribe. Unlike many rape victims in Pakistan and throughout the world, Mai chose to speak up against her rapists and pursue a legal battle. Her courage unsettled Pakistan's military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, so much that he imposed travel restrictions on Mai by putting her name on Pakistan's Exit Control List (ECL) for fear that if she would tell her story abroad and add to the country's negative image in the world. She was also not allowed to meet with her lawyer. Glamour Magazine called Mai "The Bravest Woman in the World" and featured her as the 2005 "Woman of the Year." She has since then become a role model for Pakistani women by setting up her own organization to work for the welfare of rural women.
Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is an exiled Baloch journalist who founded The Baloch Hal, the first online English language newspaper in Balochistan, Pakistan. Formerly, he was a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
A plastic grocery bag is probably one of the most generously hoarded items in any Pakistani home. Ours all the way in Boston is no different. Two people and 200 plastic bags; look anywhere - under the mattress, over the closet, folded and tucked between prayer mats. A couple fall off every time I open my jewelry drawer to find my favorite pearl earrings my mother passed on to me with my dowry last year.
Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed's home in Warrington, Cheshire in the United Kingdom must be no different, only they used their grocery bags to stuff their 17-year-old daughter Shafilea's mouth, blocking her airways and pinning her down till her "legs stopped kicking". But that wasn't punishment enough. Ahmed punched his teenager's lifeless body in the chest after the killing, enraged by her "desire to lead a westernized lifestyle" - wearing jeans, socializing with white girls and refusing to marry a much older man.
Shafilea is gone. So is my stockpile of plastic bags - to the very last one. But to recently convicted Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed and thousands, if not millions, likeminded others, something else has been saved, guarded, maintained.
That something also led Javed Iqbal Shaikh, a respected lawyer, to pull out a gun and shoot point-blank his 22 year-old sister, Raheela Sehto, in front of dozens of witnesses in a "packed courtroom" in Hyderabad, Pakistan earlier this month. As the bullet penetrated the "left side of her head" she fell to the ground looking her husband, Zulfiqar Sehto, in the eye. Raheela's marriage to Sehto was the reason for which her brother felt compelled to brutally murder her, and Sehto the man Shaikh regrets he couldn't kill along with his sister.
Two women and innumerable others, time and time again, are erased from history in the hands of those who think themselves guardians of this centuries-old tradition. Regrettably, to the majority of ‘honorable' men, honor in all its entirety resides in the bodies of women and women alone, in the context of which their rights to live, let alone control, their own lives and to liberty and freedom of movement, expression, association, and physical integrity mean very, very little.
Whether out of fear or by choice, the complicity and support by other women in the family and the community - mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, cousins - also strengthens the concept of women as property. Their participation in these deadly attacks also reaffirms the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue.
This ‘community mentality' paired with misleading interpretations of religion and suit-yourself articulations of ‘family law' encourage patriarchy within families and negative attitudes towards female autonomy. Thus an environment is created in which violence against women is accepted and justified - a huge motivation for the family and community to cover up these heinous brutalities - a crime in itself. It is not surprising, then, that various women's groups in South-west Asia and the Middle East suspect the number of both reported and unreported victims to be at least four times the United Nations' decade-old figure of around 5,000 honor killings a year worldwide.
So for those daring to trespass the boundary of ‘appropriate' chalked-out by their male counterparts and guardians, ‘honor' is but a death sentence and has been so for hundreds and thousands of years. The concept of honor and its protection is widely displayed within many different male-dominated societies in human history, dating back to ancient Rome, the Arab tribes of Babylonian King Hammurabi as early as in 1200 BC, prerevolutionary China and many other societies and historical eras long before any major religion came into existence.
Today, however, the practice is becoming increasingly common across cultures and across religions, especially in South Asia and in Pakistan. The concept of honor in the region is largely dichotomous, and absurdly so. While honor in its masculine form is active and positive - dynamism, generosity, vigor, confidence, dominance and strength, a woman's honor, by contrast, revolves around negative, more passive concepts - chastity, obedience, servitude, domesticity and the endurance of pain and hardship without any display of feelings or complaint.
Unlike her male counterpart, a woman's honor can neither be increased nor regained - once lost, it is lost forever. What is worse is that when a woman loses her honor, the honor of her brothers, father and uncles is also lost and can only be regained through a violent display of dominance. Conveniently nonsensical but practiced explicitly in South Asia among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike, with the same deadly effects.
In its latest annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan presented disappointing statistics for honor crimes in the country. More than 1,000 women and girls fall victim to honor killings every year in Pakistan, the report maintains, mostly at the hands of their brothers and husbands, with less than two per cent provided medical assistance before their death.
The Aurat Foundation, a reputable women's rights group in Pakistan, however, has uncovered numbers two times that figure. According to their report released in January this year, as many as 2,341 honor killings were reported in the country in 2011 - "a 27 per cent jump from the year before". But the figures are just "the tip of the iceberg", the report warns, since its researchers relied on cases reported in the media only.
But despite being ranked the third-most dangerous country for women in the world after Afghanistan and Congo - due to a barrage of threats including honor killings - over the past decade, Pakistan has also made adequate real world efforts to fortify women's rights in the country. In 2006, the country passed a bill to strengthen the law against honor killings under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, making the crime punishable by a prison term of seven years or even by the death penalty. Last year in 2011, the Senate passed two landmark pieces of legislations into bills - the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill and the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill - an uncommon piece of news coming from the region since both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of its National Assembly.
But tackling something as engrained and as ancient as honor killing requires every thread of the country's social fabric to work together to bring about a wholesale change in common attitudes. This development may sound almost fairytale-ish in a Pakistani context, but if social change over centuries has led to a major decline of honor-based violence in certain parts of Europe, America and even the Middle East, then the global eradication of honor crimes remains a possibility. The question is, can Pakistan be a part of this change?
The current political climate in Pakistan is marked by a tug-of-war between civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and between liberal and religious elements on the other. The main casualties in this hostile environment are the women killed in the name of honor. The sitting Pakistan People's Party government has absolutely no support from the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz , nor -- it seems -- from the judiciary, which is more interested in sacking the next available prime minister and policing the country's television channels for vulgarity than in taking legal action against the Hyderabad honor-killing incident.
