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Global Feminism in the News: The Women of Afghanistan

August 1, 2009
Global Feminism in the News is a monthly column discussing recurring themes in international news stories concerning women. This month we will feature the women of Afghanistan.
Afghan women protest the Shia Family Planning Law

Afghan women protest the Shia Family Planning Law

This month saw considerable news coverage for Afghanistan (including this post by fellow GAB author Maria). July was the deadliest month for American and British troops since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Thirty American troops died in July alone, and more British soldiers have now died in Afghanistan than Iraq.  Afghani security forces also suffered casualties, not to mention civilian deaths. Both US Vice President Joe Biden and and British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth warn there is more violence to come.

NATO, American and British officials all adamantly believe that pulling troops out now would leave the country free to al Qaeda and Taliban rule, so the conflict will continue with, as Secretary Ainsworth says,

No defined end date- only and end state.

And what of the women of Afghanistan? They have also received news coverage for their courage and perseverance in the face of violence and uncertainty.  Considering they must live through war fare that claims the lives of soldiers armed with arguably the most advanced weaponry and protection in the world, ducking violence both from a foreign invasion and their own country men, their every day achievements are all the more remarkable.

In Mazar e Sharif, a bazaar city centered around a holy shrine, Raqiba Barmaki has maintained her shop despite protests from other shop owners. In a city where many women who lose their husbands and bread winners come to beg for survival, Raqiba is the only female shop owner. In addition to selling clothing she makes with her daughters, Raqiba sells wares for other women unable to open their own store. She has weathered criticism and harassment from male shop owners, but is now an example and inspiration for other women as the shop remains open year after year.

Malalai Joya, who has survived five assassination attempts and was the youngest female member elected to Parliament in 2005, continues to be an outspoken critic of the warlords currently ruling her country.

Parliament Member Malalai Joya

Parliament Member Malalai Joya

Not content to let oppressive laws sneak by unnoticed in a time of war, Afghan women have taken to the streets to protest the Shia Family Planning Law signed last March by President Hamid Karzai.  The law, governing the minority Shia population, sanctions marital rape and outlines under what circumstances a woman can leave her house and when she must have sex with her husband. President Karzai has since reviewed and passed a slightly different law, although the changes are unclear as they have yet to be ratified by Parliament. Soraya Sobhrang, a human rights activist working in Kabul says,

The law will affect all women if it goes through. It opens the door for other repressive laws to be passed, for Sunni Muslims as well as Shia.

Seema Ghani, a successful business woman in Kabul and single mother to six adopted daughters and one son, put it more bluntly:

We don’t want this law. It gets into our bedrooms.

It is not easy to be a woman in Afghanistan. It is one of only three countries where men have a longer life expectancy than women. It has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, Sierra Leone has the highest, but not for long if Pashtoon Azfar has her way. Ms. Azfar trained in midwifery in the seventies, and now oversees the training of new midwives who are often the only medical personnel pregnant women will see. The New York Times called her a “Fighter for Afghan Women”, and she was recently the guest of honor at a Capitol Hill briefing discussing maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan. 26,000 women a year die in childbirth in Afghanistan, and most of these deaths are preventable. Quoting her Egyptian colleague, Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla, Ms. Azfar says

Women are not dying of diseases we can’t treat. …They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.

Despite so many daunting obstacles, Afghan women continue to work, to educate themselves, to stand up for their rights. Helen Cho, a board member at the Feminist Majority Foundation, wrote an entire opinion piece explaining why they could not abandon the women of Afghanistan. Thomas Friedman gushed in an op ed about an inspirational school for girls in a remote village, and how it convinced him that peace in Afghanistan was important to the world.

Why are the women of Afghanistan so inspirational? I think it is because their resilience humbles us, their determination inspires us, and their bravery astounds us. From the ashes of the Taliban, and despite a continued society of violence, women have risen from an oppression most of us could not imagine to become their own greatest advocates. With almost no opportunities for education or employment, women are business owners, teachers, Parliament members, and activists. Writing this from my lap top, comfortable in my own home, I cannot pay enough homage to women who risk their lives by speaking up. The Taliban tried to make them invisible. Violence has destroyed their country. Elected officials have betrayed them with crippling laws. But they have continued to speak up, and so to must we by sharing their story.

Afghan women graduating from midwifery school (photo courtesy of the NY Times)

Afghan women graduating from midwifery school (photo courtesy of the NY Times)

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