Afghanistan: Women’s Rights

The plight of Afghanistan is one as complex as it is sorrowful. After decades of conflict spanning from Russian invasion, through American proxy war, civil war, Taliban domination and the War on Terror, the state of human rights is as crushed and mangled as the flattened buildings of Kabul. In light of the imminent U.S. withdrawal of troops from the country, concerns for the protection of women’s rights have become increasingly serious.

To promote awareness of the issue, Cambridge Amnesty hosted a film screening of the documentary ‘A View From A Grain of Sand’, directed by Meena Nanji on her second visit Afghanistan with the primary aim of comparing life under Taliban rule to conditions after the regime’s expulsion. It retells the horrors of the great power shifts within Afghani decades of conflict by following three women drastically impacted by the reign of the Taliban: Sharpiray, a teacher in the permanent refugee camp of New Shamsitu, Dr. Rooena, a doctor in the same camp, and Wajia, a member of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), a women’s campaign group for equal rights, education and healthcare.

Under Taliban rule, as the film documents, strict laws such as the banning of women’s activity outside of the home without accompaniment by a ‘mahram’ (close male relative/husband) were enforced with severe punishments in an effort to create their interpretation of an Islamic state. Yet the intent behind Nanji’s lack of censorship of Taliban brutality (including clips of public executions) is not to shock for the sake of being shocking: this is the harsh reality of Afghan life within a country branded the hardest place to be a woman.

And yet the documentary serves a purpose in exposing a context unknown and unimaginable for many: a not-too-distant history of a pre-conflict, pre-Taliban, progressive Afghanistan. Clips of women walking through the lush gardens of Kabul in swinging sixties miniskirts and engaging in lecture debates possess an all-too bitter contrast in comparison to shots from under burqas of women beaten in the street for wearing noisy shoes. The Wahabi Islam of the Taliban on top of years of conflict appears to have completely erased such a liberal identity from Afghani history.

Whilst women’s rights in Afghanistan under the relative protection of UN forces has offered a number of the 80% of Afghan illiterate women aged 15-24 an opportunity to attend school, the artificial installation of such rights by the international community without an accompanying culture shift has caused many activists and an even greater number of Afghani women to fear for their lives and rights after UN withdrawal. Suspicions that Karzai’s fragile government, still permeated by civil war barons, will compromise these rights during the peace process with the Taliban are ever increasing, as quiet reversals in policy occur more and more frequently: cuts in the number of council seats for female representation, and a criminal code redraft protecting perpetrators of domestic violence. This stands without mentioning the increased evidence of a culture of violence on an individual level – a culture including acid attacks, beatings and killings as well as suicide attempts and self-immolation inflicted by the women themselves. And the recent decision to reinstate the punishment of public stoning for adulterers in the redraft of the penal code (article 21 & 23) only provides a sad confirmation of these suspicions: women are not seen as worthy of protection even within the eyes of the government. The spectre of brutal Taliban human rights abuses looms over the Afghan people like a waking nightmare.


Yet the picture ‘A View From a Grain of Sand’ presents is not an altogether hopeless one. Nanji’s direction is closely tied to the efforts of RAWA, within the country itself as well as in the dusty refugee camps now permanent settlements for many Afghanis. Nanji’s protagonists present a powerful image of the grit of Afghan women as they jeopardise their safety in fighting women’s rights abuses.

All of this is, of course, does not mute the degree of tragedy in the failure of the UN exit strategy. However, a less than successful international military intervention and an anti-female sentiment entrenched by decades of conflict does not give the global community a license to ignore the struggles of the Afghan women. Helping end the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan does not have to involve a grand imposition of Western democratic values; the Amnesty International campaign focuses instead on supporting and protecting those involved in campaigning for women’s rights, and most importantly of late aiding women to get engaged in the peace process. Giving these cries a voice, outside as well as inside Afghanistan, must become a fundamental role for the international community to play in ending the brutal abuses of women’s rights – a vision inherent to ‘A View From a Grain of Sand’, and a role crucial to the Amnesty campaign.

Bronte Phillips

originally published by TCS

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