In the lead-up to the upcoming general elections later this year, Imran Khan and his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf have in a matter of months risen to unrivaled popularity among Pakistan's youth. The so-called ‘pied piper' of Pakistani politics, attracting over 400,000 to his rally in Karachi earlier this year, however, has few words on the subject of honor killings. Offering his countrymen a ‘New Pakistan' free from American slavery as he comes into power, the man eats, breathes and sleeps drones. Honor killing, not so much, even though the women killed in the name of honor each year outnumber annual drone-related casualties in Pakistan.
Honor killing is a broader, more universal problem. It is not just a women's issue, or a religious or cultural one. It is a full-scale human rights concern where daily violence happens throughout the world in the name of honor.
Wherever there is a structural acceptance for violence against women, there is an acknowledgment that men have all the rights to legislate their own morality. Inaction of the state and silence on the part of national or community leaders and intellectuals the likes of Khan only fuel the ancient trend.
In Pakistan, there is a culture of impunity where men commit vicious acts to safeguard their so-called honor and roam freely. Tremendous amounts of pressure - political, judicial and social - need to be asserted to make sure these acts are punished. The problem needs to be openly and extensively discussed so that it can be uprooted. And what better place to do it than a gathering of 400,000 in the heart of the country? Who wouldn't like a ‘New Pakistan' where perpetrators are stripped of the very honor in the name of which they take innocent human lives and are duly punished?
The question remains: can Pakistan make the change?
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Just over a decade ago, in January 2002, the world came together in Tokyo in the wake of the fall of the Taliban regime to pledge our common support for political, economic and social transition in Afghanistan.
We were well aware of the long-term nature of the commitment we were making, in
line with the ancient Afghan proverb, "One flower will not make a
As key world leaders convene this weekend in Tokyo to reaffirm this commitment and keep faith with the Afghan people in advance of the draw-down of international combat forces, it is important to also reflect on the significant achievements made in Afghanistan over the past decade, especially for women and girls.
Afghan women today live an average of 15 years longer than they did a decade ago, thanks to dramatically increased access to health care, increased midwife assisted births, a tripling of gross domestic product per capita, and a large decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty.
Educational opportunities for women and girls have expanded dramatically: nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in schools are girls and 120,000 female students have graduated from secondary schools in the last five years alone.
About 40,000 young women are enrolled in public and private universities, with more enrolling each year.
Some observers are concerned that these achievements, will unravel with the
departure of international combat forces and that these gains could be
reversed. But, the Afghan people - with our support - are not prepared to
sacrifice the gains they have made, particularly by Afghan women, as they
understand that no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people
That is why our agencies - U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department - will continue working with our Afghan and international partners to support opportunities that enable Afghan women and girls to fight for gender equality and implement laws protecting their human rights as enshrined in the Afghan Constitution.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in Kabul in early May provides a long-term framework for relations between the United States and Afghanistan after the drawdown of U.S. forces and highlights the mutual commitments of both nations to the protection of women's rights and the advancement of the essential role of Afghan women in society in order to live up to their full God-given potential economically, socially, and politically.
There's a long path ahead for Afghanistan.
But part of the way ahead is simple and clear - tapping Afghan women's full potential is essential to achieving peace, stability and economic growth in Afghanistan.
And so one notable difference between the two Tokyo conferences is the enhanced participation of women this time around.
Women will be in Tokyo in full force: indeed, the past 10 years, women have raised expectations for their inclusion even as they have shown that women in Afghanistan are a powerful force of stability, brokers for peace, and a vital component of economic opportunities.
Civil society groups attending Tokyo are calling for equal participation in the Afghan and international delegation; the adoption of "gender-impact statements" for all reconstruction and development projects; and the allocation of external funding to projects that advance education, health, housing, livelihoods and other opportunities for women and girls.
A strong civil society and full participation of Afghan women at national, local and provincial levels also will give us the best chance for any potential for peace. The role of civil society is particularly constructive in the ability to bring communities together working at the grassroots level. They can help to develop peace rooted at local levels and then most importantly to help keep it.
No, a single flower does not
make a spring, but A combination of a strong civil society working together
with the Afghan government to guarantee women's rights will cement their
crucial role in Afghanistan's future.
With our mutual support and careful nurturing, the advancements of the strong women of Afghanistan over the past decade can blossom into a stable, prosperous and sustainable future for the people of Afghanistan.
So we'll stand by them.
Melanne Verveer is President Obama's Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues and Donald Steinberg serves as deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
As Sunday's spectacular attack in Kabul showed, the war in Afghanistan may be winding down in Washington, but it is heating up on the ground with spring's arrival.
And in Foggy Bottom and, to a lesser degree, on Capitol Hill, a battle is on for American hearts and minds even as calls for immediate withdrawal grow louder. The objective: to keep Afghan women from falling off the political agenda while Washington and its NATO allies hunt desperately for a diplomatic solution to America's longest-ever war. As the NATO summit in Chicago approaches - and women to date still have no formal role - that fight gets more urgent.
"Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all," said Sec. of State Hillary Clinton at a luncheon for the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, an organization started under President George W. Bush to support programs benefiting Afghan women. "We will continue to stand with and work closely with Afghan women. And we will be working closely with the international community as well, because we all need to be vigilant and disciplined in our support and in our refusal to accept the erosion of women's rights and freedoms."
Former First Lady Laura Bush echoed the Secretary's comments.
"The failure to protect women's rights and to ensure their security could undermine the significant gains Afghan women have achieved," said Mrs. Bush. "No one wants to see Afghanistan's progress reversed or its people returned to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban's rule."
Clinton, Bush and their allies face an uphill fight. Today a record-high 69 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. And the recent alleged killing of unarmed Afghan civilians by an American soldier has cemented public desire to call an end to the war that began just after the attacks of September 11.
It wasn't always this way. In 2001, Washington leaders regularly invoked the plight of women, who had just endured years of Taliban rule that barred them from school and work. Afghan women became something of a cause célèbre worldwide, and the return of women to public life was seen as among the most positive byproducts of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Then-First Lady Laura Bush spoke out in support of Afghan women during a weekly presidential radio broadcast in 2001, and made high-profile visits to women's projects while visiting the country.
A decade later, members of Mrs. Bush's team acknowledge the challenge they face convincing the American public that supporting Afghan women on the way out of the country matters.
