Women’s rights in Afghanistan: Uneven and fragile gains

The writer with tournament participants. Photo by: Sharmila Parmanand

Events that feature male and female college students debating with and against each other are a common part of university life in many countries, but not in Afghanistan. There, mixed-gender contact among nonfamily members continues to be viewed with disapproval and, just last year, no less than the president endorsed a code of conduct by clerics prescribing gender segregation in schools and offices.

I have helped academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations organize debate and public-speaking events in more than 20 countries, but the English-language debating tournament run by the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Kabul in June 2013 has proven to be my most challenging and fulfilling assignment.

I learned from Adam LeClair, IFES-Afghanistan’s civil society officer, that progress has been slow but steady for female participants in this annual debating competition. Only 12 percent of the participants in the first year were female. This year, in its fourth edition, females comprised a third of the tournament, which had more than 60 teams from 20 universities across eight different provinces.

Activities of this nature and scale are rare for young people in Afghanistan, especially for females, who were forbidden from attending nonreligious schools under the Taliban. Girls are now legally free to access education, but barriers such as early marriage, the lack of female teachers and support from families and long distances to school, lead to dismal gender gaps, especially at the university level.

The Taliban had stepped up attacks in Kabul this year. In the two weeks leading up to the tournament, suicide bombers attacked the periphery of the Kabul International Airport and also killed 17 people near the Supreme Court. There was another attack on the presidential palace just two days after the tournament.

And yet, for two days, the gymnasium at the American University of Afghanistan was packed with around 300 participants, coaches and judges. As expected, security was tight and many female debaters had reservations about being photographed or filmed while speaking. In hushed voices, they described the concerns raised by their families about their participation, which included the long and potentially risky travels across provinces and close contact with male teammates, and an impression of debating as aggressive, confrontational and inappropriate for young women in a society where male elders dominate public discourse.

All this melted away during the actual debates, where they delivered passionate and compelling speeches on controversial issues such as whether Afghan university graduates should be required to work in their country for two years upon graduation, whether the willingness to participate in electoral debates should be a pre-requisite for politicians contesting national elections, and whether most international development aid contracts should be awarded to Afghan organizations.

Many of them openly stated that if their male counterparts could succeed in this activity, they should be able to as well; even if for some, it meant adhering to a strict dress code to deflect opposition to their participation. Others explained that building confidence and critical-thinking skills was an important part of their own long-term plans to “make Afghanistan a beautiful country again.”

Even the grand final rounds reflect this rising tide of female involvement: there were no women in the final during the first year, two in the second year, four in the third year but in all-women teams, and finally, three this year, but all on mixed-gender teams. This was the first year with a female in the winning team.

A month prior to my arrival, women’s rights were being dealt crushing blows: the Afghan parliament refused to ratify a presidential decree on the elimination of violence against women and the lower house struck down the legal provision for 25 percent reserved seats for women in provincial councils. The upper house has since reinstated the provision, but reduced it to only 20 percent reserved seats.

For one of the rounds, we facilitated a student debate over whether or not it was a good idea for female Afghan Member of Parliament Fawzia Koofi to seek parliamentary backing for the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, which was passed by presidential decree in 2009. The law criminalizes various abuses including marital rape, child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, the sale of women and girls, and “baad,” the giving of girls to resolve family disputes. I learned that Koofi’s strategy drew mixed reactions: some students believed parliamentary approval was necessary to ensure that the law isn’t subject to the whims of the sitting president, who could be vulnerable to demands from the Taliban; others feared that subjecting the law to parliamentary debate allowed traditionalist MPs to weaken provisions in the law or repeal it all together. In reality, the parliamentary discussion ended in shambles when MPs challenged the provision on marital rape, calling it un-Islamic to prosecute men for rape within marriage.

Through this lens, it became clear to me that for all the dramatic progress that has been achieved in terms of gender-focused Millennium Development Goals in Afghanistan, such as reduced maternal mortality and increased female literacy, many of these gains are fragile, and will be threatened by the departure of NATO forces in 2014. Many to whom I spoke feared that in the absence of pressure from international donors, women’s rights will turn into a bargaining chip among local political groups.

While the upcoming April 2014 presidential elections is a major test for democracy in Afghanistan, it is also a test of how far Afghan society has come toward gender equality. Females have run for the presidency before, but none have ranked close to the top five. Koofi, a high-profile female MP, has publicly declared her intention to contest the 2014 elections, despite threats to her life. The level of prominence accorded to women’s rights in the campaign period and the female voter turnout during the elections will be telling.

USAID has recently announced plans to commit $200 million and to persuade other donors to contribute the same amount for a five-year program focusing on the education and training of women aged 18-30 in Afghanistan. Called “Promote,” the program seeks to bolster women’s roles in government, business and civil society. This U.S.-backed effort is a helpful start in safeguarding the gains made in women’s rights.

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About the author

  • Sharmila Parmanand

    Sharmila is currently an instructor at the University of Vermont. She has a master’s degree in gender and development and has supervised and conducted research projects on human trafficking and related issues. She has also worked as a debate and public-speaking consultant in more than 20 countries.