Religious Leaders and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
June 6, 2012
In a recent Asia Foundation staff meeting in Kabul announcing staff performance awards and commendations, an unexpected name was called out. Unlike other staff, Muhammad Aman was not being acknowledged for accomplishments in his direct line of duty. Instead, the driver was being recognized for proactively taking a stance against harassment of a young woman.
Hailing from the province of Panjsher in northern Afghanistan, Aman drove travelers in and out of Kabul for years prior to joining the Foundation in 2002.
Earlier this year, he was strolling down the city’s popular Mandayi market and purchasing daily necessities for his family when he encountered a group of men harassing a young woman. He refused to ignore the situation, and suggested the men seek alternative means of entertaining themselves. In return, the men punched Aman repeatedly in the face, giving him a black eye.
In fact, many Afghans frown upon such harassment of women, and intervention by pedestrians is not altogether unheard of. But, as women living in Afghanistan, we know first-hand the challenges faced here.
However, since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, women have made tremendous progress, and women’s issues are central in nation-wide dialogues. Young girls have been able to go back to classrooms – as many as 3 million of them are now enrolled in schools across the country. Women are able to obtain employment in a mixed-gender working environment and allowed to walk without male chaperones. However, the recent Ulema Council resolution has reinforced conservative notions that women must travel with male chaperones. Mobility for women is still more restricted outside of city centers. Female elected representatives make up 25 percent of the Wolesei Jirga (lower house of parliament) and 28 percent of the Mesharano Jirga (upper house), which are the two national level elected bodies. There are three female ministers in the cabinet, one female governor, and one female mayor.
Despite these significant achievements, women still suffer from violent abuse and discrimination. The highly watched case of 15-year-old Sahar Gul, who was tortured by her in-laws for refusing to become a sex worker, sparked international attention and continues to haunt readers worldwide. These cases portray how fragile women’s gains are in this country. As intolerance for gender-based discrimination may be increasing in some communities, the need to secure women’s rights, as a notion that is both Islamic and Afghan, is a must for the country to safeguard women’s rights in the long term, particularly as security is transferred to domestic forces.
Recognizing the contentious landscape concerning women’s rights, The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Rights team launched a two-year project called “Advancing Human Rights and Women’s Rights within an Islamic Framework across South Asia,” to work specifically with religious leaders (Imams) to protect and promote women’s rights and participation. The involvement of the most influential members of society was targeted to ensure real impact.
Imams preach sermons at Friday prayers each week, and serve as pillars of Afghan society. Their sermons cover topics from family life to social obligations to political issues and beyond. Most importantly, they are listened to attentively. In a traditional society like Afghanistan where Islam shapes culture, traditions, and customs, there is no better way to raise a sensitive topic such as women’s rights than through community-level religious leaders themselves. After working with Islamic scholars regionally on developing a curriculum on Women’s Rights in Islam, in the fall of 2011, our partners began hosting workshops in Afghanistan where some 450 Imams from five provinces were given information and tools to protect, teach, and promote/preach about women’s rights in Islam.
Following the workshops, Imams returned to their communities to advise, advocate, and take initiative in promoting and protecting these rights. In their sermons, the Imams touched upon women’s religious and legal right to: familial inheritance, gain employment, enter politics, attain education, marry according to choice, and be free of domestic violence.
While we know that over a staggering 67,000 Afghans have been exposed to these sermons directly, it is difficult to gauge exactly how many more have heard the messages. Masjids are attended by male community members and the sermons are also overheard by women and others via live loudspeakers. Messages are also often relayed to the elderly and extended family at home. The power of an Imam’s ability to influence communities wide and far is undisputed.
Although we helped facilitate these conversations, it was the Imams who shared the message of women’s rights according to Islam in a direct but non-threatening manner to a wider population – something that would have likely not been possible otherwise.
Sradda Thapa is a program associate in the Kabul office and Palwasha Kakar is a senior program advisor with the Women’s Rights & Islam and Development program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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