"It is hard for people to see the endgame and that is what I think contributes to the frustration," says Mrs. Bush's former chief of staff, Anita McBride. "This is not high on the radar screen because it is challenging and the solution seems so far away."
Those working closely with Sec. Clinton acknowledge the battle to keep women front and center is not easy. But they say they see an increased acknowledgment throughout the State Department and in the president's recent executive order on U.N. Resolution 1325 that women matter when it comes to peace.
"While clearly there is a strong, strong desire for the end of this (war), the big concern is the state of the women -- what happens to Afghan women and that they not somehow be forgotten," says Ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer. "There is a recognition that for the genuine end of conflict and for the ability to reconcile with whomever it is possible to reconcile with, that the women have to be a part of that."
Those who have spoken out about the need to end the war swiftly say they agree.
"I came away strongly feeling that as we do draw down there that we have to retain a focus on these gains and whatever is necessary diplomatically or through our aid, that we can't neglect women," says Rep. Niki Tsongas of a recent trip to Afghanistan. "You have to publicly continue to raise the issue. That is the very least what we can continue to do, to publicly raise the issue and the importance of just trying to protect and secure those gains."
did just that at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing with Gen. John
"The question is, as we draw down from Afghanistan over the next several years, what can we do to make sure that we don't lose the hard-fought gains for the rights of Afghan women, 50 percent of the population? And what, if any, leverage will we have as we go through this process and after our withdrawal is complete?" she asked.
But is more than rhetorical support from those who support Afghan women's progress even possible?
"It is difficult, because I think that even for those who care very deeply about the status of Afghan women there is a little bit of schizophrenia, because I think some of us recognize that whatever the future is for Afghan women, the kind of military footprint that we have in Afghanistan can't go on another decade," says Rep. Donna Edwards, who co-chairs the Afghan Women's Task Force in Congress. "I believe that it is possible for us to construct a strategy where we make those kinds of civilian investments that will enable investments where it is possible to support women entrepreneurs, to support women in education, to support women as parliamentarians, I think it is possible to do that and I don't think we have too many more options left."
So what do the women at the center of all the discussion think of all the discussion of their future? Most say they simply want to be part of the conversation about their own country, particularly as they work to elbow their way into the discussions in Chicago next month. And they want to know what, exactly, leaders of the international community means when they say to women that "we will not abandon you," as Sec. Clinton has repeatedly.
women are no more the priority for the world, that is true," says Samira Hamidi
of the Afghan Women's Network. "The
international community is in a rush for withdrawal, but at the same time they
keep repeating and pushing the theme that we will remain with you."
Hamidi says women want clarity on what, exactly, those assurances mean. Says Hamidi, "in ten years whatever has happened for women is because of the struggle and participation of women. We are still fighting for our rights, for our inclusion, to be part of decisions and to be decision makers."
What Hamidi and other women leaders say they seek are assurances that any Taliban negotiations will keep in tact the Afghan constitution of the past decade, with its guarantee of equal opportunities, including the right to work and go to school, as well as a set-aside of a quarter of parliamentary seats for women. More than two million Afghan girls are now in school, with thousands in university, and civil society leaders want them to stay there. Women also want to be at the table, not outside the room, in any diplomatic discussions that will decide their country's future shape. That starts with Chicago next month.
Women say they are not asking for favors, but to be part of their own societies. They can speak up for themselves, and they are, but they could use the backing of big-dollar international donors who will be funding their government's security forces for years to come.
"The worrying part for me in 2014 is not that the international community is leaving -- troops are leaving, they have to leave this is a reality. We can't expect them to stay in Afghanistan for years and years, but for me what is important is how powerful our own security forces will be in 2014, how responsive they will be to women's needs. Those are things that the international community can really make their funding conditional on."
Those who support Afghan women say that if the world wants to see any progress achieved in Afghanistan continue, it will support civil society leaders like Hamidi - between now and 2014, and beyond.
"Increasingly, across the board, people get the fact that this is pragmatic, that you can't get from here to there on the items all of us want to see [in Afghanistan] without women," Verveer says. "Is it a guarantee? Well, we can't write the future. None of us knows exactly what is going to happen. We are dealing with a hypothetical and the best we can all do is to make sure that everything is in place as best as it can be as this continues to go forward."
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
The Afghan government was "too busy" for International Women's Day on March 8, so it postponed official acknowledgement until the 11th. It was not a great moment to celebrate, anyway. A week earlier a council of religious scholars -- the Ulema Council -- published guidance that declared "men are fundamental and women are secondary." It called for women to travel with mahrams (male escorts), and to avoid mixing with men in offices, markets and educational facilities. The statement also said that beating a woman is only permissible with a "Shariah-compliant reason."
The Council's edicts have no legal standing, and were not unprecedented from this conservative body. What was more troubling was that the Office of the President published the statement, and President Hamid Karzai appeared to endorse it, by telling reporters that it was "in accordance with a Sharia view of our country, which all Muslims and Afghans are committed to." With women activists already anxious about the potential impact of deals with the Taliban, Karzai's words served as a sobering reminder of his poor track record on women's rights.
Concerns about the impact of a deal with the Taliban on women's rights are often dismissed with assertions that Taliban views on women are not so different from many in the government. This statement by the Ulema Council supports that viewpoint, and you'd certainly find a few former warlords nodding in agreement with it in the Cabinet and parliament.
But the conservatives in government have, for the most part, grudgingly accepted the presence of women in political life. The current environment may be hostile to women, but activists have been able to negotiate significant victories. Last year, when conservatives in government tried to take over women's shelters, women activists fought back and won. In 2010 parliamentarians and activists successfully stymied some egregious articles in a bill to regulate family law for Shia Muslims. The year before that they succeeded in pushing through a law on violence against women which made the crime of rape explicit for the first time. Progress may be slow, but it is steady, and often heroic.
Some who speak regularly to Talibs say they have become more progressive when it comes to things like women's access to education. One source admits, though, that many Talibs would still oppose the presence of women in the workplace and in politics.
Taliban hostility to women's presence in public life often came up in work I carried out in 2010, interviewing women living in de facto Taliban controlled areas, and gathering "night letters" - threat letters delivered under cover of darkness. Fatima K., (a pseudonym), lives in a southern province, where she received this letter from the Taliban in February 2010:
"We Taliban warn you to stop working otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working."
