Categorized | Security Issues, World

Afghan Democracy Update: Women’s Rights Edition

Afghan women voice concerns to coalition forces

How is democracy faring in Afghanistan these days? Not well, as far as Afghan women are concerned.

While many of its familiar trappings are in place – such as a constitution that promises equality before the law – the practice of democracy ranges from deeply flawed to nonexistent when it comes to women’s rights, especially in rural parts of Afghanistan.

By way of an introduction to this issue: Consider the story of Nadia, an Afghan girl from Kunar province, recently documented by GlobalPost. About two years ago, Nadia’s family forced her to marry one of her cousins. Nadia disliked this cousin to begin with, and he often beat her once they were married. Six miserable months into this arrangement, Nadia fell in love with another cousin; they fled to Kabul. Not long after, the first cousin encountered the second cousin, and killed him for eloping with Nadia. The second cousin had a brother, who then killed the first cousin in revenge.

How did the local justice system deal with this mess? It punished Nadia, of course. A tribal court – known as a jirga – was convened in Kunar, and this court decided that the men’s actions were not only understandable, but also provoked by Nadia. Nadia could have been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death, but she was lucky; the jirga only convicted her of farar (running away), and sentenced her to an indefinite prison term. This all happened when Nadia was 14. She’s almost 16 now, still in prison with no prospect of release.

Nadia’s story may sound extreme, but it features some woefully common motifs of rural justice in Afghanistan: forced marriage, farar, jirga, and institutionalized discrimination against women.

Jirga may be the most concerning motif as they have been more prevalent than state-run courts for some time. The Asia Foundation’s 2011 Survey of the Afghan People found that jirga still handle more cases than any other court system in Afghanistan. This is problematic (to put it mildly) because jirga operate on principals similar to sharia law; there are no female judges, women often receive disproportionately harsh punishment, and there are crimes and sentences that exist only for women.

Farar is one example of an exclusively female crime. When facing a jirga, women who run from their husbands can expect to face the same treatment as Nadia – even if their husbands are abusive – while men who abandon their wives often go unpunished.

Cases of adultery further illustrate the inequity of jirga. Adulteresses almost always receive harsher punishments than their male counterparts. Worse still, men who “honor kill” their unfaithful wives face a maximum of two years in prison, while women who kill their adulterous husbands are often put to death.

Yet another shocking convention is ba’ad, whereby females can be punished for the crimes of their male relatives. Consider the story of Sakina, who received this treatment:

Sakina is a girl from Nuristan province whose brother eloped with one of their cousin’s wives. Sakina’s brother was captured and brought before a jirga circa 2002. This jirga ruled that the brother could marry the cousin’s wife, on one condition. The condition was ba’ad, which in this case meant Sakina was compelled to marry her aggrieved cousin’s father (her uncle), to make up for his loss. This form of settlement – not uncommon in rural Afghanistan – essentially treats women as property. And, of course, males can’t be subject to ba’ad. Sakina was 5 years old when she found out she’d have to pay for her brother’s crime, and she was forced to into an engagement with her uncle last year. Sakina is about 15 now; her uncle is over 80.

If Nadia and Sakina’s stories make Afghanistan sound like one of the worst places on earth for women, that’s because it is. Admittedly, women are better off now than they were under Taliban rule, but that’s not saying much. Most women still live in rural provinces where jirga prevail. Equality before the law is still a long way off. What’s more, there are signs of backsliding on women’s rights: Just as NATO is preparing its departure from Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has endorsed a proposed set of laws that would segregate schools by gender, allow “sharia-compliant” wife beating, and prevent women from traveling without a male relative.

As long as these conditions prevail – as long as there’s institutionalized inequality – Afghanistan can’t be fully democratic, at least not in any conventional Western sense. And it seems like outside forces can do little to change the situation. The US has occupied Afghanistan for 11 years now, and women in most parts of the country have yet to see the constitution’s promise put into practice. With the US occupation winding down, and the Karzai administration lacking the political will to fight for women’s rights, it seems lasting change will have to come from within. It’s unclear how, but local traditions will have to evolve. Over time, a culture will have to develop that recognizes the injustice of practices like ba’ad and institutions like Jirga. Otherwise, Afghanistan might pretend at democracy, but it won’t be fully-fledged by a long shot.

Image courtesy of DVIDSHUB

Ryan Rappa

About Ryan Rappa

Ryan Rappa is a Global Academic Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, and recently completed a Master's Degree in Political Economy from NYU.

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