Women for Human Rights in Afghanistan

Our Country is Not an Exception to the Rule

The human rights situation and the role of women in Afghanistan are, as ever, severely under threat. Brave and committed female human rights activists are issuing urgent warnings about cultural relativism and compromises with the Taliban. Shikiba Babori reports

photo: Shikiba Babori
A rare sight in Afghanistan: Women offer goods at the market. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 women have gradually begun to work their way back towards being contributors to the economy

​​ "In Afghanistan, human rights are for sale," says Massood. His brother has been imprisoned without a proper trial, and the police want three thousand dollars for his release. From ordinary traffic policemen to the highest political office: in the troubled region of Afghanistan, anyone can be bought.

A commission set up in 2004 was supposed to put an end to this arbitrary application of the law. Given the unstable situation in Afghanistan, the work of the independent Afghan human rights commission AIHRC is nerve-wracking and often results in no measurable progress. Even small successes are a cause for celebration.

"In Afghanistan, you can regard it as a success that an institution like this exists at all," explains Dr. Sima Samar, the head of the Commission. "In the beginning, even calling for human rights was an absurdity." Now, she says, many more Afghans are aware of what human rights are, that they have the right to demand them – and that human rights serve to protect ordinary citizens. "They know that a policeman doesn't just have the right to torture someone in custody, or even kill him. Yes, that is progress."

High-risk mission

Dr. Sima Samar has been campaigning for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan for almost thirty years. In 2002e was appointed Minister for Women's Affairs and was also one of five deputies to the President, Hamid Karzai, until she was forced to resign a few months later, questioning conservative Islamic laws.

photo: www.umb.edu
"In the beginning, even calling for human rights was an absurdity." Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission

​​ Championing human rights in Afghanistan is always associated with great personal risk. Samar, a qualified doctor of medicine, is a thorn in the eye of the country's extremist, anti-liberal forces. She regularly receives death threats, especially on account of her demands for equal rights for women and the integration of ethnic minorities – a concern that is still largely taboo, and highly contentious.

The extremists and ultra-traditionalists defend their positions with both vehemence and violence, yielding only when they have to reckon with sanctions. This was made very clear last year when a new family law came into force in Afghanistan. This would have granted women even fewer rights in the future than they had under the Taliban. Among other things, the law effectively denied the right of a wife to refuse to have sexual intercourse with her husband.

International pressure on the Afghan government

The implication of this law was that marital rape would be exempt from punishment – an outrageous provocation, and one to which the international community could not fail to respond. After all, it had justified its invasion of Afghanistan with reference to human rights violations and the parlous situation for women in the country.

photo: Shikiba Babori
Street scene in Kabul: "If the international community is not to forfeit the trust of the people entirely, it is currently in even greater need of people who will insist that justice and the observance of human rights must be preconditions for reconciliation talks," writes Shikiba Babori

​​ The threat of drastic cuts to financial aid meant that the law was rescinded as swiftly as it had been passed. Activists for women's rights and human rights in Afghanistan have long called for international support for the Afghan government to be linked to specific conditions such as these.

"The true enemies of Afghanistan are those who violate human rights and the rights of women," explains Malalai Joya, a female member of the Afghan parliament and prominent human rights campaigner. She adds that this is why it is so important that such people should be banned from participation in the government.

Disastrous compromise

Under pressure from NATO and the international community, President Hamid Karzai has called on both the government and the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war. Ordinary Afghans, however, are worried that political and military considerations will take precedence over what is good for the people. For this reason, human rights organizations are demanding that human rights should not be a basis for negotiation in the discussions with the Taliban. If this is allowed to happen, the Taliban could use their role as representatives of the state to enforce human rights abuses by decree.

The focus of the AIHRC is what is referred to as "transitional justice". Classical criminal justice has often proved insufficient when dealing retrospectively with genocide and other serious human rights abuses perpetrated by dictatorships, or during a civil war. Transitional justice is a way of coming to terms with the past which can be carried out in individual court proceedings without imposing legal sentences.

Malalai Joya visits a girls school in the Farah province of Afghanistan
Uncompromising activist: Malalai Joya has publicly denounced the presence of what she considers warlords and war criminals in the parliament

​​ With transitional justice, the courts try to find a fair way of dealing with the social and psychological fallout of serious human rights abuses. Questions of guilt are clarified, but no sanctions are imposed. The aim is to develop an understanding of injustice and atrocities without reviving old enmities.

"Our goal is to cleanse our country of war crimes and human rights abuses and give our society the perspective of a more just, peaceful and democratic future," explains Sima Samar.

The human rights commission is engaged in highlighting human rights abuses committed by the pro-Soviet governments from the end of the 1970s to the present day – described by the AIHRC president as the most difficult and untransparent period in the history of Afghanistan.

The ignorance of the international community

Like U.S. President Barack Obama Samar had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2010. In her speech to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, she took the opportunity emphatically to remind people that Afghanistan will have no future if its women are not allowed to participate fully in society.

Samar explains that she felt she had to warn the international community, because no one will trust it if it leaves the country before it has made real, enduring progress in the field of human rights. However, Samar feels that Afghanistan's international partners have now given up hope. Some, she says, have unabashedly stated that women's rights are simply incompatible with the culture and religion of Afghanistan. Outraged, Samar declared in Oslo: "This is not culture. This is not religion. This is ignorance. This is the violation of human rights."

People like Sima Samar and Malalai Joya are vital for the development of Afghanistan; especially now, when the international community would like withdraw from the country as soon as possible, and is even prepared to countenance an amnesty with the extremists. Yet if it is not to forfeit the trust of the people entirely, it is currently in even greater need of people who will insist that justice and the observance of human rights must be preconditions for reconciliation talks. Only in this way is there a chance that the Afghan people will regain their trust in political institutions and support them.

Shikiba Babori

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Shikiba Babori was born in 1966 in Kabul. She now lives and works as an ethnologist and freelance journalist in Cologne. In 2004, she headed a training course for female Afghan journalists in Herat. Since 2006, she has worked on developing of the network of female journalists in Afghanistan, KALIMA – a news agency devoted to fostering a constructive dialogue by disseminating background information on socio-cultural topics.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

© Qantara.de 2010


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