Fatima K. left her job. Others choose to ignore the threats. When Hossai, a 22- year-old Afghan aid worker in the southern city of Kandahar, received threatening phone calls from a man who said he was with the Taliban, she didn't believe it. The man had told her to stop working with foreigners. But Hossai didn't want to give up a good job with an American development company, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). Within weeks Hossai was dead. On April 13, 2010, a gunman lay in wait for her when she left the office. She was shot multiple times and died the next day.
Days after Hossai's killing, another young woman working in Kandahar, Nadia N. (a pseudonym), received a letter signed by the Taliban, which threatened her with death:
"We would warn you today on behalf of the Servants of Islam to stop working with infidels. We always know when you are working. If you continue, you will be considered an enemy of Islam and will be killed. In the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women's names are also our list."
These letters are reminders that it may not be right to treat the Taliban as just another set of conservatives. Their views on women may overlap with a significant segment of opinion in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are also a force which has become used to imposing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with violence and fear.
To express concern about the possible impact of deals with the Taliban sometimes opens you up to glib accusations that you are ‘pro-war' or ‘anti-peace.' In fact, there is no contradiction in wanting to see an end to the devastating loss of life in the conflict, welcoming a search for a political solution, while simultaneously expressing concerns about potential pitfalls and costs.
Sadly, there are many reasons to be wary at present. The Afghan government seems to lack the credibility or vision to forge a just and inclusive peace deal. And as the president's response to the Ulema Council statement illustrated, he seems unlikely to take a stand against religious conservatives in defense of women's rights. Meanwhile, it is far from clear that the Taliban have the will or the ability to forge a lasting deal, or that they would be prepared to meet the government's precondition of recognizing a (man-made) constitution with all that it enshrines, including women's equality, democracy and freedom of expression.
After the Ulema Council published their statement, I spoke with several women's rights activists in Kabul. They were dismayed, but immediately turned to strategizing about the most pragmatic means of responding. Afghanistan now has a generation of women activists who have earned a quiet confidence born of successive achievements. But if a deal with the Taliban is to avoid dramatically shrinking their space, it will require leadership from a president with the courage to recognize them as his equals.
Rachel Reid is Senior Policy Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Open Society Foundations. More of the "night letters" referred to here are also featured in an essay by Reid in a book published this week: "The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights" (Seven Stories Press).
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
On the intersection of Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed Road and Club Road -- one of the busiest traffic lights in Karachi housing two high-end five-star hotels and the head office of the biggest English newspaper in the country -- I often ran into a beggar woman who almost no one looked directly in the eyes.
My mother without looking straight at her disintegrated acid-burnt face would nod her head and recite "Astaghfirullah," Arabic for "I ask Allah forgiveness," roll down the window and place whatever change she could find in her purse on the woman's palm. Our driver, Rustam, a 20-something from Swat, would nod his head for an entirely different reason. "They bring this upon themselves for money, madam. I assure you she makes more than you do at your newspaper," he would say without a hint of empathy. But even he flinched while catching a glimpse of her deformed face.
Throwing acid on women's faces is a form of terrorism that has, with time, become accepted as part of the background noise in Pakistan -- already ranked as the third-most dangerous country for women in the world due to a barrage of threats ranging from rape and violence to dismal healthcare and honor-killings. In Pakistan, the majority of acid-attack victims are women, perpetrated against by male counterparts including husbands, fathers, sons and other male relatives for reasons as trivial as domestic disagreements to more complicated issues such as bringing "dishonor" upon the family.
Though no concrete numbers or statistics exist, independent women's rights and welfare organizations in the country have estimated that over 200 Pakistani women fall prey to acid-attacks every year because hydrochloric and sulfuric acid is widely and easily available and is very cheap. However, organizations that have used a more active method of data collection have yielded much higher rates. The Islamabad-based Progressive Women's Association has documented over 8000 deliberate acid-attacks on women just in and around the Pakistani capital of Islamabad over the past decade. Even though these attacks left their helpless female victims mutilated and scarred for life in a matter of seconds, only two per cent of the cases were successfully prosecuted in a court of law.
This not only highlights that this atrocious act of terrorism is at an all-time high in Pakistan but also how the misogyny that creates the climate for such acts can and does bleed over into the country's judicial system, which continues to fail to provide justice for the victims of acid-crimes, as the reported assailants are usually let go with minimal punishment.
But there's hope, hopefully. Pakistani Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, internationally acclaimed for her 2009 film Pakistan: Children of the Taliban and the 2007 Channel 4 series Afghanistan Unveiled, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy just brought home her -- and Pakistan's -- first Academy Award. Her documentary short-film Saving Face revolves around the stories of two women - both acid-attack survivors making arduous attempts to bring their attackers to justice with the help of the groundbreaking charitable work of London-based, Pakistani-born plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad. Through the course of the short-film, Dr. Jawad strives to help these women put their horrific pasts behind them and move on with the rest of their lives.
Going on to make Oscar history by becoming the first Pakistani to win the coveted award, Chinoy and co-director Daniel Junge's Saving Face saved the day for Pakistanis both at home and abroad. The country's prime minister has announced the highest civilian award for the filmmaker for helping Pakistan make headlines for the right reasons, for a change, and for serving as a catalyst for social progress through her work.
But amidst the fanfare, one cannot help but think how unfortunate it is that it took such a shameful subject to bring Pakistan its first Oscar, and whether this historical win and the resulting global limelight on the subject of acid-throwing in Pakistan will help bring this heinous act to an end. One cannot be certain but one can hope, for that is something this international acclaim brings for acid-victims in Pakistan fighting injustice for very many decades.
Encouragingly, efforts to fortify women's rights in Pakistan have been afoot even prior to this award. A few months back, the parliament of Pakistan adopted harsher penalties for perpetrators involved in acid crimes as the Senate passed the historical Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill along with the long-awaited Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill. Both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of the National Assembly of Pakistan, which itself is quite a mean feat for the women of Pakistan.
The acid control bill sentences perpetrators of the crime a minimum of 14 years to a lifetime of imprisonment and levies fines of up to Rs 1 million [~$11,000]. The bill also enlists major steps to control the import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid to prevent misuse and promises acid-victims legal security.
Post-win, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her team are using their website to formally launch a movement to raise awareness about acid attacks to further strengthen this newly developed legislation against acid-crimes. Posting on their website, co-director Junge says the film must be "more than an expose of horrendous crimes, it must be a recipe for addressing the problem and a hope for the future."
