Britain’s role in Afghanistan is coming to an after over a decade of bloodshed and war. It is doubtful that the country is in a fit state to function effectively since the Taliban and the warlords are still very much in evidence and there are reports of ISIS being present in the country as well. After all this time it is easy to forget some of the original aims which were defeating terrorism and the Taliban. We can also forget that it was the CIA who helped establish, arm and train the Taliban in order to assist them in their fight with the Russians.
One of the major victims of the years of war is women. It has turned thousand of Afghan women into refugees and widows – or both – and made it dangerous for them to seek schooling, go out to work, get healthcare or secure paid employment. Before the arrival of the Taliban in 1996, women’s rights had steadily improved and indeed, there are many photographs from that era women and girls in schools and university with not a burqa or veil in sight. Improving the rights of women became one of the additional aims of the invasion and it will be recalled that Cherie Blair – wife of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair – hosted an event in 10, Downing Street in 2001 with this aim in mind. Kofi Annan said:
There cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the then secretary of state Colin Powell:
The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of women, indeed it will not be possible without them.
At the South West regional conference of Amnesty International it was heartening to hear from someone who has worked to improve the status of women through theatre and artistic groups in the countryside. The speaker was Abdul Hakim Hashemi Hamidi who set up the Simorgh Film Association of Culture and Art, SFACA. Unlike many aid programmes which tend to stay in Kabul or the main cities, SFACA goes out into the countryside and to the villages.
He has organised educational theatre workshops in prisons, juvenile correction centres, drug addiction rehabilitation centres, in schools and with the police. He has produced films with an emphasis on human rights and the role of women.
Not all the problems faced by women are solely to do with the Taliban. Another factor is honour killings which are at a very high rate in the country. 57% are identified as the responsibility of a family member and 21% by the husband. The perpetrator of 43% killings is unclear however. A telling quote from the PowerPoint display was:
A problem with women [is] because men don’t accept women have rights
He went on to discuss the problems of human rights defenders in Afghanistan. These included difficulty in
travelling to some areas combined with a lack of government control in some parts of the country, traditional beliefs and illiteracy. Religion was a main cause he said and human rights are seen as a western construct. He urged that the UK government consider the role of human rights defenders in their discussions with the Afghans.
It was an interesting and uplifting talk by someone who has taken risks to go into the Afghanistan countryside to promote the rights of women. Abdul is a visiting fellow on the Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at York University. There is a permanent link to the York University Centre for Applied Human Rights at the bottom of the main page.