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In Afghan war, everyone forgot about women's rights

Suhasini Haidar http://suhasinih

Updated: July 22, 2012, 12:05 PM IST
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As shots rang out, the woman fell with a thud. No cries for help or mercy, and no attempt to flee her fate. As a man pumped in more bullets, firing nine times at close range, her blue burkha became her shroud as she lay on the ground. More startling was the reaction of all who watched. Around 150 men of Najiba's village, just about 100 km from Kabul, cheered, shouted religious slogans and filmed the gruesome scene.

While many worldwide have condemned the killing, the reaction has been one of acceptance; that this is not just how the Taliban operates, but how Afghanistan has been for centuries, and can't be changed. But nothing can be further from the truth, as in fact through much of the 20th century, until a series of foreign interventions, Afghanistan was changing, and women did have a better existence in the country.

The first Afghan ruler to establish a recognised modern state was Emir Abdul Rahman Khan. During his rule (1881-1901) he abolished many anti-women laws, giving women property rights, divorce rights and ending the practice of forcing widows to marry their deceased husband's next of kin (called baad, like the Punjabi practise of 'chadar chadhana'). His wife, Bobo Jan, was the first Afghan queen to appear in public without a veil, and often served as a political mediator for him. His son who succeeded him, Amir Habibullah Khan, furthered his focus on women's rights, establishing the first school for girls.

When Khan was assassinated in 1919, his son Amanullah drove an even more progressive agenda, giving Afghanistan its first constitution (1923) that enshrined equal rights for men and women. He married Soraya Tarzi, the daughter of Afghanistan's most respected moderniser, Mahmud Tarzi. In a dramatic moment recorded in history books, Amanullah once finished a public rally by announcing that Islam did not insist on the veil, and then Soraya removed hers on the stage, prompting other women in the audience to do the same. Amanullah's sister too founded a group for women's protection. Many of his reforms were pushed back by clerics and the Loya Jirga, and Amanullah was sent into exile, but Afghanistan's rulers continued down that path of women's empowerment for the next few decades. They were encouraged to get an education and go to work through the 1930s and 1940s. In 1964, women were granted the right to vote, and entered politics.

As a result, by the 1970s, 40% of doctors, 70% of teachers and 30% of the civil service were women. The figures were true of Kabul more than the rural areas; even so, there was reason to hope. That hope was destroyed by the rivalry between the US and Soviet Russia, and the consequent role of Pakistan and Iran. Russia invaded Afghanistan and set up a communist regime in 1979, by which time the US had started to arm the mujahideen. The birth of the Taliban was as much a reaction to Soviet rule as it was part of US policy to, in the words of former US NSA Brzezinski, "give Russia their Vietnam". Instead, they both gave Afghan women their worst days.

Unpopular reforms by the Soviets, forcing women out of veils and out of their homes for party meetings led to a conservative backlash that bolstered the Taliban. When the mujahideen drove the Russians out a decade later, and the Taliban seized power in 1996, women's rights were set back by more than a century. Much like they did this month, then too, the world watched in shocked but helpless horror as a woman was executed in full public view.

According to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, that's because the international community and the Karzai government have been so focused on the Nato pullout and reconciling with the Taliban, they've turned a blind eye to women. In the past four months, the AIHRC received reports of 52 honour killings and summary executions, up from 20 in the same period last year. Women leaders too are more threatened. This month, minister for women's affairs in Laghman province, Hanifa Safi, was assassinated, targeted for not wearing the veil. Presidential candidate for 2014, Fawzia Koofi has already survived several attempts by the Taliban to kill her. In her book The Favoured Daughter, she warns the international community against pulling out troops in 2014 or allowing the Taliban back into parliament, adding in an article, "One of the biggest myths is that democracy was forced on Afghanistan by the west after 2001."

The other big myth is that women's empowerment is also a new, western-inspired concept for Afghanistan. Guaranteeing the rights of women like Najiba, the silent victim in the execution video, shouldn't just be a goal for the international community; it is a duty.

Once upon a time: A photo essay on

First Published: July 22, 2012, 12:05 PM IST

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