International Women’s Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the achievements made on behalf of women’s rights and their participation in times of conflict and peace around the world, as well as assess ongoing challenges that exist to impede the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout society. One of the most startling and disappointing examples of progress under threat exists today in Afghanistan.
Afghan women have valid reasons to be worried that the gains made on their behalf over the past 10 years may be eroded and reversed if a just and lasting peace is not achieved and, worse yet, if an un-reformed Taliban return to any semblance of power in their country. Peace negotiations "at any cost" with the Taliban may sound like a credible political solution to some, but not to most Afghan women, whose memories of their repressive regime is only too fresh and frightening to ever face again.
An even greater threat to the existing Afghan constitution has now appeared in President Karzai’s tacit endorsement this week of the Ulema Council (religious scholars) recommendations that Afghan society incorporate a stricter “code of conduct,” which includes segregation of men and women at work and school, travel restrictions for women and support for wife beatings based on a husband providing “Shariah-compliant reason.” If applied as such, these recommendations would surely result in a constitutional crisis and be seen by many as political inducement to the Taliban under the aegis of reconciliation.
Under the Taliban, women were whipped in the street for showing so much as an ankle and were prohibited from attending school, going to work or traveling without a male relative. They were imprisoned, tortured, executed and viewed as non-citizens without any legal rights or access to justice within their society. They lived as prisoners in their homes.
Though many of us in the West take our basic rights for granted, Afghan women have courageously fought for, achieved and witnessed great improvements in their lives since the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001 by Afghan and U.S. coalition forces.
Since 2002, Afghan women and girls have returned by the millions to gain an education, with nearly three million girls attending school today. Millions of women have returned to the work force, and more and more young women are entering the professional life. Due to a quota system established by the 2004 Afghan Constitution, women make up nearly 26 percent of the Afghan parliament and provincial councils and are challenging outdated laws and outlooks to promote a more gender balanced society, sometimes at great peril to their own lives.
Afghan women are now seen, heard and read about in the media and play a dynamic role in promoting women’s voices in all walks of life. And yet the situation is hardly perfect, and equality and equity is far from being achieved across Afghan society. At least some progress is tangible for many who were voiceless ghosts just 10 years ago.
However, with President Karzai’s apparent endorsement of the council of clerics stricter guidelines for women, which goes so far as to say, “men are fundamental and women are secondary,” questioning the legitimacy of the 2004 Afghan Constitution’s legal protection of women’s rights, there should be no doubt that the current government means to sacrifice Afghan women’s rights and reverse the gains made on their behalf as a bargaining chip with the Taliban.
Now more than ever, it is time to stand by the Afghan people and keep pressure on their government, otherwise the treasure spent and blood spilled on Afghan soil will be in vain. Only patience and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders - which include Afghan women in both peace and reconstruction processes – will help lead Afghanistan onto the path of durable peace and stability, which should be the goal of all key players involved.
The United States should remain engaged on the side of those whose rights need to be defended or those who want to become self-sufficient, to nurture the historic bonds of friendship and humanitarian outreach. We must continue to honor those who have fallen on both the American and Afghan sides by not allowing what has been achieved to be unraveled for political expediency.
Actively working to improve the rights of Afghan women is not idealistic, it is also pragmatic. Lasting peace cannot come without the participation and representation of Afghan women in its developing society. Let us hope that the gains achieved on their behalf will not be reversed by unjust political concessions at the peace negotiations table.
Khorshied Samad is a former Fox News television correspondent and Kabul bureau chief, and worked previously for ABC News. She is the wife of the Ambassador of Afghanistan formerly posted to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). Khorshied continues to work on behalf of Afghan women and children through the Artists for Afghanistan Foundation, www.artists-for-afghanistan.org