During this coming season of Easter, Dionne Gravesande calls on the Church to remember Afghan women in their prayers
February may have been a month of love and romance for some, but for women in Afghanistan it was a moment filled with anguish and loss.
Afghanistan has a tumultuous recent past. In the last three decades, the country has been occupied by troops and international forces, and in the years in between it has been ruled by militant groups and the Taliban. Throughout the changing political landscape of Afghanistan during the last 50 years, women’s rights have been exploited by different groups for political gain, sometimes being improved but often being abused. Many international commentators argue that Afghan women are the ones who lost most from the war and militarisation.
I recently learned that, until the conflict of the 1970s, the 20th Century had seen relatively steady progression for women’s rights in the country. Afghan women were first eligible to vote in 1919, just a year after women in the UK were given voting rights, and a year before women in the United States were allowed to vote; but during coups and occupation in the 1970s, through civil conflict and then under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan had their rights increasingly rolled back. Under the Taliban, women and girls were discriminated against in many ways as Islamic Sharia law was enforced. Women and girls were banned from going to school, studying or working, and from being involved in politics or speaking publicly.
Women were essentially invisible in public life. If a woman left the house, it was in a full-body veil (burqa), accompanied by a male relative. If she disobeyed these discriminatory laws, the punishments were harsh. A woman could be flogged for showing an inch or two of skin under her full-body burqa; beaten for attempting to study; and stoned to death if she was found guilty of adultery.
As war in Afghanistan took hold in early 2002, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated:
There cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women.
In the years following, many schools opened their doors to girls, and women went back to work. There was progress towards equality: women’s rights were enshrined in a new constitution in 2003, and in 2009 Afghanistan adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the violence and discrimination against women and girls returned. Like many women, Afghan women are aware they have the right to fight to protect their bodies from being the site of unwanted sexual relations. Still, many do not find themselves in a position to defend their most treasured possession, their body. Hence today, women are still routinely discriminated against, abused and persecuted. There is much to be done before the equality of political rhetoric becomes an everyday reality for women in Afghanistan.
After four decades of war, the compound effect of climate change-induced drought and the COVID-related economic disruption have both created a complex humanitarian crisis. With the Taliban in government, local media are not allowed to broadcast specific messages on gender-based violence, but it is encouraging to read some faith-based organisations have been able to elaborate on the ‘safeguarding women’ message through the teachings of faith principles, particularly as they relate to God’s all-encompassing love and a God-given right to dignity and equal worth, in which both women and men are both actors and owners of the dynamics within our societies.
According to data from the World Health Organization, globally, 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and as I reflect on this disturbing fact, I am reminded of Hagar’s story in Genesis 21:8-2. This story contains all the elements for a TV drama, in which God reminds us afresh that we should keep our eyes on Him and not on the acts of our oppressors. It would be a wonderful testimony to our faith in God if more people were to grow in their belief that God offers protection on all sides — even though the desert experience continues to be ongoing, frequent and harsh for too many women and their children. A task of the Church in this context is to acknowledge aspects of the past which seem to have a stranglehold on the present. These periods of remembering are very important, so let us not forget! Life and church in the Middle East call for constant learning from our history and reflecting on our present, secure in the knowledge that God is with us always.
I hope and pray Afghan women find resonance in this story and remember God has made all peoples in His image, and His desire is for all to experience fullness of life.
Written by: Dionne Gravesande