Earlier this week, as NATO leaders at the summit in Chicago pondered Afghanistan’s future, a group of worried Afghan and American women met on the sidelines to discuss strategies for protecting the fragile gains that Afghan women have achieved in the past decade. They are right to be concerned. As Western powers reduce their presence in Afghanistan over the next two years, the Taliban will undoubtedly attempt to reassert their harsh control in Kabul and the north and west of the country where women have made the most gains. Girls’ education will likely continue to be a troubling battlefield. Increased access to education for girls is one of the few bright spots since the overthrow of the Taliban. In 2001, less than 3 percent of girls attended school while today more than 40 percent do. However, Taliban attacks against girls’ schools and teachers occur with alarming frequency. Just in the past month, the Taliban poisoned hundreds of schoolgirls and several teachers in two attacks in a northern province. One attack used powder to contaminate the air in classrooms; another contaminated drinking water.
More broadly, violence against women in Afghanistan is an endemic and pervasive problem, across all sectors of society. As of January this year, approximately 400 Afghan women were in jail for so-called “moral crimes” such as running away from an abusive marriage. Police regularly force women who are trying to flee domestic violence to return to their families, knowing–and approving–of the new beatings to come. Last year, the Afghan government (in an appeal to more conservative segments of society) attempted to pass a law that would heavily regulate the few women’s shelters that NGOs have formed in various cities. The proposed law would have forced battered women to appear before an eight-member government panel that would also have had the power to send the woman to jail or return her to her abusive home; fleeing women would be subject to a physical exam that could involve a “virginity test.” Proponents of the law blamed the women’s shelters for encouraging women to leave their homes, even characterizing the shelters as brothels. The law would have also brought the independently-funded shelters under the control of the Afghan government, which has hardly been a supportive partner. Fortunately, critical media attention eventually compelled the Karzai administration to approve a different version of the law that women’s groups supported.
The spread of courageous new media in Afghanistan has been another bright spot of the past decade, particularly with respect to shining a light on women’s issues. For example, the hugely popular soap opera “The Secrets of This House” deals with all sorts of controversial subjects such as corruption, drugs, love, and the role of women in society. Saad Mohseni, the Afghan founder of Tolo TV which produces the soap opera, explicitly views this show and others as levers of cultural change.
Broadcaster Sami Mahdi, the director of news and current affairs at an independent television station, is another brave Afghan trying to change attitudes toward women. One of the shows he hosts is called “Niqab” (Mask), which tackles the sensitive issue of violence against women. Women appear on the show with their faces covered and answer questions from a live audience about their experiences with domestic violence and rape. Their face-covering gives them the courage to speak openly. This week, Madhi won the prestigious Knight International Journalism Award for his innovative and daring programming. As international troops depart Afghanistan, ensuring the survival of independent media like Tolo TV and that of Sami Mahdi will be hugely important–not only for giving women a voice, but for continuing the slow process of cultural change that has started in the past decade and that the Taliban wants to reverse.