A New Dark Age for Women
With the drawdown of allied Forces inching closer, the Afghan Taliban and its affiliates in their pursuit of the enforcement of a brutal extremist Islamism have escalated violence and oppression against women across the country.
Women who defied the Taliban's diktat and came out of their homes to started work have been targeted with increasing frequency. Others, who have criticized or otherwise challenged the Taliban have also faced extreme consequences.
Sushmita Bandyopadhyay, a woman of Indian origin, was brutally killed by Afghan Taliban terrorists at Kharana in the Paktika Province in the night of September 4, 2013. Dawlat Khan Zadran, the Paktika Police Chief, disclosed, "The militants arrived before dawn at Banerjee's residence. They tied up her husband and other members of the family. The militants then dragged Banerjee outside, took her to a nearby road and shot her at least 15 times. Her body was dumped at a madrassah with some of her hair ripped out. It seems the killers were angry with the book and the film." Indeed, the Taliban militants were angry. A close relative of the victim said, "They (Taliban militants) were saying, why have you written all these nasty things about us?"
Bandyopadhyay had converted to Islam and rechristened herself Sayeda Kamala after her marriage to Jaanbaz Khan, an Afghan citizen. She had authored a trilogy of memoirs, including the volume Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou (Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife), published in 1998; followed by Mullah Omar, Taliban O Ami (Mullah Omar, Taliban, and I), in 2000; and finally, Ek Borno Mithya Noi (Not a Word is a Lie), in 2001, in which she documented Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan. These memoirs became the basis for the 2003 Bollywood film Escape from Taliban. According to an October 8, 2001, report, her husband Jaanbaz Khan, had then stated, "I am being pressurized to give talaq to my Bengali wife, Sushmita Bandopadhay, whom I married here in Kolkata in 1989, if the shooting of the film is not stopped. The Taliban have sent word they cannot guarantee the safety of my family members who live in Sharana village near Ghazni, if the film is made."
Sushmita had returned to Afghanistan in January 2013 and had been working as a paramedic at a Government facility there.
There has also been a slew of attacks against women in power. On August 7, 2013, Taliban terrorists ambushed the convoy of Afghan woman Senator, Rouh Gul Khirzad, seriously wounding her in the attack and killing her 8-year-old daughter and a bodyguard in the Muqur District of Gazni Province. Khirzad's husband, son and another daughter were also wounded in the attack. Khirzad was the head of the Defence and Internal Security Commission.
On July 3, 2013, 2nd Lieutenant Isla Bibi, the commander of women Police officers in Helmand Province (there are 32 female officers among a 7,000 strong Police Force in Helmand), was killed in Lashkar Gah, the Provincial capital. Earlier, this year, in a media interview, Isla Bibi had spoken of the tremendous opposition she had faced to her decision to join the Force: "My brother, father and sisters were all against me. In fact my brother tried to kill me three times."
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's (UNAMA) Annual Report, 2012, the number of female civilian casualties in 2012 stood at 864 (301 deaths and 563 injuries), a 20 per cent increase over 2011. Women and girls killed and injured in incidents of targeted killings more than tripled in 2012, with 51 casualties, in comparison to 16 in 2011. Most of these incidents followed threats by terrorists against the women in relation to their work with the Government on women's issues. For instance, on July 13, 2012, terrorists detonated a magnetic improvised explosive device (IED) against the vehicle of the Provincial Director of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Laghman Province, Hanifa Safi, killing her and wounding her husband and daughter at Mehtarlam, the Provincial Capital. Similarly, on December 10, 2012, two armed Taliban terrorists shot dead the Provincial (Acting) Director of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Laghman Province, Najia Siddiqi, in the Sharmaki area of Mehtarlam. UNAMA in its Mid-Year Report 2013, has disclosed that, in the first six months of 2013, conflict-related violence killed 106 women and injured 241 (347 total casualties), a 61 per cent increase over the same period in 2012. Georgette Gagnon, UNAMA's Director of Human Rights, observed, "The growing loss of life and injuries to Afghan women and children in 2013 is particularly disturbing."
Speaking of the deteriorating condition of women in Afghanistan, Noor Zia Atmar, a Member of Afghan Parliament from 2005 to 2010, who now lives in a Home for abused women after escaping from her husband, observed, on August 11, 2013,
Women are in a worse condition now. Every day they are being killed, having their ears, noses cut. It is not just women in villages - it is also people like me. It will be a huge tragedy if the world will forget about Afghan women altogether after the drawdown. We must remove fundamentalism from Afghanistan. The world should remember that the fire from here might not reach their country, but the smoke will.
The same Noor Zia Atmar, just three years earlier, had travelled the world with her colleagues to show that things were changing dramatically in Afghanistan. She had then been right in her assumption. The new Afghan Constitution, adopted in January 2004, prohibited any form of discrimination against any Afghan national, including women. Further, the Government of Afghanistan became a signatory to major international conventions which guaranteed women's rights. Some of these treaties include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the Declaration of Elimination of Violence against Women; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. There were, moreover, visible indices of improvement in the condition of women: the maternal mortality rate was reduced from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2001 to 327 in 2012. Women, who did not have the right to education, work and even movement without being escorted by a male relative before 2001, now account for 22 per cent of Government employees across the country.
However, the growing Taliban influence and the Karzai Government's insistence on establishing good relations with the Taliban, have changed the nature of Governance in the country, with conservatives quickly restoring their influence. This has stopped the Government from taking steps to enhance the status of women and have dampened efforts to extend greater protection to them in public spaces.
In May 2013, the Parliament, amidst opposition by the conservatives, failed to ratify the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW), which had come into force under a Presidential decree in 2009. Though the law is still in force, pro reform groups fear it could be reversed unless it is ratified by Parliament. More worryingly, according to a July 2013 report, Parliament is considering a proposal for a criminal law revision that would effectively deny women legal protection from domestic violence. Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams observed, "Afghanistan's Lower House is proposing to protect the batterers of women and girls from criminal punishment. Legislative approval of this criminal law revision would effectively stop prosecutions of people who beat, forcibly marry, and even sell their female relatives."
On the electoral front, on July 15, 2013, the National Assembly passed a new electoral law according to which the women's quota in the new Provincial Council would be reduced to 20 per cent, down from 25 per cent under the earlier electoral law of 2004.
The pressure, both within Afghanistan and as a result of increasing US desperation to secure an ordered withdrawal of Forces through some sort of negotiated settlement with the Taliban and its masters in Pakistan, is jeopardizing the tentative and fragile gains of the past years. All of Afghanistan would, of course, pay the price for a restoration of radicalism in the country; but women would be the worst affected in the new Dark Age that now threatens this blighted nation.
(The writer Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)
(Posted on 10-09-2013)