Women's Oppression is the Rule of Law

Gulalai Habib
Volunteer Coordinator
Afghan Women's Network


March 08, 2000 - Was International Woman's Day, but in Afghanistan it's just another day for females who endure the continuing terror exerted by Taliban rulers.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Asia with a population of about 20 million. Because of its mountainous topography, it has been divided into several different village communities, each surrounded by jagged and high snow-clad mountains.

These have to a large extent determined a strict observance of indigenous cultural values.

Afghanistan is a party to a number of United Nations charters and covenants including the Convention on the Rights of the Children, with qualifications concerning possible conflict with shariah (Islamic law) principles and custom. It was signatory in 1990 to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has not ratified it.

Afghanistan ranks last among 130 nations in the UN gender development index and last in the gender empowerment measure on the basis of women's share in decision making by active participation in economic and political life.

In the history of Afghanistan, women have played a vital role. We have been celebrated in history as patriotic, strong-willed, and brave both inside and outside the house. During the past two decades, women have participated in the war against Soviet occupation that ended in 1989.

Historically, government support for women in Afghanistan has never been certain; steps forward appear always to be followed by steps backward. The first spokesman for women's rights was Amir Abdur Rahman (1820) known as Iron Amir. He forbade child marriages and forced marriages and he supported inheritance and divorce rights for women.

Further, official efforts to improve the status of women were made by his grandson, King Amamulla Khan (1919-1929). These included the establishment of the first girls' primary schools, granting rights for men and women to choose their own marriage partners, encouraging women to establish their own women's association and banishing the veil.

During the 1950s, opportunities for women were significantly increased, including access to higher education and universities. In 1964, the government decreed that both men and women had equal rights and obligations before the law. Excellent schools for girls, medical facilities for women and training opportunities were provided.

From then on women were intellectually and technically ready to take their places in a variety of positions. There were women in the police force, in the army, in business, in industry and in all government departments up to the ministerial level.

The April revolution sought to take further steps, largely by challenging traditional practices. It prohibited bride price and limited dowries; banned forced marriages and introduced minimum ages of consent to marry -- 16 for girls and 18 for boys. There were prices to pay for such progress, such as sending women for the first time to jails or torture for political ties with opposition forces. Values and practices of tribal rural society were challenged, which caused rejection and resistance for many families, who sought refuge in neighbouring countries and joined forces against the communists.

Every step forward for Afghan women was met with resistance, usually cloaked "in the name of Islam". The Jihad movement, which finally ousted the Soviets, was one exception and today, for many men, the mere mention of opportunities for women brings back bitter memories of Soviet violations, not only physical violations against women, but also violations against the traditional values seen to maintain the purity of women. Progress for women has been seen and still is by many, to be "corrupting, western, and un-Islamic."

Afghanistan's constitution, which guaranteed fundamental rights to women, was suspended in April 1992 when the Mujahideen took power in Kabul. With the end of central authority in Afghanistan in 1992, the warring factions played havoc with the lives of thousands of defenseless women and children, creating one of the world's greatest human rights catastrophes.

Thousands died or were wounded in artillery attacks apparently aimed at residential areas. Civilians, particularly women and children, became the victims of armed conflict. Women and girls were abducted, raped or tortured by rival ethnic political groups.

Rape and other sexual assaults have been used as tools of war, targeted at women as a tactic in terrorizing and humiliating a civilian population. Many women and girls were slashed or hacked to death. Many women committed suicide rather than endure this invasion which has devastating effects on communities, particularly in tradition societies or very religious communities.

These human rights violations of unarmed civilian women were committed with impunity. The constitution was suspended and law has no meaning. The judicial structures have been destroyed. Warlords observe no codes, and there is little prospect of bringing any of the perpetrators to justice.

These appalling conditions have prevented women in Afghanistan from exercising their fundamental rights, including the right to association, freedom of expression and employment.

Millions of Afghans became refugees in neighbouring countries, and many more are internally displaced Women and children are traumatized by the horrific abused they have suffered or witnessed. 

Mothers have been forced to watch their young daughters being raped. Children have witnessed their parents being beaten of killed.

The tales of sorrow do not end on arrival at the refugee camps, where many are still not safe from attack by military groups controlling the camp. With the lack of adequate education, and any kind of vocational training, Afghan children are exposed to drugs and terrorism.

The Taliban movement's control of the capital Kabul in September of 1996 has brought the most stringent controls of all. Women are denied rights to paid employment outside the home, except within the health sector; to free association; to choose matters of personal dress and transportation. Even small girls are no longer permitted to go to school.

Many of the young Taliban "religion students" were never acculturated in Afghan traditional and tribal values. They have never lived in normal communities, and since early childhood, have not been exposed to women such as their mothers and sisters. Women are seen as evil, with powers that have to be curbed. At best they are machines of procreation, and men's comfort.

