The Culture War Over Afghan Women: The Bad News

- 10 March 2012

The culture war over Afghan women is heating up. Just over ten years have passed since the international community overthrew the notoriously misogynist Taliban regime, and Afghan women are again at the center of a volatile national debate over whether basic rights and freedoms should be extended to the female half of the population. With the US and Afghan governments reaching out to the Taliban for peace talks and conservatives within the Afghan government making statements in support of restricting women’s dress, freedom of movement, and rights to work, to justice, and to be protected from violence, activists fear they are witnessing the beginning of a major crackdown on women.

Influential conservatives have increasingly focused their advocacy on rolling back aspects of women’s progress ranging from hard-won guarantees of rights to expressions of individuality and happiness. A few of their pet projects:

2010: The Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s advisory council of religious leaders, called for the reintroduction of the death penalty as a punishment in adultery cases.

2011: Conservatives within the Ministry of Women’s Affairs unsuccessfully attempted to take over the country’s NGO-run women’s shelters, and the Ministry of Justice proposed a law banning mixed gender wedding parties and wedding gowns that show women’s curves.

2012: The Ministry of Culture and Information sent a letter to television studios stating that, "all female news presenters must avoid heavy make-up and wear a headscarf.”

Then, this week –as if timed to dominate the discourse around International Women’s Day– the Ulema Council released a statement saying that "men and fundamental and women are secondary.” The statement called for the strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces, and for women to veil and avoid traveling without a male guardian. Disturbingly, it also appeared to sanction violence against women under some circumstances. (The line in question reads: "It needs to be said that teasing, harassment and beating of women without a Shariah-compliant reason, as set forth clearly in the Glorious Qur’an, is prohibited.”)

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch summed up why the statement caused widespread alarm among human rights activists. (...)