Status of Women in Afghanistan -- Hope or Despair?

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Those of us who have read Khaled Hosseini’s books based in Afghanistan would be positively horrified by the abysmal status of women the books depict especially during the Taliban’s rule of the country before 2001. Most women were bereft of their basic rights and dignity. Their condition was pitiful with underage girls being married off often to very old wealthy men by poor families. Polygamy being prevalent, they hardly had any status and also had no say in their own children’s upbringing. The power of decision making with regard to the woman passed from father to husband to son.

Being a patriarchal society, the status of women in Afghanistan has been below that of the men for many decades. The tribal culture still prevalent in most rural and far off parts of Afghanistan denies women even the very basic rights. The rights to marriage, choice of groom, right to education are more often than not decided by the father. After marriage, the husband takes the place of the father deciding whether the woman goes out in a veil, escorted, works etc. 

The Karzai government that came into power with the support of NATO forces in 2001 has tried to better the lot of women.  The changed rules allowed them to study, drive, go out of the house without the full veil and work. Yet, it is very difficult to actually enforce these laws in totality in a very conservative and orthodox Afghani society especially in the tribal belts. There was some actual progress noticed in the field of education with more girls enrolling into schools and many more women coming out to work or driving to work. The progress, though minuscule and seen only in large cities like Kabul and Herat, was at least a babystep towards better rights for women.

But, in March 2012, Hamid Karzai, the Afghani President, endorsed a rigid Code of Conduct as proposed by the Ulema Council. Some of the rules are regressive in nature and ask for women not to travel outside without a male escort and also to avoid interaction with males in public places. Karzai defends these rules saying that these have always been a part of the Islamic ethos. Many see this as an appeasement policy aimed at the Taliban forces that are waiting at the fringes for the NATO forces to depart. This will surely be a setback to the progress that the nation has made since 2001.

Consider some of these appalling statistics:

  • Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
  • 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
  • 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
  • 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
  • 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan
  • 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan

What is extremely sad is that even today a woman running away from abuse, rape, torture, and prostitution is jailed. There are more than 400 women languishing in jails on “moral crimes” according to Human Rights Watch. These women can expect no respite in a lopsided judicial system.

What is needed is education that can uplift the status of women in Afghanistan. No laws will be enough unless a mindset change is brought about.  Moderate and liberal men along with a proactive government have to come forward and help the women achieve their rightful position and potential in society. This is the only way in which Afghanistan society can expect to rebuild and achieve progress.

See the amazing video above about Afghan women.

To read my other posts about Afghanistan, see my webtv.