As Afghanistan recovers from the effects of the Soviet occupation, civil war and U.S. war on terror, why do you think women's rights activists argue that women's rights should be a priority in developing the new government?
I think that part of the reason why women's rights activists are more insistent on women's rights being integrated into the fabric of Afghanistan now more than ever before is because its absence has translated into terrible realities for Afghan women. The reality is that in the last forty years, there has been so much upheaval in the nation that the issue of women's rights has been silenced. During the Soviet Occupation, the larger issue was fighting the external and formidable force of the Russian army. Little outside of this could be envisioned. Women were silent, homogenized into the larger indigenous struggle for the freedom of Afghanistan from the Soviet Union.
The absence of the Soviets enabled the Taliban to gain power, and with their own repressive views towards women, the issue of women's rights was forcibly moved to the periphery. As seen with Assef leading the public stoning of the couple in the soccer stadium, women found themselves taking the brunt of the Taliban regime. The forced imposition of the burka, as well as being denied education and equality of social, economic, and political opportunity became the result of silencing women's rights discussions. The tribal leaders who were empowered by the Taliban were able to do what they wished in terms of women. Honor killings, beheadings, and violence became the extensions of the failure to integrate women's rights into a meaningful social context.
With the United States- led War on Terror and the deposing of the Taliban, women's rights activists sense a new opportunity for the women of Afghanistan. The formation of a new government and the writing of a new Constitution presents an opportunity for women's rights to be inserted into the public discourse. With its absence during the time of the Taliban and the gruesome violations to women that took place as a part of this social fabric, women right's activists see now as an essential time in which the voice of women has to be asserted in as many realms as possible. It does not escape these activists that one of the advantages of the United States led coalition forces was that Western style reforms that keep women's issues in mind could be easily embraced.
Yet, women's rights activists have rightful grounds for worry. When the coalition forces entered Afghanistan, many "deals" were made with tribal leaders in the hunt for Taliban leadership and for then- outlaw Osama Bin Laden. This hunt caused these leaders to enjoy support and profit from their alliance with the Coalition forces. The reality is that these tribal leaders support some of the most oppressive conditions for women under the guise of "Sharia law" or to simply enhance their own power. If Coalition forces were designed to liberate people from terror, women's rights activists argue that effectively imprisoning half of the country's population under repression fails to accomplish this goal. At the same time, the legislative process in Afghanistan is not moving as fast as some would like. Recent stoppage in Afghan parliamentary debate to pass legislation that would support women's rights has caused much consternation to activists who want to see change happen as soon as possible. These realities have helped to move women's right activists to a position of being more vocal and more driven to ensure their agenda is a part of the new composition of Afghanistan.
I would argue that there are two main reasons for this. One has to do with women’s rights and the history of fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan. The other has more to do with the economic good of the whole country.
One major reason that women’s rights advocates think that women’s rights should be a priority is because those rights were so badly trampled upon by the Taliban. It is clear that there is a strong base of support in Afghanistan for policies that we in the West would see as terribly anti-female. Therefore, there is a clear worry that the Afghan government and society could revert to oppressing women if they do not seize this opportunity to bring about change in this time of transition.
A second reason to push for women’s rights has more to do with economics and the society as a whole (as opposed to the specific interests of women). Afghanistan is a poor country that can use all the resources it can get. However, if the country continues to subjugate women, it is essentially throwing away half of its potential human resources. If the country is to advance economically, it needs to use the talents and ambitions of its women rather than keeping them outside the economic sphere.
Thus, there are at least two reasons why some people feel that it is imperative to push for women’s rights in Afghanistan right now.