Fatima Gailani was 27 years old when she was thrust into the limelight as a spokesperson for the Afghan mujahideen during their ‘jihad’ against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation.
Beautiful and articulate, the Afghan aristocrat played a vital role in drawing the world’s attention to the events taking place in her country.
This was, of course, long before the Taliban usurped the rights of women and relegated them to life in obscurity.
Gailani’s father, Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, was the founder of the Mahaz-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Front) party, and one of the leaders of the ‘holy war’ against the Soviets.
She says that it was her father who urged her to get involved: “He told me that the door for women would soon close and it would need a strong foot to keep it ajar.”
As the only Afghan woman at the time to assume a very visible political role, Gailani was vilified by some conservative elements in society, but nothing would dissuade her from supporting Afghan liberation and serving as an example to fellow Afghan women.
Clock ‘turned backward’
Following the defeat of the Soviets, civil war broke out among the mujahideen, paving the way for a takeover by the Taliban movement.
During 20 years of exile in London, Gailani watched from afar as decades of homespun social progress unraveled in her home country.
“During the reign of Zahir Shah [the former king], it didn’t occur to me that I should be aware of my gender at all,” recalls Gailani, sitting in the garden of her home in a well-guarded residential area of Kabul.
“I knew that in the villages and other provinces it wasn’t the same, but in Kabul, whether you were a man or a woman, if you achieved well in your education, there was a place for you in government. It was during the war that I became aware of gender disparities.”
Helena Malikyar, an Afghan historian and an expert on Afghan state-building, points out that the downturn in the fate of Afghan women did not begin with the advent of the Taliban and claims that it was certain extremist groups among the mujahideen who “systematically turned the clock backward on the women of Afghanistan”.
“In Bonn [where the post US-led invasion government was formed in 2001] and through subsequent political formulations sponsored by the UN and the US, the same groups and leaders became part of the power structure. So, how could one hope for the pro-women rhetoric to become visible in practice?” she asks.
While post-Taliban Afghanistan did bring some improvements to the lot of women, these changes may not have taken root in Afghan society.
Gailani concedes that there are “lots of women in parliament and the ministries”, but wonders whether this is a genuine mark of progress or simply a condition of the government that was formed in Bonn.
“As much as it was the will of the women within Afghanistan, these changes also came from our donors. It was a condition,” explains Gailani, who holds a masters degree in Islamic Jurisprudence from London’s Muslim College.
“That’s why we must now reconcile these two eras and help the women bring these changes in an Afghan way rather than an imported way.”
Hossan Banu Ghazanfar, Afghanistan’s fourth minister for women’s affairs since the fall of the Taliban, agrees that change must begin “at the cultural level”.
According to the ministry’s own statistics, the average Afghan woman has a lifespan of 44 years, which is 20 years short of the global average.
Their low life expectancy is attributed to the high rate of underage marriages and frequent births, which contribute to an extremely high incidence of maternal mortality.
There is also widespread violence against women, notably so-called ‘honor killings’, an issue that is not properly addressed mainly because it is viewed by some as an aspect of Afghan ‘tradition’.
Ghazanfar, who holds a PhD in linguistics and served as dean of the literature faculty at Kabul University, cites two main reasons for violence against women in Afghanistan.
“First, the [poor] economic condition of the family. Second, some cultural and traditional [customs] that are neither legal nor religious but people practice it,” she says.
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To help these women, the ministry has set up legal offices providing victims with legal advice in Kabul and other provinces.
There are, however, no such offices in districts and villages, where violent incidents are far more common. Moreover, the legislation required to safeguard the rights of women and prohibit abuse has yet to be passed.
“Since the new law outlaws traditional practices, we expect opposition from traditional forces in parliament,” says Ghazanfar. “But we have started working with members to help us get support in parliament.”
The women’s affairs ministry has, over the years, been criticised for its inefficiency in spearheading and consolidating the advances made in securing women’s rights.
Malikyar, who has worked on several UN and governmental projects in Afghanistan since 2001, believes that the ministry has been acting “as a big NGO, not as a policy-making source or an advocate of mainstreaming women into all aspects of the state programmes and functions”.
Ghazanfar, for her part, attributes the lack of progress on women’s issues to the absence of clear-cut policies, but she believes that a new 10-year “action plan”, approved in cabinet last year and affirmed by the 2008 donors’ conference in Paris, will mark a turning point.
But most Afghan critics sternly warn against attempting to impose “international values of gender equality” upon Afghan society.
“It is not Islam, but mostly customary beliefs and practices that work against women in Afghanistan. So, instead of trying to impose international values of gender equality, Islamic teachings on women’s status and rights should be enforced, but enforced seriously,” Malikyar stresses.
Most proposed long-term solutions underscore the importance of education in bringing about lasting change, but security concerns and resolute mindsets pose serious challenges.
“Girls go to school but they get married very young. Sometimes even when they finish university, they are not allowed by their in-laws to carry on with work. The importance which is given to education by men and women in Islam, has not been spread among ordinary people in Afghanistan,” laments Gailani, who serves as president of the Afghan Red Crescent.
Ghazanfar insists that the scenario is not all doom and gloom, and she presents some heartening statistics indicating progress made in educating girls.
“When the interim authority was established, there was 0 per cent of girls in school. Now there are 37 per cent and at the level of higher education, 18 per cent of students are female,” she reads from a report.
In addition to building girls’ schools in various parts of the country, the ministry has recently launched a project called the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which offers basic skills training to over 1,000 women.
This is similar to the Afghan Red Crescent’s programme called Marastoon, sanctuary in Pashto, which has helped women and orphans who were begging on the streets of Kabul find alternative means of earning a living.
Despite a measure of success sustained by such efforts, it remains to be seen whether the greater cause of ‘women’s rights’ will move beyond rhetoric in Afghanistan.
There is a sense that the initial enthusiasm among donors and Afghan returnees to push forward an agenda of women’s rights has dissipated.
“Today, we only have one ministry headed by a woman – the women’s affairs ministry – and if you give it to a man, they won’t take it. We have women who could easily fit ministerial seats, [who are] fit to be ambassadors and even deputy ministers.
“But why don’t we have them?” asks Gailani. “I believe it didn’t take root in society. And then, our supporters relaxed. They just took it for granted.”
There are those who would say that much of the blame should also be placed on the shoulders of Afghanistan’s educated elite, especially women in that category.
“Unfortunately, they got too busy struggling to secure positions for themselves and, in the process, became a part of the Machiavellian political games played by male politicians,” says Malikyar.
“Even worse, they gradually became a part of perpetuating ethnic politics rather than uniting across racial, tribal and sectarian divides to advance the cause of the downtrodden Afghan woman.”
Gailani admits as much: “We didn’t give enough time for women’s issues. We didn’t advocate issues regularly. We didn’t unite. So now, instead of [repeating the statistics], we must make a list of competent women, a list for vital governmental posts and we should insist on it.”
Most people now agree that the first step toward improving women’s lot in Afghanistan should be to mobilise political will at the highest levels and devise a systematic and multi-dimensional programme for changing mentalities.
According to Malikyar, the first step towards securing women’s rights is to incorporate them within the judicial system.
“The courts are treating women as properties of men and, as such, they have no hope to receive fair treatment. No hope to resort to their Islamic rights,” she says.
“This, while all international aid is conditional upon observance of human and women’s rights and, more importantly, the country’s official name is the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’.”