Palwasha Hassan had no idea that her impressive resume would be her undoing when her nomination to become Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs came up for confirmation in parliament in January.
Hassan's qualifications should have assured her fast confirmation. She set up one of the first shelters for battered and abused Afghan women, and runs a groundbreaking non-governmental organization (NGO), called Rights and Democracy, which has lobbied extensively for women's rights. She also has a graduate degree from a British university; and was a founding member of the umbrella Afghan Women's Network, which coordinates the activities of over 70 women's groups in the country.
Yet at her confirmation hearing she came under a barrage of hostile questioning: she was probed on how she planned to limit the "endless" freedom enjoyed by women; asked whether she supported, and would enforce the wearing of hijab (female head covering) and mehram (regulation requiring a male relative to escort a female while outside the family home); and was queried by a female MP, who hinted that setting up shelters for domestic abuse victims was a dubious proposition. Ultimately, legislators declined to confirm her.
Hassan's fate is just the latest in a string of troubling signs for advocates of women's rights in Afghanistan. As President Hamid Karzai's administration floats proposals for peace and reconciliation with insurgent groups, many advocates fear that the government may consent to rolling back their rights to education, employment, public office and even security. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over the past three years, the rights Afghan women have experienced steady erosion. While attacks on girls' schools and targeted assassinations of Afghan women in public office are attributed to the widening influence of insurgents, there have also been setbacks in the protection and promotion Afghan women's rights within Afghanistan's legal framework.
For example, a discriminatory Sh'ia law passed last year permits husbands to deny food and sustenance to their wives, if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands. The law also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. In addition, an electoral law amendment attempted to reduce the representation of women in parliament.
Like other defenders of women's rights in Afghanistan, Hassan is vehemently opposed to any Taliban reconciliation initiative that could further erode women's rights. Based on her rejection and other recent developments, activists fear that increasing conservatism in Afghan society, along with the reviving influence of the ideologically intolerant Taliban, will feed each on other, resulting in a compromise of women's rights in potential peace talks.
Women are not welcome at the negotiating table, complains Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a human rights activist and a leading member, like Hassan, of the Afghan Women's Network. "They need to be part of designing the peace and reconciliation process," Nemat said, noting that only one female delegate was invited to January's London Conference, a gathering that mulled the future of the Afghanistan stabilization process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Though attendees of the London Conference and others have offered assurances that women's rights will be upheld, Afghan women are not relaxing. "How much of the constitution is being implemented now?" asked Nemat. "Right now we don't have a Taliban system, but an elected government, and yet there is no guarantee for women's rights."
Nemat is busy mobilizing women for meetings with stakeholders, domestic and international. "We would like to know the details and nitty-gritty of the [peace] process and who is going to sacrifice what [in reconciliation]," she says.
The right women need to get into the process, argues Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, a civil society group working with women and youth. While agreeing that guns and money have played a larger and more influential role in Afghan politics to date, Nehan said she is placing her faith in the growing number of women activists coming together.
Collaborating with the Afghan Women's Network, Nehan has been holding a series of meetings with other activists and urging Indian and Pakistani women to convene a meeting of the 'Women's Trialogue.' The trialogue initiative has so far held two meetings in support of peace among the countries, and Nehan hopes the next gathering will strive to support the efforts of Afghan women, and add muscle to their civil rights demands.
Cooperation between Afghan women activists on this scale is new. Though active since 2001, the efforts of various women's rights organizations have been scattered and sometimes competitive, says Hassan, who feels she did not get enough support from women MP during her unsuccessful confirmation process.
"We don't see each other as complementary," she says, attributing the weakness of the movement to the long period of disempowerment. But, as the women's movement is now starting to come together, Hassan is preparing for a struggle. "We have to be ready for a fight," she asserted.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.