Afghanistan: The Uphill Fight for Women’s Rights

Once again, women have been let down in Afghanistan. On July 8, the Afghan parliament rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s nomination of the country’s first female Supreme Court judge, Anisa Rassouli. As the head of the Afghan Women Judges Association and the Juvenile Appeals Court, Rassouli vowed to properly address cases of violence against women and to increase representation of women in the judicial system. In the wake of the decision, women’s rights activist Wazhma Zulfiqar stated that the “Afghan parliament had no reason to reject a qualified judge into [the] Supreme Court. The only reason was being a woman.”

On the other hand, in a country where First Ladies are normally in the shadows, First Lady Rula Ghani is determined to be seen and heard. The First Lady has publicly advocated for women, stating her desire to give women the “courage and the possibility to do something about improving their lives.” Despite such a strong figure, there is still an uphill fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, as evidenced by Rassouli’s case.

Societal norms have undergone incremental change since the Taliban’s rule, when women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could only leave the house when accompanied by a male relative. In fact, women’s empowerment was a central component of President Ghani’s election platform, ultimately winning him the women’s vote. This should have given the President greater incentive to elevate the status of women in Afghan society.

President Ghani has added four female ministers to his cabinet, with the approval of Afghan lawmakers in April 2015. He has also appointed two female governors for the provinces of Ghor and Daikundi and promised to appoint several more women as deputy ministers and judges. Ghani also tweeted that “at least four women ambassadors will be appointed to represent Afghanistan as top diplomats abroad.”

On June 30, President Ghani launched the National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security. He emphasized the importance of respecting women as individuals rather than as mothers, sisters, daughters, etc., and asked Islamic scholars to cooperate on stressing the importance of women's rights. This plan also requires each ministry to report its progress on enhancing female representation in government for the next eight years.

Currently, Afghan women hold 28% of seats in parliament, which reserves 68 seats for women – a higher percentage of seats held by the US and the world average. This can be attributed to the 2004 quota law stipulating that the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament, must reserve 25% of seats for women. Recently, this quota was revised to 20%, thereby eliminating 21 female seats. With the next round of five-year-term elections set for this year, we have yet to see whether Afghanistan will elect additional female representatives to parliament.

President Ghani must do more for women in Afghanistan yet, where only 30% of girls have access to education. As a senior researcher on women's rights at Human Rights Watch commented, women in Afghanistan are subjected to domestic abuse, sexual violence, child marriage, and forced marriage on a daily basis. The legal system also reflects inherent sexism, as women have mostly been imprisoned for moral crimes rather than illegal acts.

In March 2015, an Afghan woman, Farkhunda, was falsely accused of burning a Quran and killed by a mob of male attackers. The murder was described as a "turning point" for Afghan women, who called for justice for Farkhunda and all women in Afghanistan. They protested against the murder by becoming pallbearers at her funeral, thereby defying the traditionally male custom. On July 2 however, the same Supreme Court that Rassouli was nominated to serve on, secretly met to reduce the sentences of Farkhunda's killers from death to 20-year sentences.

Though challenging the status quo to achieve gender equality and eliminating violence against women remains an uphill battle, there have been promising efforts conducted by Afghans to improve the lives of women. As women’s rights activist Selav Ghaffer states, "if we keep our silence, more Farkhundas will be killed in this country." Ghani must follow the example of those who fight for this cause and make good on his vow to improve women's rights in Afghanistan. At least this much he and Afghan society owe to the memory of Farkhunda and countless other female victims of injustice.