KABUL (Reuters) - Women have won hard-fought rights in Afghanistan since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.
But gains made in areas such as education, work and even dress code look shaky as the government plans peace talks that include negotiating with the Taliban. Below are some questions and answers about women’s rights in Afghanistan today.
Rights groups and Western governments described the situation as one of the worst that the world had encountered for women at that time.
Education, the right to vote and almost all work were banned for women by the Taliban government as un-Islamic from 1996-2001. A sharia law also imposed harsh punishment for adultery, which almost always favored men.
The Taliban also enforced a strict dress code involving a head-to-toe burqa when women left their homes.
Restrictions on their movement were also enforced. Women were not allowed by law to walk around unless accompanied by a male relative or their husband. Even then, they were told to keep their movement outside the home to a minimum.
Edicts were passed by the Taliban that ordered women not to wear shoes that make noise, and to paint over the windows of street-level homes so women could not be seen.
From 1998, they were denied access to general hospitals.
The dire treatment of women was the main reason Western governments gave for refusing to recognize the Taliban government as legitimate. It also caused the amount of foreign financial aid Afghanistan received to shrink significantly.
Boys’ education also suffered as many of their teachers were women.
HAVE WOMEN‘S RIGHTS REALLY IMPROVED IN AFGHANISTAN?
Yes. With the fall of the Taliban, women regained many of the basic rights that had been denied them.
There have been significant improvements over the past decade, including a quota for women in the Afghan parliament that has reserved a quarter of its 249 seats for them.
President Hamid Karzai’s interim cabinet after 2001 included a female vice-president and there are three female ministers after his 2009 re-election.
Still, some warn that having female politicians is more about symbolism than actual change.
Karzai has said he wants women to play a bigger role in the army and police force, where they are crucial for security checks and to guard against domestic violence in a society where the sexes are often separated.
But jobs and personal lives are still constricted by custom and law. A lot depends on where women live. Rights groups and Western officials have warned of a rural-urban divide and say corruption and poverty fuel lawlessness outside of cities, where people also tend to be more conservative.
In rural areas, women often have little or no access to education and justice is more often administered by tribal elders or Taliban “courts” than traditional courts.
Rights groups view the rule of law and economic dependence on men as the key issues for women’s rights today.
Women’s rights face setbacks from the Taliban, poor security, a strengthening conservative faction and even the present government itself.
Aid groups warn girls’ education is in danger because of poor security, lack of funds and inadequate teacher-training.
Attacks on their schools and teachers, such as last month’s killing of the headmaster of a girls’ school near Kabul by Taliban gunmen, highlight persistent opposition, as do Taliban threats against working women across many professions.
A family law passed by Karzai in 2009 sparked outcry from Western nations.
Designed to legalize minority Shi‘ite family law, which is different from that of the majority Sunni population, it was drawn up in part by a conservative cleric and contains clauses saying a wife can be denied food by her husband if she does not satisfy him sexually, and that she must wear make-up if he desires.
It also contained some restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, reminiscent of Taliban-era edicts.
Female politicians and local officials in Afghanistan have accused Karzai of repressing women’s rights to win political support in the more conservative sections of society.
In March, Karzai sacked the deputy governor of southern Helmand province after two women performed without headscarves at a high-profile concert.
His own wife is almost entirely absent from public life.
The United States and NATO have repeatedly said reconciliation talks with the Taliban must contain guarantees that women’s rights are protected.
However there is growing concern from analysts and Afghan women that their rights will be overlooked. Karzai has spoken little on the issue, cementing those fears.
(Sources: Reuters, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Ahmed Rashid’s book “Taliban”)
Editing by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski