New Afghan Constitution Only One Step on Long Road to Women’s Rights

While George Bush hailed the newly ratified Afghan charter as a vehicle that “will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people,” Afghan women have reason to be more circumspect.

Although the new constitution, which was ratified on January 4, 2004 by a grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, calls for men and women to have “equal rights and duties before the law,” it also asserts that “no law shall be contrary to the beliefs and practices of Islam.”

It remains to be seen how the constitutional protection of women’s rights will compete with the fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law enforced in many parts of Afghanistan, which allow for girls to be sold into marriage, give fathers and brothers control over female members of the family, and punish women harshly for adultery and prostitution. With no clarity yet on what forces will control the Supreme Court and with the countryside still largely controlled by powerful fundamentalists who strictly interpret and enforce Islamic law, Afghan women still have a long struggle for access to basic human rights.

The constitution includes several provisions that will aid women in this struggle, including a mandate that the Wolesi Jirga (House of People) include at least two female delegates from each province and that 50 percent of the presidential appointments to the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders) be women.

Fundamentalist leaders may look at women as having only half the value of men, but clearly Afghan women are a force to be reckoned with. While these provisions represent a step forward for Afghan women, they do not necessarily protect women from the powerfully held rightwing Islamic viewpoints that women have less value than men do and that they should not act autonomously.

When Malalai Joya, a female delegate representing the Farah province in western Afghanistan, spoke up at the Loya Jirga, she perhaps provided an indication of the repercussions women could expect for their participation in the political process. Joya’s two-minute speech on December 17, 2003, referred to some of the jihadi leaders as “criminals” who “destroyed the country” and who should be put on trial. “She was accused of being a communist and was nearly expelled from the gathering,” according to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).

In an interview, Joya told IWPR that she was trying to make three points in her speech, “First, these warlords should have been tried, and if found innocent then they could come to the Jirga. Second, the composition of the Loya Jirga is not appropriate — all jihadi and powerful people have come. And third, the environment is not democratic.”

She was not the only woman with that opinion, she told IWPR, but others did not come forward because “fear, power and [men who control] guns were dominant.”

According to the Bangor Daily News , after Joya’s comments, UN personnel had to guard her during assembly sessions and “then whisk her away to undisclosed sleeping quarters.” The article said that Amnesty International reported death threats, and that “the female delegates’ dormitory was stalked … by jihadis.”

If the Loya Jirga is any indication, debate is opening up in Afghanistan and women’s rights are at least being discussed, but women participate only at great personal risk and in an atmosphere of extreme repression. “Do not try to put yourself on a level with men,” retorted Sighbatullah Mojadeddi, chairperson of the Loya Jirga, when Joya made her speech. “Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man”.

Fundamentalist leaders may look at women as having only half the value of men, but clearly Afghan women are a force to be reckoned with. The first draft of the constitution, which circulated last summer, included no mention of women’s equality. Pressure from women’s groups, along with international human rights groups, meant that women were much better represented in the final version.

The courage that Joya showed at the Loya Jirga was not only a testament of her personal strength, but the power that comes from years of collective struggle. One hundred other female delegates buffered her from the mayhem that erupted on the floor as she spoke. When Mojadeddi called for an apology, Joya refused, drawing support from the women around her and from the ongoing efforts of many brave Afghan women and men who named fundamentalist leaders as purveyors of violence and repression in Afghanistan.

In addition to providing — at least on paper — for women’s political participation, the constitution calls for mandatory schooling for all children. Literacy is a key to ensuring women’s rights as it gives girls the skills they need to participate in public life. Indeed, groups like RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), the oldest independent feminist organization in the country, have long focused on increasing women’s literacy. First in response to the Soviet occupation and then to counter the repressive tactics of most of the anti-Soviet mujahadeen, RAWA set up clandestine schools and risked prison, torture, and death to teach women how to read.

Even if education is compulsory for all children, the work of organizations like RAWA is not over. There are many villages with no schools. And even when girls have schools and the right to attend them, they will have to overcome the fear that comes from years of brutal repression. “Our father and brothers prevent us from going to school because they think that Talebs or other groups will kill them,” said Latifa, a 22-year-old resident of Char Asiab, south of Kabul.

Presumably the law would override the beliefs of conservative fathers and town leaders in many parts of Afghanistan that girls should be kept at home and sold into marriage at an early age. But the law will have little meaning without a massive grassroots effort to educate people about the new constitution and to raise consciousness about women’s rights.

In an article for IWPR, reporters found that most villagers had no understanding that the Loya Jirga was meeting to discuss a new constitution. The majority of Afghans cannot read, and the government did very little to include the average citizen in the constitution-making process.

Without a substantive effort to reach out to all Afghans, the current constitution will inadequately protect the rights of a few privileged women who probably live in the capital. Poor and rural women will most likely have little experience of what it means to enjoy “equal rights and duties before the law.”

This article originally appeared in (http://newstandardnews.net).

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