Saving Face is set to air on American television in the first week of March, while Chinoy and Junge also plan to screen it in Pakistan, after figuring out "the best possible way to show the film while ensuring that the women in the film are safe," said Chinoy talking to a Pakistani newspaper.
The fight to eliminate acid-crime in Pakistan has only just begun. But with the Pakistani Senate passing two crucial bills before stepping into the new year and the recent Oscar win through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Saving Face, there is tremendous hope for the women of Pakistan and the country itself. By showing that there is a Pakistan with great potential, different from how it is generally perceived, through a short documentary, Chinoy has pulled this nation out of a blackhole of dejection -- even if for just this little while.
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Portrait of Massouma Esmatey-Wardak (left), UNESCO Conference, Paris, France, 1959
"I was trouble," my grandmother said with amused satisfaction as she recounted tales of growing up in Afghanistan. "Right from the start, I gave the boys hell."
At first, the "boys" were cousins in Kandahar whom she harassed mercilessly, at the risk of a beating by her parents; then it was the men in the government whom she lobbied as the president of the Afghan Women's Council (AWC) and Minister of Education, and later it would be a group of Islamic fundamentalists whom she defied -- at the risk of death.
Massouma Esmatey-Wardak was not an exception, but an example of the freedom countenanced by women in Afghanistan. In 1959, at the advent of social reforms by Prime Minister Daud Khan under King Zahir's rule, she was among a small group of women who adopted the ban on mandatory veiling in public. Maintaining that Islam and honor were not contingent on women's seclusion, she advocated for women's rights and served on the Constitutional Advisory Committee that drafted the progressive 1964 Afghan Constitution, which enfranchised women and gave them access to education and employment. In 1965, her election to the lower house of the Afghan Parliament from the conservative province of Kandahar surprised the nation and further revolutionized the role of women. She was not the token female candidate, but rather the product of a popular vote to elect an educated and competent representative. Championing sweeping reforms that galvanized social and economic development, she became known for her steadfast commitment to women's rights, in face of societal pressures, as well as her pragmatic and frighteningly-tough character.
Massouma at a UNESCO Conference, Paris, France, 1991
As president of the AWC from 1987-1990, she made bold strides in gender equality that would characterize her leadership. Her accomplishments included income generation opportunities for women, the strengthening of women-focused civil service organizations, equal pay with men, and workplace childcare; improvements designed to integrate females, who had long been traditionally marginalized, into the public and professional sphere. She also worked to change child custody regulations that granted the father and his agnates de facto custody based upon Islamic law. By the end of her tenure at AWC, membership had expanded to 150,000 women in almost every province.
In the wake of her successes at the helm of AWC, President Najibullah Ahmadzai appointed Massouma as Minister of Education in 1990, though she was not a part of his contentious political party. Her appointment at a post formerly held by her husband, who supported her, was part and parcel of the political reformations in the country at that time. Under the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), the country was progressing socially in a way that seemed incongruous with Islam. And more than ever, Massouma was determined to secure access to education and promote literacy for women. The efforts were condemned by most Mujahideen leaders, who perceived the developments as a communist endeavor destined to obliterate Islam from the country's core values, and promote sexual anarchy. [[PAGEBREAK]]
Women's rights disintegrated in the chaos of the civil war -- and the brain drain that ensued with the exodus of educated Afghans. My family left in 1990 at the cusp of the conflict, but my grandmother stayed until 1992 to hand over the Ministry of Education (MoE) to its new leader. After the Soviet withdrawal, President Najibullah agreed to transfer power to the Mujahideen in an effort brokered by the United Nations. Headed by President Mojadeddi, the former Jihadists took key ministerial positions in the new Islamic Afghan Government. The MoE was entrusted to Mohammad Yunus Khalis, a now-notorious commander and contemporary of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who led his own Islamic party, Hezb-e-Islami Khalis. My grandmother recalled the day she met him and his staff in her office; she in her tailored skirt suit, and he and his men in the traditional shalwar kameez, ridden with lice and spitting snuff under the carpets. Her key and the future of women's education rested in Khalis' hand.
For three months, Massouma lived alone in an apartment in Kabul with factional fighters fighting above her. She witnessed the atrocities that galvanized a period of depraved lawlessness during the civil war, as young girls jumped out of windows to escape rampant sexual assault by the fighters. Some sought her out in anger and were turned away by a former staffer, who remained loyal even as the threats to her life intensified. It was eventually through him that she sent word to Hamid Karzai, then the deputy minister of foreign affairs. He assured her security and safe passage, and issued her a passport out of Afghanistan. But it was no longer a country she recognized.
The Taliban dealt the final blow to the social development and women's rights of my grandmother's generation. The current Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan maintains a sketchy record of human and women's rights, and yet 50 years ago, even women in some rural areas had access to education and healthcare. Neither my grandmother nor my grandfather was born to wealthy families with vast social capital. They came from modest families that understood the value of education -- especially for women -- as a part of Islam, not divorced from it.
Born in 1930 in Kabul, Massouma was encouraged by her parents, who were teachers, to excel in her studies, which she managed to do even as the caretaker of her six siblings when her mother fell ill. At 17 she became a teacher herself and enrolled in college to study social sciences. Her performance earned her a scholarship to study education administration at a teaching college in Illinois. Together with her husband, who would complete his master's degree in physics at Georgetown University, she came to America in 1957 and returned to Afghanistan in 1959 with high hopes of modernizing the country.
Massouma holds hands with the president of the Women's Federation of Czechoslovakia, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1988
Like most displaced immigrants, my grandmother was far removed from whom she once used to be when she died in 2007. The headstone that crowns her with a simple epitaph is a reflection of her unwavering strength today, and renders the irony of her demise from Parkinson's a particularly cruel one. An even greater dishonor to Massouma's memory would be if the achievements of powerful pioneers, like her, were stricken from the current discourse of social change in Afghanistan. They are a testament to the power and potential of Afghan women -- and that cannot be buried nor forgotten.
When it comes to women's rights, Pakistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The list of wrongs perpetrated against women, which includes honor killings, domestic violence, sexual assault and acid attacks, is disturbingly lengthy. What is unfortunate is that the current state owes as much to the lawmaking agencies of the country who have been unable to enforce justice for women as those who perpetrate the actual violence.
