Afghanistan’s future is female (by Conor Foley)

On the ground, small but significant networks are pressing for legislative reform, despite western intervention and state politics.

I met Zakia in the restaurant of the UN compound in Kabul, partly because it was convenient and partly because there are still not that many public places for a western man to sit and talk to an Afghan woman alone.

Zakia (not her real name) is a former director of an Afghan non-governmental organisation (NGO) the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan (HAWCA), established in January 1999. It started as a simple humanitarian assistance group, helping vulnerable women and children, but now lists its objectives as “promoting the role of women in society” and “supporting the reconstruction of the country.” If Afghanistan has a future, it will be due to the efforts of people like Zakia who form part of a small but emerging civil society, determined to challenge the warlords and fundamentalists who still dominate the country’s official politics.

“We need peace,” says Zakia. “The American’s bombs are not the answer. The two sides will have to sit down and talk some day, so the only question is how many of us have to get killed before that happens.” I press her about whether she would accept a role for the Taliban in government and she pauses before replying:

Yes, this would be a big price to pay, but if they lay down their guns and accept the constitution, why not? After all, people with the same attitudes are already in the government. What is happening at the moment is worse because while the conflict continues our whole society is being Talibanised and corrupted.

HAWCA lobbied actively during the debates that led up to the adoption of Afghanistan’s constitution of 2002 (pdf). Zakia says that the outcome was “a mix that could go in either direction.” Articles two and three of the constitution state: “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam” and “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Yet article seven states: “The state shall abide by the UN charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Zakia has worked with a network of Afghan women’s groups and human rights organisations to press for legislative reforms, such as a law on ending violence against women. Along with the Afghan independent human rights commission, she was involved in a conference that drew on the experiences of a number of other countries with sharia legal systems to look at best practices for a new law on family relations. She also lobbied against a proposal in a draft penal procedure code that would have introduced a lower age of criminal responsibility for girls than for boys. After a meeting with President Karzai, he refused to sign these discriminatory proceedings into law.

HAWCA has also helped to establish refuge centres for women escaping domestic violence