A couple of months ago I went back to my native Afghanistan after a year living in Britain. From the sedate surroundings of York University I’ve found myself back in bustling Kabul – back to the traffic jams, the construction projects and the crazy rush hour. Quite a change.
What has amazed me most upon my return is the massive difference between the realities of life at home and the way that Afghan women are more often than not portrayed in foreign media, which tends to focus on the sorrows, failures and victimised faces of Afghan women.
While there is still a long way to go, Afghan women have actually achieved so much in recent years. Millions of girls are now in school and you will find women working in a whole range of different professions. The fact that I am writing this now, having just completed a Masters in the UK, says a lot on its own.
Having said that, it’s also clear that after three decades of war, women have not achieved all that was imagined or expected. Partly, lack of progress is due to the sheer diversity of the country. Life differs greatly across the 34 provinces, many with very different cultural and traditional practices. Yes, you will find many women working and studying in Kabul and some of the bigger cities. But in other parts of the country women remain hidden in their houses, often forced to cover their faces in front of even the male in-laws in their families.
One of the most pressing issues facing Afghan women is violence, which still goes largely unpunished despite the passage of the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law. Yet, the existence of the law alone should be considered a great victory for Afghan women, and it has resulted in some positive developments. In April this year, for example, a young woman from a small village called Kookchaheel in Badghis province was killed by a mob for the “crime” of dishonouring her family (she’d reportedly eloped with a male cousin). This is a horrible crime, but not long ago there would have been no repercussions. In this case the mullah (religious scholar) who issued the fatwa for the woman’s killing was himself apprehended, tried and jailed for 17 years.
This is incredibly encouraging and sends a clear message to those elements of society who ignore the rule of law in favour of an informal justice system, one which often persecutes women rather than protecting them. But that message has not been heard everywhere or by everyone. Not long ago a couple were found beheaded in Helmand province, supposedly for the crime of being in love outside of marriage. The girl’s father is the suspected perpetrator, but it is unclear what actions – if any – the police have taken in response.
Despite stories such as these, of which there are many, I am still optimistic about women’s rights in Afghanistan. When I see Afghans all over the country raising these sensitive issues and using different approaches to do so, I feel positive that the progress we have fought for can be continued and sustained.
Of course many women in Afghanistan are apprehensive about increasing international pressure to “negotiate” with the Taliban. We’re all worried that the rights we fought so hard to achieve could be sold out in a “peace deal”. In fact I’ll be looking to the UK government and others to hold the line on this, and to prioritise listening to our voices, something I know Amnesty International has also been calling strongly for.
But if I ever feel dispirited, I think about the many success stories of recent years: the women’s football team playing in an international tournament, the female journalist Najiba Ayubi receiving a 2013 Courage in Journalism award, and the thousands of Afghan women who work in civil society, dedicating their lives to make our country a better one, a better one for all.
So the next time you see a news story about the sorrow of Afghan woman, just remember that there are other stories too, and many of us are dedicated to ensuring those stories will be the future. When I remember that, I can’t help but be optimistic.
This blog was originally posted by the Huffington Post