But tangible progress is underway. The Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011, a twice-snubbed landmark bill demanding greater social protection for women, passed this November by the Pakistan National Assembly, is a major move in the right direction. Framed and amended by Dr. Donya Aziz, the bill was unanimously passed by the lower house, which is headed by speaker Dr. Fehmida Mirza -- the first female parliamentary speaker in the Muslim world. The bill is currently awaiting approval by the Senate, but civil society, women's rights activists and NGOs are optimistic that this bill will become law.
Outside of Pakistan, the bill is being hailed as a show of collective resolve by Pakistani political parties to counter societal taboos against women, dealing with issues such as forced marriages, physical violence against women, or depriving women of their inheritance. The bill deems all of the above as crimes that can lead to three to ten years' imprisonment or a fine of up to up to RS1 million (approximately $11,400). The bill also criminalizes the practice of ‘Haq Bakhshish' -- forcing women into giving up their right to marriage by marrying them to the Quran. While not a mainstream custom and mostly practiced in the rural areas of the country to prevent the loss of property if a woman marries someone who is not a relative, Haq Bakhshish has been an eyesore for women's rights and human rights activists in Pakistan for decades.
But things aren't all that straightforward. While supporters of women's rights in Pakistan revel in the recent development, 2011 also saw a notable setback for their cause. The Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Bill, passed earlier in the year and signed by President Asif Ali Zardari before becoming the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 2011, reversed the right of women to bail. That right was granted under the Women's Protection Act 2006 and signed into law by then-President Pervez Musharraf. But come 2011 and bail can only be granted by the court, putting women again at the mercy of the criminal justice system.
Under the Women Protection Act 2006, bail became the right of a woman accused of any crime except involvement in terrorism, financial corruption and murder or a crime punishable with death, or a minimum of ten years imprisonment. More simply, they were given the right to bail without going to the courts. Mostly meant to decrease the number of women in jail, especially those accused of zina, or adultery, the WPA 2006 made it harder for the police to hold women in custody. However, with President Zardari's recent amendments, that right has been taken away.
Women's rights activists are raking President Zardari's government over the coals at the hushed, sudden, revision. According to Farzana Bari, a civil rights activist in Pakistan, women may be detained on minor offences and even as a result of family disputes, and women will need to go through court hearings before being able to be bailed out of prison, thanks to the amendment. Speaking to a local English newspaper, Bari called the move a "dangerous reversal, as more than 80 percent of the gains achieved through the Women Protection Act 2006 have been lost."
The WPA 2006 was an attempt by the then-government to amend the heavily-criticized Hudood Ordinance laws in Pakistan enacted by military dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1979, which governed the punishment for rape and adultery in the country for decades.
Take "adultery" and non-marital consensual sex as a case in point -- both criminalized by the Hudood Ordinances. For many years in Pakistan, the laws made female rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery if they could not produce four male witnesses to the assault; however, the WPA 2006 brought rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based on civil law and not Sharia (Islamic law). What that did was take away the right of law-enforcement agencies to detain people suspected of having non-marital consensual sex. Instead they were to require a ‘formal accusation' in court. Even though the amendments still treated adultery and sex outside of marriage as an offence, the judges could now deal with rape cases in criminal rather than Islamic courts. That did away with the practically impossible ‘four witnesses' requirement and allowed convictions to be made on the basis of proper circumstantial and forensic evidence.
Unfortunately, however, the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act 2011 is a giant step back, almost to the Hudood Ordinances themselves. President Zardari's government believes getting custody of the accused is critical to investigations, especially in the scenario where it becomes easier for criminals to engage women in offences, as the WPA 2006 made it easier for female criminals and their co-conspirators or those who trapped them to get out of jail quickly. However, the civil rights activists in the country remain perplexed as to why bail laws had to be reversed almost completely, especially when amendments could have been introduced to check potential misuse without ‘robbing' women of their previously hard-earned concessions.
Thus, for every step forward with women's rights in Pakistan, we take a giant step back. On the one hand, bills are signed to protect women in Pakistan from early marriages and physical abuse, while on the other, juvenile convicts detained for committing zina are exempted from being granted special remission, a standard practice around the Eid al-Fitr holiday where the President of Pakistan lessens the sentences of juvenile prisoners and others. Exempting those convicted of zina from these remittances puts them on the same level as terrorists, in the eyes of Pakistani law.
While Pakistanis both in Pakistan and in the United States appreciate the role of the Pakistan National Assembly in making this landmark legislation see the light of day, they are also skeptical over the future status of the bill and its implementation by local law enforcement agencies. Pakistani civil society groups have vowed to stage a sit-in demonstration outside the Parliament if the bill is blocked by the Senate. And while activists remain optimistic about this legislation, the fact remains that the gap between the theory of law in Pakistan and its practice has always been enormous. For now, one can only hope that the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act lives up to its name.
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
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Afghan women have long fought for a say in their country's future, but that fight has grown more urgent in the run-up to the Bonn Conference, a gathering charged with laying out a plan for Afghanistan for 2014 and beyond.
So far, women's battle to win a substantive role at Bonn - and any other peace talks that may come to the capital - has gained little traction either at home or abroad. And in the US, those backing women say they face an uphill fight convincing the Obama Administration to speak out more about the need for women's participation.
Afghan women leaders have issued press releases and formal position papers in the run-up to December's meeting demanding that civil society makes up 30 percent of Afghanistan's delegation to the Bonn Conference, with women accounting for half of that group.
The Afghan government has not yet announced its official delegation, but so far one man and one woman from civil society have been invited to Bonn, with the woman getting three minutes to address the plenary. Of the sixteen women attending a separate civil society forum, only one will have access to the official conference, according to the Institute for Inclusive Security, which recently brought Afghan women leaders to Washington to press their case on the Hill and with the Obama Administration.
"We would like to have strong participation in these processes, we would like to know what is being discussed, what is put on the table," says Orzala Ashraf, a peace activist and founder of an Afghan NGO for women and children. "We would like to ensure that these bargaining chips (in any peace process) are not women's rights or our achievements of the past ten years."
With the U.S. and its NATO allies focused on extricating themselves from Afghanistan, the task of laying out the path ahead has assumed extreme urgency for Afghans. "It is of high importance for women's groups and civil society to make sure their voices are included in any road map," says Ashraf, "in any direction that Afghanistan is going to take."
But whether those voices will be heard remains an open question.
As Human Rights Watch noted, "The Afghan government and its international backers say that women's rights are one of their ‘red lines' as they plan for the withdrawal of international forces. If this is the case, why are Afghan women struggling to get a seat at the table in Bonn?"
Those in Washington attribute part of the reason to a White House inner circle that sees the role of women as far removed from the issue of Afghan security. As the Washington Post famously noted earlier this year, women are seen as "pet rocks in our rucksack" that are "taking us down."
"These guys don't get it," said a senior administration official who has argued that women's participation is crucial for Afghanistan's stability, as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell did in 2002. "Ten years on we still have to make the case that women are additive."
As I've written in these pages, it is far from the situation of a decade ago when leaders across Washington fanned out before the cameras to speak about the importance of supporting Afghan women. After five years of Taliban rule, in which women were denied the rights to work and education and to leave their homes, the international community offered its arrival in 2001 as a new start.
Secretary of State Clinton helped women leaders win a speaking role at last year's Kabul Conference and has promised women that "we will not abandon you," but with her departure imminent and 2014 looming, talk of a Taliban return is surging.
Fears of what the Taliban's ascendance would mean for women have only grown stronger with news of the stoning death of a woman and her daughter in Ghazni Province. Assassinations of leading human rights supporters and police officials and attacks on girls schools have skyrocketed in recent years - even as talk of a peace deal with the Taliban has come to be viewed in NATO capitals as the best option for ending the war.
Some American advocates for women say any talk of Taliban negotiations is misplaced, especially given the recent assassination of former President and head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"We don't think anybody should be negotiating with the Taliban," says Esther Hyneman of Women for Afghan Women, which runs family centers and safe homes for abused women across Afghanistan. "If the Taliban wanted a role in the government, why don't they run for parliament in a democratic election? They don't want a role in the Afghan government -- they want the Afghan government."
Women's group leaders say that just like in the 1990s, when they lobbied to stop the Clinton Administration from recognizing the Taliban government, they will not stand by quietly while women half a world away are denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights to work and education. They note that Afghan women are making progress for themselves, pointing to the rising number of girls attending school, as well as female midwives, police officers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, civil society activists, parliamentarians and educators as evidence.
"We will keep the pressure on and support women in any way we can," says Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which helped to lead the fight against Washington's recognition of the Taliban in 1996. "There is now a huge network of non-profit organizations within Afghanistan and we are talking to them and they are taking the lead. What we can do is continue to put pressure on the U.S. government not to agree to anything that omits half the population."
Yet some wonder just how committed the White House is to supporting women's participation in their country. The President has not spoken often about Afghanistan - and far less about the country's women.
"Perhaps the tremendous unpopularity of the war puts [President Obama] in an awkward position," says activist Mavis Leno, wife of talk show host Jay Leno and one of the women who put the issue on America's map -- and in PEOPLE Magazine in 1998 -- after the Taliban came to power in 1996. "I don't think he is doing as much as he could."
Hyneman goes further:
"I am at my wit's end at the lack of discussion by the media, by our government, by our president on the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan." Of Obama, Hyneman says, "I am appalled that he has not mentioned Afghan women's rights since his speech on withdrawing US troops."
Women's activists say they are watching closely to see exactly what the Afghan government -- with support from the United States -- agrees to in any peace deal.
"I just don't understand why the fate of these women has to be considered as special pleading," Leno says. "Are we just going to stand back and see this happen again? Women were making it a little way up the hill; can we at least make sure that they don't slide back down again?"
They say they share Americans' desire to end the country's longest war, but that a peace that leaves women out will not last.
"We are in favor of peace, but this is not the road to peace, it is the road to bloodshed and subjugation and civil war, a repeat of the years past," Hyneman says. "Everyone will be sitting in front of their TV sets wringing their hands as we see women brutalized."
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Less than a month after the horrible attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, in a quest to find Osama bin Laden and punish the Taliban for harboring him.
At the time, women's progress was touted as both a reason for and a powerful and positive product of the U.S. invasion. But while Washington showered attention on the plight of Afghan women going into the war, officials have gone largely silent on the fate of Afghan women as they look to its exit.
In November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush took to the airwaves on behalf of her husband -- marking the first time a president's wife has delivered the entire President's weekly radio address on her own -- to highlight the plight of Afghan women and girls.
"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," Mrs. Bush said.
"Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists...In Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us."
She concluded, "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped." The State Department issued an accompanying report on the Taliban's "War Against Women," which stated that "restricting women's access to work is an attack on women today."
A month later, the President himself signed the "Afghan Women and Children Relief Act" and pledged that "America and our allies will do our part in the rebuilding Afghanistan. We learned our lessons from the past. We will not leave until the mission is complete."
In signing the bill, which funded health and education programs for Afghan women and children, the President told reporters that, "a central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women, and not only the women of Afghanistan. The terrorists who helped rule Afghanistan are found in dozens of countries around the world, and that is the reason this great nation with our friends and allies will not rest until we bring them all to justice."
President Bush even brought the first Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs, Sima Samar, to his first post-9/11 State of the Union.
"The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school," Bush said. "Today women are free, and are part of Afghanistan's new government."
Later in his speech, the President said that "We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance."
And the Bush Administration was hardly alone in embracing the cause of Afghanistan's women in the context of America's fight for justice. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton also shined her powerful spotlight on the women whose lives changed with the American invasion.
"Thanks to the courage and bravery of America's military and our allies, hope is being restored to many women and families in much of Afghanistan," Clinton wrote in TIME Magazine.
And then she went further. "There is an immoral link between the way women were treated by the oppressive Taliban in Afghanistan and the hateful actions of the al-Qaeda terrorists," Clinton said. "The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for that war-torn nation."
Noted Clinton, "We, as liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban in Afghanistan. We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist regime."
Now, a decade later, talk of bringing terrorists to justice has given way to talk of Taliban reconciliation. No one sees another answer when it comes to ending America's longest-ever war. And, simultaneously and not surprisingly, nearly all talk of women has faded from hearing.
President Barack Obama offered no mention of women in his 2009 West Point speech on the war in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, in a telling quote to journalist Rajiv Chandrasekran, a senior administration official said, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities...There's no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."
