Women’s rights advances offer hope in Afghanistan


The Afghan paradox is as follows: women’s big problems are best addressed by the power of small wins. Too much change, too soon, especially if it appears to be directed by outsiders, will slow real progress. And every advance serves only to show how little women have in terms of human rights and natural justice.

It took the horrific death of 27-year-old Farkhunda about eight weeks ago to give local life to an issue that has long been noisily raised by foreigners and NGOs – justice for the Afghan sisterhood. It may take the swift if controversial court verdict on those who participated in, or failed to prevent, Farkhunda’s lynching to launch a more sustained, slow burning reform movement for equal rights.

On Tuesday, 11 police officers were sentenced to a year in prison for standing by while Farkhunda was attacked by a mob, beaten, stamped on, run over by a car and then set on fire in the bustling centre of Kabul. Many Afghans expressed disappointment that the punishment was not harsher. Yet even this verdict, this swiftly, is something of a triumph.

Until this case, it would have been hard to imagine that enough Afghans in disparate parts of the country would spontaneously join together in grief and rage over the violent death of an ordinary woman from an undistinguished family. That her burial would be marked by a complete break with tradition, with women rather than men defiantly carrying her coffin. That thousands of Afghans would protest long enough and sufficiently vociferously to force the authorities to take action against the perpetrators. And that 23 people would receive varying levels of punishment for the crime. And that all of this would be seen by Afghans themselves as too little too late.

Is the aftermath of the Farkhunda case an indication of a deeper change in Afghan society? Is it, as some international media outlets have been asking, “a turning point” and “a watershed moment” for Afghanistan?

That may be too optimistic an assessment. But it’s fair to say that two complementary forces appear to be at work. Natural revulsion against a gross crime that ignored the traditionally accepted law of silent shame. This means that for many Afghan women, chastisement occurs within the confines of the home, leaving society at large free of the burden of knowledge. As Khaled Hosseini wrote in his haunting novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which centres on the lives of two Afghan women over the course of nearly half a century: “Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” And when the man inevitably exacts retribution, society at large prefers the silent shame of not knowing. But Farkhunda was killed in public, forcing Afghans as a whole to confront their society’s brutal realities, especially as the lynching was filmed on mobile phones, the footage widely shared on social media and shown in court.

The second force for change is the slow but steady progress on women’s education, health care and female role models since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Women have gained political rights, with the recently adopted Afghan constitution stating that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law”.

According to Unicef, 34 per cent of children enrolled in school are girls, although this figure hides disparities from province to province, with enrolment as low as 15 per cent in some areas. And it has become harder to marry a child because the government has raised the legal age for marriage for girls from 16 to 17. Of course, men who want to marry underage girls may simply not bother registering the marriage, but legal barriers undoubtedly provide incentives for societal change.

Child mortality has decreased by half, mostly because of improved access to clean water, electricity and sanitation, but crucially also because mothers are better educated.

And as Pashtana, an illiterate mother of seven told me in Kabul three years ago, the difference between her first pregnancy and her last illustrated the changed reality of an Afghan woman’s life. The first was stillborn, 20 years back because “there were no clinics, no doctors, no nurses”, she said. The last child, then three, was delivered in ease and comfort in a clinic, which monitored the health of mother and foetus at regular intervals. Until 2010, premature labour was one of the commonest causes of infant mortality but according to the Afghanistan Mortality Survey 2010, the first comprehensive national study of key health and quality-of-life indicators, 6 in 10 Afghan women now see a trained health care provider while pregnant, family sizes are down from six children per mother to five and nearly 80 per cent of the population has access to midwives and health workers, community outreach and first referral hospitals.

But most telling, perhaps, are the self-immolation statistics from Herat in western Afghanistan. The decrease to 70 cases a year from 350 after a government education campaign is considered significant. Young abused wives were the ones generally driven to set themselves on fire because there seemed to be no other way out of their hellish situation.

It’s inconceivable that all these changes have had no impact on the way people think, behave and assess the reality of their lives. And their reactions to the savage assault on a young woman. Perhaps the Farkhunda case is not a turning point so much as a bend in the winding road towards ​​greater equality for Afghanistan’s women.