Noeleen Heyzer

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Afghan women are fighting for something so simple it has long been taken for granted by women in much of the world: to be considered citizens by their country’s constitution.

As some 400 men and 100 women take part in a loya jirga, or grand council, to adopt a new constitution this month, activists inside and outside the country have charged that a draft of the document fails to protect women from thekind of cruel and repressive treatment theysuffered for five years under the Taliban.

That is unlikely to change, women’s rights activists said, in part because conservative mujahideen–whom some consider holy warriors for defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980s and others consider warlords for fomenting civil war in the 1990s–wield enormous power within the loya jirga, which has been convened in Kabul.

One young woman, convention delegate Malalai Joya, was placed under United Nations protection after she chastised the assembly for bending to the influence of the mujahideen and their most religiously conservative faction, jihadis.

“Why have you again selected as committee chairmen those criminals who have brought these disasters for the Afghan people?” Joya, 25, said on Dec. 17. Jihadis will chair at least six of the 10 committees debating the constitution. “In my opinion they should be taken to the World Court.”

Few Guarantees for Women

While the draft constitution supports human rights, it does not guarantee equality for women, whose rights continue to be curtailed two years after the United States removed the Taliban from power and First Lady Laura Bush launched an international campaign to improve the lot of Afghan women.

“Under this constitution, it’s foreseeable that Taliban-like laws could be passed and not even contradict the constitution,” said Masuda Sultan, program director for Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based nonprofit organization that sponsored a conference on women’s rights in Kandahar, Afghanistan, this fall. “For example, a woman could be sent to flogging under this constitution.”

Afghan women who attended the September conference “felt that because of the recent history of abuses, it was very important to very specifically list rights of women. That really hasn’t happened in this document,” Sultan said. “It doesn’t outlaw discrimination based on gender. It doesn’t talk about the rights of inheritance and property. It doesn’t address the exchange of women in terms of disputes between families.”

Although members of a constitutional commission reviewed a women’s bill of rights composed at the Kandahar conference, they did not write it into the draft constitution. Female commissioners “told us this was the best that could have been done under the circumstances, that it was the best we could get out of the loya jirga,” Sultan said.

The 50-page draft constitution, unveiled in November, envisions an Islamic republic that guarantees the supremacy of Islamic code, or Sharia law. It says that girls and women can attend school, a right they were denied by the Taliban, but also refers to female heads of households, generally widows, as “women without caretakers.”

Still Wearing the Burqa

Women’s rights advocates have said that Afghan women, particularly those in small towns and rural areas, continue to suffer some of the same abuses imposed by the Taliban. They can’t move freely in public, attend school or work; they are forced into marriage, often at a young age, and sold to older, married men. If suspected of adultery, they are subject to so-called honor killings.

Many women still wear burqas in public, not out of obligation, but fear. Professional women often wear the head-to-ankle covering with its small mesh peephole on their way to and from work. At the office, the burqas–required garb for all women under the Taliban–are removed to display modern clothing and makeup.

Certainly, women’s advocates acknowledge life is better for women now than it was before December 2001, when the Taliban tried to recreate a seventh-century style of living.

But it took just one image to illustrate both the gains and shortcomings of the last two years: Female delegates elected to the loya jirga had to be escorted to the meeting by male relatives.

Human rights advocates said they don’t expect the loya jirga, which convened under heavy security in Kabul Dec. 14, to add women’s rights–or citizenship–to the constitution.

“It’s not going to be an easy task,” said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. “It’s working against the grain.”

Equal Rights for All, But Women

One early clue was the initial exclusion of women from the leadership team at the constitutional convention.

When women protested, the chairperson, Sibghatullah Mojadeddi, told them that even God considered women to be unequal to men. Under conservative interpretations of Islamic law, the testimony of two women is, in some cases, equal to that of one man. Ultimately, Mojadeddi relented, adding a woman as the fourth convention deputy.

But he could not take back his words.

“It really reflects the underlying thinking, that women are not equal citizens. And that came through very, very strongly when the chair said you need two women to be equal to a man,” Heyzer said in an interview with Women’s eNews.

“That image was the fact that women do not have full citizenship,” she said. “It is so important to have the constitution be extremely clear about women bearing the full rights of citizenship. It has to be stated.”

The draft constitution does guarantee equal rights to all Afghan citizens. But nowhere does it say who is a citizen. And while it does state that Afghanistan will abide by the international treaties it has ratified–presumably including one that prohibits discrimination against women, which Afghanistan ratified in March–human and women’s rights advocates worry that isn’t enough.

Amnesty International has urged the loya jirga to ban forced marriages and child marriage and to grant women the right to divorce their husbands.

In a letter this month to President Bush, representatives of 32 organizations working on behalf of women’s and human rights said the draft constitution leaves such rights “open to restriction by laws and by extremist interpretations of Islam.”

The letter urged Bush to support women’s rights in the constitution and a greater expansion of the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul, which they said was necessary to protect women and the loya jirga itself. Taliban forces, which reportedly have regrouped, have threatened to cut off the noses of delegates.

“Since last fall, we have seen more than 30 girls’ schools set on fire, bombed or violently attacked by extremists,” the letter said. “Horrendous human rights and women’s rights violations, such as rapes, seizing of property and homes, warlord restrictions on women, sex trafficking, forced marriages, illegal detentions and threats against women who dare to exercise their rights and against human rights defenders continue with impunity . . . The Taliban is re-emerging and gaining strength.”

Jennifer Jackman, director of policy and research for the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights organization based in suburban Washington, said legal rights are meaningless if women must fear for their lives.

“Without security, women’s rights will never be possible in Afghanistan,” Jackman said. “Human rights advocates can’t advocate for women’s rights in the current situation. They’re risking their lives.”

“It is really killing the hope that especially Afghan women had felt after the Taliban was removed.”

Jodi Enda writes about government and politics from Washington.

For more information:

Women for Afghan Women:

United Nations Development Fund for Women–
Afghan Women’s Statement:

Feminist Majority–HelpAfghanWomen: