To many in the West, the constitutional guarantee of equality with men appeared the culmination of more than two years of international reform programs and aid packages to help Afghan women. Under President Hamid Karzai's administration, women have returned to school, taken on jobs and hold some government posts. In Kabul, headscarves and overcoats occasionally replace burqas. Women delegates were outspoken members of the December 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga, or grand tribal conference, and also participated in the July 2003 Emergency Loya Jirga that set up Afghanistan's transitional government.
That political role looked set to expand after the Constitutional Loya Jirga, which concluded in early January, granted women a substantial role in the country's proposed parliament. Under the constitution, approximately 25 percent of the 250 seats in the lower chamber of parliament are reserved for women. Women also must account for 50 percent of the president's appointees to the upper house of parliament, the House of Elders. The president, provincial and district councils appoint all members of this chamber. The total number of delegates has not yet been specified.
"This ultimately gives Afghan women more space for political participation independent of association with political parties or groups," said Palwasha Hassan, a delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga and the coordinator for Afghanistan of Charity Rights and Democracy, a Canadian non-governmental organization.
Other provisions in the constitution could have similar far-reaching effects. Article 44 stipulates that the government must devise educational programs for women, while Article 48 states that "work is the right of every Afghan." Article 22 states that men and women "have equal rights and duties before the law."
Yet for many ordinary Afghan women, such rights mean little for everyday life. According to a recent report by Radio Free Europe, there have been hundreds of cases of self-immolation by women since the Taliban's ouster, most noticeably in the western region of Herat. Afghanistan has one of the world's lowest female literacy levels and one of its highest maternal mortality rates. Forced marriages are common and poverty and domestic violence widespread. Adequate health care is often either non-existent, or denied to women at hospitals with male doctors. An Afghan woman's average life expectancy is about 46 years, which is less than the average Afghan man's.
In Kabul, Mari Akrami, who runs a small training project for rural Afghan women, remained cautious about the new constitution's impact. "The real test will be its implementation; otherwise it is destined to remain just another document full of attractive words and phrases," Akrami said.
The legal interpretation of these provisions could prove one crucial stumbling block. Afghanistan's constitution states that all laws must be in accordance with Islamic principles. That reinforces the position of the Afghan judiciary, mostly dominated by conservative Islamic clerics who look askance at women playing a larger role in society. In January, the equal rights clause met its first test when the Supreme Court tried to ban state television from airing tapes of Afghan woman singers. The ban attempt failed after Karzai asserted that the constitution protected such broadcasts, but the conflict illustrated the depth of feeling aroused by the equal rights statute.
"Implementation of the constitution in general is an issue related to reforms in the legal sector, or broadly restoring the rule of law," said Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission spokesman Ahmad Nader Nadery.
Increasingly, restoring the rule of law is proving an elusive goal. With rival warlords battling for influence in regions outside of Kabul, the European Union recently proposed postponing the general elections scheduled for this June. Warlord-related violence, as well as security threats posed by Islamic radicals, has kept many women in rural areas out of school, according to a July 2003 Human Rights Watch report. "In many cases, returning refugee families who sent their girls to school in Pakistan or Iran are afraid to do the same in Afghanistan," said Brad Adams, executive director for Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
Cases of rape and sexual abuse by warlord militia members are also common, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both reported. "During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged. Now she's raped," one international NGO worker is quoted as saying in the October 2003 Amnesty International report. In the northwestern region of Herat, resident warlord Ismail Khan reportedly adheres to Taliban-era rules that women cannot walk unaccompanied in the streets.
Promoting women's rights is one of the first real tests of Afghan democratic development, observers say. Securing women's participation in this year's presidential and parliamentary elections is a crucial part of that test, human rights workers add. So far, women make up only 27 percent of the 1.2 million Afghans who have registered to vote in the elections, according to the recent United Nations data. Participation has reportedly been far higher in cities like Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat than in rural regions, where women often are unable to read, or are kept largely secluded at home.
To encourage women's participation in the election, the UN recently set up some 4,000 single-sex voter registration sites and has launched a public information campaign that includes posters and leaflets which urge women to register to vote and "participate in the reconstruction of your country." Under a $8.86-million voter education initiative, several US Agency for International Development programs aim to teach women candidates how to run a campaign, and to encourage political parties to make use of women members.
In rural areas where literacy rates are low, Afghan and UN officials are hiring workers to take that message of participation to isolated villages. "Our policy is to negotiate with locally influential men, and to try and enlighten their minds so they will let the women vote," Ghotai Khawry, the National Electoral Management Board's sole female member, recently told The Pakistan Tribune.
To diminish the chances of a conservative backlash, the country's Ministry of Women's Affairs has felt a need to adopt a pragmatic strategy in the struggle to promote equal rights. "We must be very careful," Cheryl Ray, a consultant for the Women's Ministry told EurasiaNet in 2003. "After our presence becomes more established, then we will move into areas that are more controversial."