President Karzai and the “Secondary” Sex

The following article originally appeared on the Foreign Policy AfPak Channel.

The Afghan government was “too busy” for International Women’s Day on March 8, so it postponed official acknowledgement until the 11th. It was not a great moment to celebrate, anyway. A week earlier a council of religious scholars—the Ulema Council—published guidance that declared “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” It called for women to travel with mahrams (male escorts), and to avoid mixing with men in offices, markets and educational facilities. The statement also said that beating a woman is only permissible with a “Shariah-compliant reason.”

The Council’s edicts have no legal standing, and were not unprecedented from this conservative body. What was more troubling was that the Office of the President published the statement, and President Hamid Karzai appeared to endorse it, by telling reporters that it was “in accordance with a Sharia view of our country, which all Muslims and Afghans are committed to.” With women activists already anxious about the potential impact of deals with the Taliban, Karzai’s words served as a sobering reminder of his poor track record on women’s rights.

Concerns about the impact of a deal with the Taliban on women’s rights are often dismissed with assertions that Taliban views on women are not so different from many in the government. This statement by the Ulema Council supports that viewpoint, and you’d certainly find a few former warlords nodding in agreement with it in the Cabinet and parliament.

But the conservatives in government have, for the most part, grudgingly accepted the presence of women in political life. The current environment may be hostile to women, but activists have been able to negotiate significant victories. Last year, when conservatives in government tried to take over women’s shelters, women activists fought back and won. In 2010 parliamentarians and activists successfully stymied some egregious articles in a bill to regulate family law for Shia Muslims. The year before that they succeeded in pushing through a law on violence against women which made the crime of rape explicit for the first time. Progress may be slow, but it is steady, and often heroic.

Some who speak regularly to Talibs say they have become more progressive when it comes to things like women’s access to education. One source admits, though, that many Talibs would still oppose the presence of women in the workplace and in politics.

Taliban hostility to women’s presence in public life often came up in work I carried out in 2010, interviewing women living in de facto Taliban controlled areas, and gathering “night letters”—threat letters delivered under cover of darkness. Fatima K., (a pseudonym), lives in a southern province, where she received this letter from the Taliban in February 2010:

“We Taliban warn you to stop working otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working.”

Fatima K. left her job. Others choose to ignore the threats. When Hossai, a 22- year-old Afghan aid worker in the southern city of Kandahar, received threatening phone calls from a man who said he was with the Taliban, she didn’t believe it. The man had told her to stop working with foreigners. But Hossai didn’t want to give up a good job with an American development company, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). Within weeks Hossai was dead. On April 13, 2010, a gunman lay in wait for her when she left the office. She was shot multiple times and died the next day.

Days after Hossai’s killing, another young woman working in Kandahar, Nadia N. (a pseudonym), received a letter signed by the Taliban, which threatened her with death:

“We would warn you today on behalf of the Servants of Islam to stop working with infidels. We always know when you are working. If you continue, you will be considered an enemy of Islam and will be killed. In the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women’s names are also our list.”

These letters are reminders that it may not be right to treat the Taliban as just another set of conservatives. Their views on women may overlap with a significant segment of opinion in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are also a force which has become used to imposing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with violence and fear.

To express concern about the possible impact of deals with the Taliban sometimes opens you up to glib accusations that you are ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-peace.’ In fact, there is no contradiction in wanting to see an end to the devastating loss of life in the conflict, welcoming a search for a political solution, while simultaneously expressing concerns about potential pitfalls and costs.

Sadly, there are many reasons to be wary at present. The Afghan government seems to lack the credibility or vision to forge a just and inclusive peace deal. And as the president’s response to the Ulema Council statement illustrated, he seems unlikely to take a stand against religious conservatives in defense of women’s rights. Meanwhile, it is far from clear that the Taliban have the will or the ability to forge a lasting deal, or that they would be prepared to meet the government’s precondition of recognizing a (man-made) constitution with all that it enshrines, including women’s equality, democracy and freedom of expression.

After the Ulema Council published their statement, I spoke with several women’s rights activists in Kabul. They were dismayed, but immediately turned to strategizing about the most pragmatic means of responding. Afghanistan now has a generation of women activists who have earned a quiet confidence born of successive achievements. But if a deal with the Taliban is to avoid dramatically shrinking their space, it will require leadership from a president with the courage to recognize them as his equals.

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