By Alice Baghdjian
As the 2014 deadline for most NATO-led combat troops to leave Afghanistan approaches, a question mark hangs over the future of women’s rights in the war-torn country.
Since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, Afghan women have reclaimed rights and freedoms long denied to them, including the ability to vote, go to school and work outside the home.
With the scheduled withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of 2014, however, many fear a rollback of women’s rights and a potentially violent backlash against leaders of the Afghan women’s rights movement.
“The Afghan women who have come forward (since 2001) - whose names are known and whose addresses are known - have every right to be alarmed at the possibility things are going to go back the way they were,” said Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary, during a recent panel discussion on Afghanistan at the Frontline Club in London.
“I think they are in terrible danger, said Ansary, who was born in Kabul in 1948 to an Afghan father and American mother.
Raised in Afghanistan and educated in the United States, he is the author of several books on Afghanistan, including the 2003 memoir, “West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story.” His most recent book is "Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan," published in late 2012.
Violence against women, coupled with poor healthcare and poverty, has made Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country for women, according to a 2011 poll conducted by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Pursuing careers or any work outside the home remains a challenge for many women in Afghanistan’s conservative Muslim culture, where working females often face opposition or are ostracised for mixing with men other than husbands or relatives.
Some women lawmakers and activists reportedly blame an increase in violence against women on a decrease of interest in women’s rights by the Afghan government as it works to promote peace with the extremely conservative Taliban. The government, headed by President Hamid Karzai, has denied that.
In December the United Nations criticised Karzai's government for its lack of enforcement of laws concerning violence against women. The U.N. urged Afghanistan to enforce a 2009 law that made child marriage, forced marriage, forced self-immolation and other violent acts, including rape, criminal offences.
Though illegal, child marriage remains widespread in rural areas, places where women also are particularly threatened, according to Ansary.
“In the capital, women have come forward and they’ve been empowered. But there are so many places where the women of Afghanistan are not under the protection of foreign powers. They are completely under the thumb of whoever’s out there in the rural places,” said Ansary.
More than a decade after the fall of the Taliban, Afghan girls have returned to school, a quarter of the parliament's seats are reserved for women and women have the same right to vote and freedom to travel as men—at least on paper.
Neil Crompton, director for Afghanistan and South Asia at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, sounded a hopeful note. He said some of the progress made in Afghanistan, such as schooling for girls and the development of independent Afghan media organisations, would not be lost after foreign troops left.
“My sense is civil society is rather active, the (Afghan) media is sort of the cutting-edge of all of that (and) women’s groups are not going to stop arguing,” Crompton said.
“Afghanistan has changed in the last 10 years - 6 million young people are now going to school. Some of these things will be enduring,” he said.