I was standing outside the gate of an apartment waiting for one of my relatives to come down when I heard the sound, “psstt…psstt…hello sister!” I turned around to see who was calling me and saw one eye peeping out of the gate. I walked towards her and asked if she was calling me. The young girl, of maybe 11/12 years, looked at me with a vague expression and asked me to come inside the gate. I was a bit confused, “why?” She looked down as if she was trained to do so before answering anybody and said briefly, “…because they would see you.” My heart was, all of a sudden, filled with a mixed feeling of anger and sadness. She did not answer my question: “what do you mean by ‘they’? Who are ‘they?” and just kept staring at the ground. The dominating “they” have not only been ruling the physical set of the environment but this was one of the good examples to show how they have been controlling the mind of people since their childhood.
Like most of the countries that have been lamenting about equal rights, opportunities, and human rights between males and females, there are portions of people in Afghanistan who have been talking about the women’s situation in Afghanistan. However, the road does not seem feasible; there are a lot of challenges. Like all the other South Asian nations, women have been considered the lower sex in Afghanistan too; dependent on the male members all their life. Their rights are very limited and the laws are rarely implemented at the local level; most of them are not even aware of the existing laws. For example, many women I spoke to did not even know that there is a law that forbids violence against women (EVAW law passed on a Presidential decree in 2009). And there is no public arena where women can gather up and speak up for themselves, they do not hold freedom of speech along with the freedom of asking for rights as human beings. Some of the socially aware youths do express that they want the change for themselves and for the generations to come, however not all of them are ready to open up and lead the discussion on this topic. Most of them who I spoke with were either scared to open up or had a desire to leave the country and settle in more liberal Western and non-Western countries alike.
In the cities like Kabul, we see many girls and women hurling out of their homes to go to schools, colleges, and jobs. The first impression I had got on seeing this was that unlike I had read or heard, women are getting opportunities to go out, study and work. It seemed like a sign of hope. However, once I started speaking with them, I realized how limited their freedom was. They were allowed to go out of the house but the invisible chain to track them in the path defined by the males (family and community members) was still on a tight grip. They were doing bachelors and working in different sectors, but more than 80 percent of them believed that women are not supposed to think independently (because their “society” says so) and should not do things forbidden by society (go out with friends, speak freely with the males, show hands or legs, ask for the equal treatment at home or outside, etc.). For them, women were born weak and they can never even dream of becoming equal to men. The seed of this was planted with the help of different verses of the religious texts, both written and interpreted by the men.
Afghanistan, the country has completely been under the hold of males and religious leaders, who are again males. For over the years, it has been the collaboration between the males of different strata, with religious leaders on the top, that has established and created the rules and regulations in a society. The studies show that prior to the Taliban Regime, the situation was not as bad as today. Women had a better position in society and they were involved in different sectors of the country’s infrastructure. With Taliban, the society seems to have gone back to civilization. Women have forbidden the right to education, to be independent or work, freedom of speech at home and in the public, and were made to wear a full hijab/burqa, etc. Anyone who was perceived as having thoughts and behaviors different than the system and ideology defined by the Taliban was killed or given severe punishments. The system the Taliban introduced was also difficult for many men to accept, however, mostly it was women who were the victims in different ways. Today, the Taliban do not have a direct influence in the governance of the country, however, the legacy that they have left behind still seems to exist. The girl I mentioned at the beginning of this paper can be taken as an example. She is the product of a society that is still not free of the infection spread during the past.
Documentary Afghanistan: No Country for Women shows how women are not safe in the hands of the people who they are close to, like the immediate family members. And the incident of Farkhunda in 2015, when a young woman of 27 was lynched, beaten, killed, and burned in the daylight on Kabul’s one of the most happening streets, shows how women are not safe even in the hands of the State. When the State could not protect the woman who suffered violence in public at the hands of men (just two miles away from the Presidential Palace) how can they believe that the State would interfere and give them justice when they suffer violence from their family members? This thus gives rise to the question, who takes the responsibility and ensures the women’s safety in Afghanistan? Between the hope of getting justice and coming out to be able to enjoy equal rights as a human and the hopelessness at family, community and the State level shows how women are stuck in the mid-way. Unless they sideline the fear and come out to speak up for themselves, even the little change seems to take a very long time.
Rashmi Sheila is a freelance writer and Manager at Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), Afghanistan. Prior to this, she has worked as a Counselor at SHF, Gurgaon, India and as an Editorial Assistant at the Studies in Nepali History and Society journal, Kathmandu. She has conducted research on women’s issues, Nepali migrants and diaspora, gangsterism, and the changing labor force. Her writing has appeared in various blogs, magazines, and journals.