In its drive to restore 12th-century Islamic fundamentalism, the Taliban has launched one of the greatest assaults on womanhood in history.

While the Taliban has repressed women, its holy warriors have not abused them sexually, as their predecessors in the Mujahideen armies were frequently accussed of doing, However, rape is now disguised in the form of forced marriages that include girls as young as eight or nine years old, widows and, in some cases, even married women.

By July 1997, a directive was issued that no further female patients could be admitted anywhere other than one central women's hospital. That hospital does not have the means or the capacity to provide adequate quality care due to a lack of basic facilities such as sanitation and surgical facilities.

It was only after several weeks of extreme pressure by the aid community that women's access to health services was reinstated in segregated wards. In the interim, several women with serious cases of burns, injuries, abdominal abscesses and fractures had been shifted by desperate families from hospital to hospital, and, as a result of repeated refusal of treatment, had died pointless and unnecessary deaths.

In the most urban areas of Afghanistan, women have virtually disappeared. After the faces disappeared, their voices were banned. A woman must have her brother, her husband, or her father to speak to the shopkeeper so she will not excite him with the sound of her voice.

By March 1997, there was only one thing left to silence their feet. Women were forbidden to wear heeled shoes under their mobile tent (burgas) because it distracted men. Now they shuffle through city's muddied streets in their ordained slippers.

The only place where women are welcomed is the Kabul stadium to witness public executions and amputations. 

Female oppression remains to perpetuated in political, economic and civil structures of society. A total of more than one half of the estimated population of just over 20 million people - some 10 million women and girls - are denied freedom of access to education, to work, to even adequate hospital care. It is difficult not to view such extremist values as anything short of "gender cleansing".

The UN estimated in 1995 that Afghanistan ranked 170 out of 174 countries on the global development scale. Eighty per cent of the population lives in the countryside, where only five per cent have access to clean drinking water.

Sixty per cent of the Kabul's population is female. Many of these women have the education and skills necessary to help rebuild a country whose infrastructure was destroyed by bombs and who professional class fled in droves after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

In many areas of Afghanistan, both before the war and now, women have played an integral role in the productive aspects of rural and urban life. In rural areas, women's work has included responsibility for livestock, for horticulture and for working the land. THey have also been involved in the production of traditional crafts that generate income for their families.

The Taliban's prohibition of female employment is detrimental to Afghanistan's economic survival. Women are vital to the country's economic growth and prosperity.

The death of a large number of young and able-bodied men in endless combats has left a large number of widows, women with disabled family members, as well as a large number of unmarried girls responsible for their families.

The UN estimates that more than 150,000 women in Kabul have been barred from paid employment including about 30,0000 war widows who are the sole income earners for their families. They cannot support themselves because they can no longer work, and even bread supplied by aid groups must go to men.

Women who go out alone risk beatings by the religious police. Non-compliance, even in the matter of dress, risks brutal humiliating beatings. Their lives are miserable. Most of them sold their household items and teachers, doctors, engineers and lawyers have resorted to begging. Indeed, half of Kabul's population is out on the street begging.

The Taliban promotes itself as representing "the true Islam", yet its vision of women in Islam has no basis in the Koran. The Holy Book endorsed equal rights for women and men some 1,400 years ago, including women's right to contribute to the economy.

A woman, who used to work outside the home before the Taliban came, told me about her life. Her husband is a driver who goes to work at 6 a.m. and doesn't return until 7:30 p.m.

"After the Taliban came, I could not go to work and I cannot go to bazaar either because I don't have chadori [an over-all enveloping robe] and I can't afford to buy it because it is too expensive."

"One day I saw that we were running out of everything and I decided to go to the bazaar and buy what we needed. I wore a bit chaddar [shawl] with hijab [a long coat] and black socks and covered by face."

"But when I went out and bout some onions, four Talibs came up to me and asked why didn't you wear your chadori . They started to beat me with a cable or hose.. and they hit me twice. I became crazy. I lost control of my actions. I started to beat the Talibans with the onions.

"During the beating, two other Taliban who were farther away came up to help their friends. I started throwing the onions as hard as I could at them. I threw the onions so hard that they ran away. The people surrounding us were laughing and making fun of the Taliban."

She smiled and added, "When you think of the women in Afghanistan, remember the onion."

Gulalai Habib, who moved here seven months ago, is a counselor with the Burnaby Multicultural Society who helped form the Afghan Women's Network. An engineer and computer programmer by training, Habib worked for the United Nations Development Program in Afghanistan. When the office closed in 1992 and relocated to Pakistan, Habib moved as well and remained for six years and remained for six years before immigrating to Canada.