As US Draws Down, Afghanistan’s Women Weigh Uncertain Future

WPRWhen Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in late March, he suggested that “one day we’ll see an Afghan woman president.” His remarks came only a few days after a scene of horror had unfolded in Kabul –  by Frida Ghitis, Heidi Kingstone

A 27-year-old Afghan woman and theology student named Farkhunda had been tortured in an ordeal that lasted for two hours. Hundreds of people watched, including the police, who stood by without interven- ing. The enraged crowd accused her – falsely, as it turned out – of having burned a Quran. They ultimately set her on fire and tossed her into the Kabul River to drown.

As the American presence in Afghanistan winds down, the question of what the future holds for Afghan women is a source of growing anxiety for the country’s female population. How that question is ultimately answered will help determine the long-term effectiveness of the U.S. intervention and provide lessons for other efforts to transform war-torn, conservative societies like Afghanistan’s Women’s rights still hang in the balance, and there is no certainty about whether Af- ghanistan will indeed become a place where a woman has a chance of becoming president, or remain one where women’s lives routinely end in tragedy.

The aftermath of Farkhunda’s death provided one reason for optimism. The horror galvanized Afghan women in a way that nothing else has. Afraid of what the future might hold, they took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. In a departure from tradition, a group of women, protected by a cordon of men, carried the coffin of the theology student, who became a symbol of the grim realities of life in Afghanistan.

There are, however, also reasons for deep concern. A recent Amnesty International report shows evidence of a concerted effort to reverse Afghan women’s recent gains. Female activists are under violent at- tack, and Afghan authorities’ failure to respond suggests a lack of commitment to the rights enshrined in Afghanistan’s constitution as well as to the legislation meant to bolster them, including the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women have risked their lives in the fight for their rights, but they still face endemic violence, honor killings, discrimination and rape. With the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops, Afghanistan’s stability and progress, including the status of women’s rights, look increasingly precarious, as Ghani’s un- certain political coalition faces a persistent insurgency and a collapsing economy.

There are, nonetheless, some important signs of progress. The flourishing of Afghan media, one of the country’s success stories, was fundamental in the spontaneous mobilization around Farkhunda’s death. Footage was shared on smart phones and social media, while television and radio quickly broadcast what had happened, which meant the men who committed the crime and those who supported it could not hide behind the usual excuse of American conspiracies or meddling foreigners.

The growth of the media in Afghanistan has led to greater awareness of what is going on inside and outside the country day-to-day. And it has introduced new faces to the public: Television viewers will soon see “Shereen’s Law,” a drama featuring a strong female lead battling a hostile judicial system.

Another positive development is the newfound visibility for women, who are now seen regularly in the public sphere in roles that range from presenting the news to working in government and running busi- nesses. As a result, Lauryn Oates, the programs director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, is convinced “that they are there to stay.”

Yet recent efforts by international development organizations, working with the Afghan government, have been badly hampered by mismanagement and waste, as shown by a U.S. government audit of an ambitious plan by the United States Agency for International Development to help Afghan women. The program aimed to boost women’s skills and participation in the economy and in government, but much of the money was spent ineffectively. As Rula Ghani, President Ghani’s wife, noted, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

Education is a good example of quantity over quality. While more than 3 million Afghan girls now attend school, many cannot read and write. Often teachers have no qualifications, and half of the country’s children get no education at all.

Still, one cannot deny the meaningful and dramatic progress since the U.S. intervention toppled the Taliban. In 2001 there were essentially no girls in school. The very fact that educating girls is now common implies an acceptance that they are entitled to a better future.

This could help combat the widespread social resistance, particu- larly in far-flung provinces, to improving the social status of Afghan women. In large parts of Afghanistan, especially in the south, most women still live in a rural, ultra-conservative patriarchal society and are seldom able to leave their homes.

Improvements in health care have also made a difference, allowing women to focus on more than their own basic survival. One of the areas of most significant improvement is the maternal mortality rate. In 2002, Afghanistan had one of the highest ratios in the world, with 1,600 women dying in pregnancy or childbirth for every 100,000 births. The number of deaths has been cut by three-quarters, to 400 per 100,000 births.

And yet, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

On balance, the Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid sees cause for muted optimism. Women are already well-positioned to reap the benefits of economic growth and continuetheir push for more social inclusion, he told us. But economic growth requires stability, which has been in short supply for much of Afghani- stan’s recent history.

The future of Afghan women will depend, to a large degree, on what happens to the entire country. If Afghanistan unravels again into war- fare, or falls back into the hands of a regime with a Taliban-style ide- ology, the prospects for women will be dismal. If peace and prosperity gain the upper hand, Afghan women can look forward to victories in their struggle to improve their living conditions and their social status—and they may dare to dream that, as President Ghani suggested, one day an Afghan woman could become president.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

*Heidi Kingstone is a foreign correspondent who reported from Afghanistan for 18 months. Her book, “Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe,” will be published on May 5.

Afghan women attend a literacy course supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund, Bamyan, Afghanistan, April 29, 2008 (U.N. photo by Sebastian Rich).

Want to know more? Subscribe to World Politics Review to get new articles daily.