Recent media reports indicate that fewer Afghan women turned out to vote for a President on August 20, 2009 than went to the polls five years ago, when in some districts female turnout had been even higher than that of males. Apprehension, convention, ennui, and disorganization led to families keeping their women home on election day, even as men dared to vote. The reversal of women’s rights, which they had only recently begun to exercise, is an ominous sign. This, along with the charges of election fraud and lower turnout, does not bode well for mobilizing new sectors and securing free and fair elections as a legitimate element of government in Afghanistan’s presidential system.

In the early days of the Taliban’s overthrow, great excitement prevailed as an interim government, containing for the first time in Afghanistan’s history a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, was instituted, followed by a Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003 that led to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005. The 2004 Constitution reserves a quarter of the seats (68) in the lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), for women. Of the President’s nominees to the upper house, Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), appointed for five-year terms, half (17) must be women. The Constitution also safeguards rights for women.

However, any progress was in jeopardy from the beginning. After serving as the first Minister for Women’s Affairs in the interim government, Dr. Sima Simar moved into her new offices as head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission only under armed guard. Malalai Joya spoke out publicly against the domination of warlords as an elected delegate to the Loya Jirga convened to ratify the Constitution. In reply, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, chief of the Loya Jirga, called her an infidel and communist. Since the death threats she received then, Mojaddedi has survived four assassination attempts and travels in Afghanistan under a burqa and with armed guards.

However, there have been achievements. As mentioned, women now hold seats in the Afghan Parliament, and millions of girls have been able to attend primary school. Still, educational gains plunge when girls arrive at secondary school, with only 4% of female students reaching tenth grade. Violence against women is prevalent; women in public life are regularly threatened, and several have been assassinated. One of the most poignant was that in September 2008 of Malalai Kakar, a lieutenant colonel in the Kandahar police force, a high-profile position in a male-dominated country. The head of the city’s department of crimes against women, she had joined Kandahar’s police force in 1982. When the Taliban took over in 1996, she was banned from the force. She resumed her job as a police officer when US-led forces in 2001 overthrew the Taliban government, which had excluded women from most outside work. Attackers ambushed Ms. Kakar in front of her home as she was setting out for work in her car.

Matters took a turn for the worse lately when President Hamid Karzai officially approved the Shi‘a Personal Status Law,[1] the most shocking of a series of deals to appease fundamentalist religious leaders and former warlords. The law contains many provisions that are offensive to women. Custody rights are granted exclusively to fathers and grandfathers. A woman can leave the house without her husband’s permission only if she has “reasonable legal reasons,” which are unstipulated. Yet, the law does specify financial compensation to be paid by a man who rapes a child or a mentally ill woman for her loss of virginity, but leaves out any reference to criminal punishment. Karzai issued the law on July 27 with no public announcement.

When Karzai mentioned that he had signed an earlier version of the legislation, world leaders denounced him. Karzai responded by claiming that he had never seen the contentious document, and under pressure promised to review the legislation. This review led to some positive changes, including the removal of an article that gave a man the right to have sex with his wife once every four nights. Yet, many of the most repressive provisions remain. By endorsing the law, the President has frustrated hopes that official discrimination and the oppression of women by their own government was an element of days gone by in Afghanistan. Concern, therefore, continues to mount regarding the influence of conservative Islamic groups, particularly regarding their attitudes toward women. Parliament continues to pass laws that tilt closer to Islamic fundamentalist principles than to Western concepts of human rights.

Afghanistan faces the problems typical of its status as one of the world’s poorest countries. The International Monetary Fund forecasts GDP growth at 9% in 2009/10. A new power transmission cable between Kabul and Uzbekistan brought reliable electricity in February 2008. Nonetheless, widespread corruption, poppy production, the narcotics trade, insurgency, weak infrastructure, and problems with the rule of law impede development. In the judicial domain, Womankind Worldwide’s latest report[2] on the status of women in Afghanistan identified the most serious problem facing Afghan women as the failure of the Karzai government and its international supporters to establish a legal system that truly functions. While the Constitution and Afghan law secure women’s rights, they are not enforced. Presently, 85% of implemented justice occurs outside the official legal system, using Shari‘a, customary, and tribal traditions. Womankind points out that “the vast majority of women in prison are there for zina,” which is for allegedly having sexual relations outside marriage (which includes being raped), for running away from home, or for eloping with a partner to escape forced marriage. The report’s authors note, “A culture of impunity reigns around honour crimes ... There is a general acceptance in society (and sympathy among judges) of men’s right to murder or harm women to ‘preserve honour.’”[3]

The struggle over the Shi‘a Personal Status law and the obstacles faced by women in voting are solemn reminders of the fragility of the gains made by Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban. The Taliban controls large swaths of the country where schools for girls are being burned and female students are being attacked. Karzai, whose popularity has waned, has proposed negotiations with the Taliban and has looked to minority groups and warlords to bolster his political standing. So it is not unexpected that he was willing to consider a law proposed by uncompromising members of the Shi‘ite minority. In addition, a government losing to an insurgency and at risk of losing its legitimacy by having conducted fraudulent elections won’t have much time or ambition to devote to women’s rights and status.



[1]. The Shi‘a Personal Status Law applies only to Shi‘a (primarily Hazara) women. The rights of the Sunni female population, indeed the rights of all Afghan women, are supposedly protected by the Constitution. However, many women are not aware of their rights. Furthermore, the legal system is not strong, free, and independent enough to enforce these rights. Women’s issues are generally handled by tribal, customary, or Shari‘a law.


[2]. John W. Warnock, “The Status of Women in Karzai’s Afghanistan,” Global Research, April 14, 2009.


[3]. Warnock, “The Status of Women in Karzai’s Afghanistan.”


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