News / Asia

Conflict, Violence Harsh on Afghan, Pakistani Women

Afghan women in line queuing to get their registration cards on the last day of voter registration for the presidential elections, April 1.
Afghan women in line queuing to get their registration cards on the last day of voter registration for the presidential elections, April 1.
Sharon Behn
Prolonged conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a particularly harsh effect on women in both countries. Terrorism, sectarian conflict, criminality and a culture of impunity are limiting women's ability to get to school and get jobs outside the home, trapping them in an ever-smaller public space.
 
During the past decade, women have made significant strides towards social, political and financial empowerment in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But analysts say the gains are being threatened.
 
In Afghanistan, the Taliban are regaining areas of the country and once again imposing their beliefs that women should not be educated or participate in society outside the home.
 
Nader Nadery, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, says in areas where there is an absence of rule of law, there is an absolute impunity for those who are committing violence, specifically against women.
 
In those areas, he says, protection becomes a primary issue but is often used against the women themselves.
 
"In some cases, the protection issue becomes an excuse for the male members who intentionally prevent women to be part of society, be part of the economy, be part of the politics, and they bring this issue of I am pushing you in the home because I want you to be protected. This is what the Taliban were trying to do, and still are doing," said Nadery.
 
Pakistani social researcher Nazish Brohi says in areas where the Pakistani Taliban operate or have influence, girls are being targeted, and women are retreating behind the veil and into their houses.

"I think over 500 girls' schools have been bombed. Women councilors who are women who were politically engaged who were elected into office, they were specifically threatened by the Taliban and asked to either stop or withdraw from the political sphere or face persecution. Two of them were shot dead. As a result, the rest of them either resigned or just simply stopped attending office," said Brohi.

In Pakistan's south and southwest, ethnic violence also has forced women to cover their faces and severely curtailed their social mobility.
 
Brohi says with the overall deterioration of the rule of law in Pakistan, women no longer feel the state can protect them. Instead, they are turning to family or local neighborhood councils for help and protection.

"The central concept really seems to be impunity, that the state is unwilling to call these aggressors or perpetrators of crimes into account because of [a] it's own incapacity, [b] it's unwillingness and [c] it's general inefficiency," she said.
 
But the analysts say in spite of the threat of violence or even death, women are still pushing forward in both nations.
 
In Pakistan, more women are attending university and entering the work place, more women are voting, and more are refusing to be forced into marriage. But
Brohi says that comes at a cost.

"What I'm saying is that there is an increasing number of women making their own decisions, and an increasing number of women who therefore face violence for making those decisions," she said.
 
In Afghanistan, where women vividly remember living under Taliban rule when they were punished for leaving the house without a male relative or showing even an inch of ankle, Nadery says women are fighting against legislation that would erode their rights.

"In each of those battles the Afghan women have fought back. They were on the street.  They were in the Parliament house. They were at the office of the president, knocking at his door," he said.

And in each of those battles, the women won.

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