Khadija was 23-years old when she set herself on fire in December 2017. She had a three-month old baby but still she set herself alight. Such was the horror of her life as a young wife and mother in Afghanistan. A victim of domestic abuse, physically and emotionally, she survived third degree burns. “I am not alive, but I am not dead.” Khadija says. “Women are all handcuffed in this country.”
Her story, reported in TIME Magazine last December, is not atypical. Here’s another provided by an advocate in Kabul who says that because of her work she “could be killed at any moment.” Just before her 16th birthday, a young woman who was to be married to her cousin, tried to jump off a sixth-floor balcony. She said that her uncle – father of the groom - had been raping her since she was 10 years old.
These stories, and many others, illustrate why women attempt or commit suicide in such high numbers in a country where an estimated 3,000 people kill themselves every year, 80 percent of whom are women.
Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world for women to survive. Many of them die in pregnancy or childbirth, 85 percent have no formal education and are illiterate, and their life expectancy is 51. Forced marriage is the norm, usually before age 18. In 2012, 240 honor killings were reported but the real number is likely higher.
Under Taliban rule (1996 to 2001), women were controlled to such a degree that they were rendered invisible. They could be stoned to death for minor infractions of Taliban law. They could not leave their homes without a male relative, attend school, shop, or show their ankles. Widows were forced to beg, and then beaten for it.
Now, Afghanistan’s 2015 National Action Plan says it will offer equal rights for women, a commitment that Democratic senators are urging the Trump administration to ensure as peace negotiations proceed.
A Taliban spokesman has said that “if peace comes and the Taliban returns, [it will not be] in the same harsh way as it was in 1996.” He added that while the Taliban weren’t against women’s education or employment, they wanted to “maintain cultural and religious codes,” adding, “we will be against the alien culture clothes worn by women and brought to our country.” Does that signal the return of blue burqas?
A Gallup survey conducted last summer revealed notably low levels of optimism in the country. While findings were not disaggregated by gender, we know that Afghan women suffer disproportionately in a country ranked the worst place in the world to be female.
“It hurts me to say this but the situation is only getting worse,” says Jameela Naseri, a lawyer at the NGO Medica Afghanistan, an arm of the German-based Medica Mondiale, which helps women and girls in crisis zones. She calls what happens to women in Afghanistan “a war on women.”
An Afghan diplomat promised anonymity told a journalist recently that “the government wants to say they’re prioritizing women, but they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption.”
Last February, Afghanistan passed a criminal code hailed by the UN Assistance Mission there as a milestone. But one chapter of the code was removed before the law was passed. It was the one penalizing violence against women.
In a recent piece on Radio Free Europe, reporter Frud Bezhan noted that, “With increased talk of peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban is projecting itself as a more moderate force….The Taliban said in a statement issued on February 4 that it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights – under Islam – and ‘in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.’”
But in the same statement, Bezhan said, “the Taliban also suggested it wants to curtail the fragile freedoms gained by women since the U.S.-led invasion…prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners.”
That concern is legitimate. The Taliban has denounced “so-called women’s rights activists” and has said that “due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women’s rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women’s rights. Under the name of women’s rights, there has been work for immorality, indecency, and the promotion of non-Islamic cultures.”
No wonder Afghan women are worried. Says activist Samira Hamidi, “According to the Taliban, we are so-called activists who are responsible for poor health, lack of education, and violence against women.”
“We are not turning back,” promises Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament. “Anyone who wants to do politics [here] needs to respect the human freedoms, including the rights of women.
Adds Jameela Naseri, “Afghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us.”
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