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Scant Progress for Afghan Women

Prepared by: Maggie Goodlander
August 21, 2007


Six years after the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban rule, and in spite of a constitution calling for equal rights for men and women, Afghan women continue to face violence. Although an Afghan rights watchdog registered 704 cases of violence against women this year, cultural taboos discourage accurate reports (IRIN) of such incidents. The 2007 Amnesty International Report on Afghanistan points to a dismal state of education for girls, as well as the persistence of social practices like honor killings and self-immolation.

Terrorists and Taliban insurgents increasingly target girls’ schools that were established after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Zakia Zaki, a radio station owner and headmistress of a school for girls in Kabul, was shot dead (al-Jazeera) in July with her ten-month old son by her side. Zaki broadcasted throughout the Taliban era and helped draft the 2003 post-Taliban constitution.

Some experts say arranged marriages (RFE/RL) lie at the root of much of the violence against women in Afghanistan. In a 2006 ABC News poll (PDF) of Afghani citizens, 60 percent of respondents found it acceptable for women to be forced to enter an arranged marriage with no choice over who or when they marry. Women who refuse to enter arranged marriages suffer consequences (National Geographic) in their homes and communities where “honor killings”—murders carried out in the name of family honor—are rampant. World Politics Review notes that in Herat, a conservative province in western Afghanistan, few cases of violence against women are formally acknowledged. Nonetheless, over 100 self-immolation cases were recorded in the province last year.

Yet Isobel Coleman, CFR’s Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, and Craig Charney, President of the polling firm Charney Research, disagree with the common perception that the domestic crisis in Afghanistan is beyond repair. Writing in the Globe and Mail, they argue the real basis for hope in Afghanistan lies in what Afghans themselves are doing to modernize gender roles and rebuild the nation. Charney and Coleman note that the same ABC News survey from 2006 shows 80 percent of Afghans willing to accept women as members of parliament, and 70 percent agreed that both sexes should work outside the home.

Women do increasingly play a role in Afghan politics. As President Hamid Karzai noted during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in late 2006, sixty-eight of the 249 members of the country’s parliament are women, and there are now several women ambassadors. “There is immense respect for a woman in the country—not to the political sense that you see it in the West, no; in the traditional way in Afghanistan.”


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