Privately, State Department officials I speak with say they are doing what they can, but acknowledge that Secretary Clinton's fight to keep women in the conversation about what comes next in Afghanistan is a lonely one. The upcoming 2012 presidential race looms large for Obama's policy and political staff. And with Clinton already promising to leave her post at the end of next year, Afghan women are losing their largest advocate within the Obama administration.
Today the question which looms large is, will women's rights be negotiated away in the quest to reach a graceful exit - or, in fact, any kind of exit, in Afghanistan? And if successful negotiations with the Taliban are a desirable inevitability for the United States, what are the lines (if any) that the U.S. must not cross if America is to keep Clinton's pledge to Afghan women that they will not be abandoned once more?
Women received much attention going into the war in Afghanistan. A new generation seized the opportunities created by the international community's presence to serve as midwives, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, governors, army officers and civil society leaders. Today they fear a return to a time in which the world sat by while their government stripped them of their rights to work, to be educated, and to leave their homes unaccompanied.
The international community now seems to see Afghan women as unfortunate collateral damage along the path to peace, not valuable contributors who make stability possible. Meanwhile, women are fighting for a voice in the upcoming Bonn conference and a say in their future, including on the team negotiating with the Taliban for the country's future. Women I talk to say they try not to be despondent, but it is not easy to be hopeful given the facts on the ground and the talk of the future.
"Only Afghans can determine the future government of their country," the State Department said in its 2001 Taliban report. "And Afghan women should have the right to choose their role in that future."
Those words remain true today.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Speaking in Chennai on Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure a worried India that the United States has no plan to cut and run when it comes to Afghanistan, no matter how ready the American public may be to end its longest-ever war.
"I want to be very clear. The United States is committed to Afghanistan and to the region. We will be there," Clinton said, acknowledging India's concern that Pakistani influence on the country will grow while the U.S. presence recedes. "Yes, we are beginning to withdraw combat troops and transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan people, a process that will be completed in 2014, but drawing down our troops is not the same as leaving or disengaging."
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On Tuesday, Hina Rabbani Khar became the first woman and the youngest parliamentarian ever in Pakistan's history to hold the post of Foreign Minister.
Does this mean that we start cheering? No.
Women like Hina Rabbani Khar may be educated, hardworking parliamentarians, but their elevation to their jobs has been through their political influence, rather than their skills or political knowledge. Khar, for instance, is a talented restaurant owner (anyone who has eaten at the Polo Lounge in Lahore can testify to that), and reportedly a skilled mountain climber, but she has never publicly campaigned to win an election. Her election as member of the National Assembly has been on the basis of her last name and her feudal lineage -- as part of the Khar family, her father is a politician, her uncle was Punjab's Chief Minister in the 1970s -- as opposed to her popularity amongst the masses, or her achievements as a restaurant owner, or as deputy finance minister in the Musharraf regime. As part of the political elite, Khar's elevation to Foreign Minister has very little to do with women's rights, and more perhaps, to do with the lack of candidates that the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) could call on to be the next Foreign Minister, five months after sacking Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Secondly, it is widely accepted that the civilian government controls very little of foreign policy, and has ceded most of their control over it to the men in Rawalpindi. From relations with India to the United States, it is believed that the Pakistan Army's General Headquarters (GHQ) that is calling the shots. Khar, in her position, will most likely be an administrator, and not a visionary.
Third -- women MPs being elevated to positions of power has rarely translated into real action and change for the women of Pakistan.
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first woman and the youngest parliamentarian to hold the post of Prime Minister. During her two stints in office, the PPP-led government was unable to change the Hudood Ordinance, a draconian law from the time of dictator Zia ul-Haq that deprived rape victims of their rights. Indeed, the government contained coalition partnersthat included religious parties violently opposed to any changes in the Ordinance.
This is not to knock the women MPs that are serving in both the National and Provincial Assemblies. Following a change in the number of reserved seats for women in parliament by the Musharraf regime, now nearly 22 percent of parliamentarians are women. Repeatedly, women parliamentarians such as Sherry Rehman and Farahnaz Ispahani from the PPP have pushed for laws against the sexual harassment of women and the persecution of minorities. The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's (PML-N) Tehmina Daultana took the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha to task when he was testifying in the National Assembly about the presence of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
In the provincial assemblies, parliamentarians like Sassi Palijo (also from a political family) have won on general seats as opposed to seats reserved solely for women in the province of Sindh, and have publicly campaigned for votes. The PPP's Firdous Ashiq Awan has been elected on a general seat in Punjab, and is currently serving as Information Minister. She may have resigned now, but the PML-Q parliamentarian Marvi Memon cemented her reputation by being more than her father's daughter, by working simultaneously on a number of political issues and raising awareness for a number of causes -- from flood victims to rights of workers. The fact that they have managed to do so much in the light of obvious slights and terrible insults, such as when former president Pervez Musharraf intimated that women used rape claims for money or to obtain visas, is heartening. Let us also not forget that some of the most opposition they face is from within their own parties -- male chauvinists who'd prefer to see women behind closed doors, who would block legislation in parliament rather than allow women their rights, or would announce women being buried alive as part of their "tradition."
Despite this, Khar's election is not the time to wave the banner for a moderate Pakistan, or for the PPP to boast about its liberal credentials. When Khar gets elected on a general seat on her own merit, is allowed to publicly campaign without threats to her life, and is given a ministerial portfolio on merit, you can hand me a banner. Until then, let us reserve the optimism for another day.
Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Express News in Washington DC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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A recent report by Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Afghanistan to "ensure that all those who agree to the reconciliation process have made explicit their acceptance of the constitutional guarantees of equality for men and women."
This is in reference to the planned dual processes of reconciliation, negotiations with high-level insurgent commanders, and reintegration, encouragement of lower level fighters to give up their arms.
However, how the government of Afghanistan is expected to achieve this is unclear. The weaknesses of the Karzai government and its many failures to adhere to the constitution in the past are mentioned several times in the report (specifically, pages 6, 34, and 43), as are the inherent contradictions in pursuing reconciliation with insurgent groups that are clearly ideologically opposed to any law that contradicts their version of Islamic law.
As activist Wazhma Frogh tells HRW, "President Karzai himself has done many things against the Afghan constitution. There have been hundreds of things -- including illegal things -- that were against the constitution. What was the result? Nothing happened." If the government itself does not have a strong record of upholding the constitution, how can it be expected to do so after bringing the Taliban into the fold?
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