Female school class in Afghanistan (photo: Phoung Ngyen/UNICEF)
Portrait of Humaira Ameer Rasuli

''It's Not Easy Being an Afghan Woman''

She may laugh a lot, but Humaira Ameer Rasuli lives dangerously. The Afghan human rights activist speaks out in a country where women are still excluded from the development process. By Sandra Petersmann

Humaira Ameer Rasuli doesn't mince her words. "Women play no part in Afghan society. Their rights as citizens of this country are neither acknowledged nor respected." This fundamental criticism is directed against both the Afghan government and the international community. "At the moment all they are concerned with is trying to keep the peace. But what is peace worth if half the population has no share in it?"

Ameer Rasuli is the director of 'Medica Afghanistan', an aid organization that has been independent since December 2010. Like its German parent organization 'medica mondiale', it acts on behalf of women who have been the victims of violence. Rasuli laments "the persistent silence" that still surrounds Afghanistan's female population almost a decade after the fall of the radical Islamic Taliban regime.

Ameer Rasuli believes the root cause of this is the brutalization of the population through three decades of war. She says that the ongoing violence has reinforced the traditional, patriarchal tribal structures and made them even more difficult for women to break out of. "But it is also because of mistaken interpretation of the Sharia. It was always men who interpreted Islamic law, to their own advantage."

Lagging behind

Humaira Ameer Rasuli (photo: Medica Mondiale)
"What is peace worth if half the population has no share in it?" - Humaira Ameer Rasuli

​​Rasuli, the mother of a young son, knows that in making statements like these she also makes powerful enemies in the Islamic republic of Afghanistan, but it's something she is prepared to do. "After almost ten years of democracy, there are in reality only small democratic refuges. Women do not feel any real freedom. We're not allowed say what we think." She tries to do so nonetheless, as often as she can.

Ameer Rasuli is one of very few privileged women in Afghanistan. She studied for a degree in business management, followed by a couple of terms studying medicine.

"It's not easy being an Afghan woman," she says, smiling. She recalls an international workshop she took part in Germany. Other participants included women's rights activists from Bosnia, Liberia, Kosovo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "In these countries the violence against women is certainly comparable, but at least these countries do already have laws to protect them, and do sometimes apply them. It made me so depressed, because we're still so far behind in our development."

Article 23 of the new Afghan Constitution of 2004 declares that men and women have "the same rights and duties before the law", and that all forms of discrimination are forbidden. But Ameer Rasuli stresses that, for Afghan women, this is not their daily reality. "If the political will to apply the laws is not there, they mean nothing at all." The reality is that confident women in Afghanistan live in fear for their lives. Zakia Zaki, a brave radio journalist, was shot dead in 2007. One year later the courageous policewoman Malalai Kakar was assassinated.

Constitution and constitutional reality

The young women's rights activist acknowledges that, particularly in the big urban centres such as Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, there has been visible progress. Women are seen on the street again; girls are going to school; some are also attending colleges of further education and universities. There are currently four more female ministers sitting in the lower house of the Afghan parliament than prescribed by the quota.

Women and children in front of a medical clinic in Kabul (photo: AP)
Devastating statistics: According to UN data, at least 1,600 mothers die for every 100,000 births, and 280 children in every thousand die before the age of five

​​But if you look at the country as a whole, for the vast majority almost nothing has changed as a result of the Western intervention in the autumn of 2001. The mortality rate for mothers and children is still one of the highest in the world.

The statistics are devastating. According to UN data, at least 1,600 mothers die for every 100,000 births. 280 children in every thousand die before the age of five.

Around 80% of all marriages are forced marriages. Around half of all brides are under 16. On average, every Afghan woman gives birth to six children. For almost 90% of Afghan women domestic violence is part of daily life, and in the majority of rape cases it is the woman who is deemed to have been at fault.

An un-Islamic organization

Only about 12% of all women over the age of 15 can read and write. The 31-year-old Ameer Rasuli can list endless cases of abused women who didn't know that using violence against them was forbidden. She tells of members of the Afghan parliament who pressurize her to abandon her work, saying that Islam envisages justice, not equal rights.

"I don't know what justice means to these members of parliament. In their eyes we are an un-Islamic organization, because as far as they are concerned violence against women doesn't exist."

Rasuli appeals to the international community not to abandon Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of Western combat troops. "Our great hope is that if foreign powers continue to intervene, the government will have to enforce internationally applicable rights. We need the international community to care about and help us."

Meeting of the National Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, its head, is seated to the right (photo: DW)
Membership without influence: The National Peace Council includes nine women, but they have "no clear role", Rasuli admonishes

​​Nonetheless, the director of Medica Afghanistan knows that there will not be a military solution for the problems of the Hindu Kush. She too thinks that the only way to achieve a solution is through difficult negotiations. She believes that negotiating with representatives of the Taliban movement is the right thing to do, but she also says that "the rights of women should not be sacrificed for peace".

However, Ameer Rasuli has little hope for the work of the High Peace Council under the leadership of ex-president Rabbani, who is to conduct talks with the Taliban movement on behalf of the Afghan government. Alongside powerful regional leaders, religious scholars and tribal elders, the 70-strong council also includes nine women, but they have "no clear role", and are again shrouded in silence.

Rasuli criticizes the fact that the West is financing the work of the Peace Council without first developing a joint strategy and establishing common aims. "This has been the fundamental problem of Afghan development for almost ten years," she says: the lack of a joint strategy and the lack of clear objectives. Nonetheless, she believes that without the support of the international community the women of Afghanistan will not benefit from any development at all.

Sandra Petersmann

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editors: Diana Hodali/Deutsche Welle, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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