What next for the women of Afghanistan?

Ten years on from the invasion of Afghanistan, MP and presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi discusses wo

On 7 October 2001 the US began its invasion of Afghanistan, on the premise that the Taliban government was harbouring al-Qaeda fighters. Suddenly, the international spotlight was on the plight of Afghan women, and the restoration of their rights held up as yet anothe reason for intervention.

Ten years on, women in Afghanistan have the right to vote, study and leave the house without male company, and yet the livelihoods of many women remain constrained. There are even 69 female MPs, and one female minister, Amina Afzali, who is responsible for labour, social affairs, the martyred and disabled.

Fawzia Koofi, one of these female MPs, is visiting Britain to meet with UK politicians and discuss Afghanistan's future. In 2005, when Koofi first went into politics, her male colleagues viewed the women in parliament as mere beneficiaries of a quota system and international pressure. Today, Koofi, who is the deputy-speaker of parliament and is considering a presidential run for 2014, says that the men recognise them as politicians. "There are women working in social affairs, like health and education, and civil society is becoming active. There have been some amendments of the laws and there have been some new laws, providing more opportunities for women."

However, women have entered Afghan politics and public life at a great risk to their own lives. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that nine in ten Afghan women still fear the implications for women's rights if Taliban regained power, with a fifth citing their daughter's education as their main concern.

"During the Taliban [era] and the civil war, everything was taken from women," says Koofi. It would be terrible if Afghanistan saw a repeat of this, she argues, but despite the hardships that women face, she believes that her society want to move on. "The women of Afghanistan today are not the women of Afghanistan in 1996. We are strong, we can raise awareness and we also have the international community to help us." She adds that if the Taliban respected their newly gained values and rights, they would be welcome to join the political system.

According to ActionAid, 39 per cent of children currently in school are girls, and one quarter of all government jobs are filled by women. The ability of women to fully exercise their rights is, however, still marred by social constraints. Forced marriages, child marriages and domestic abuse are still very common and security concerns remain a constant fear for both men and women. According to a UN report from 2009, the lack of female electoral staff made families reluctant to allow women to go to the voting booths.

"I know it's a traditional society, that things will not just change over night," says Koofi. If the country wants to progress, politically and economically, she argues, the new Afghan government cannot continue to ignore 50 per cent of the population.

In December, an international conference in Bonn plans to road-map the future of Afghanistan and the role the international community should play. Women's rights advocates fear that Afghanistan will present itself as an all-male delegation.

According to Koofi, concerns of the Afghan society, both male and female, can only be addressed if both women and civil society groups are present. In her eyes, Afghanistan's future lies in building up the security and justice systems, and making use of Afghanistan's natural and cultural resources.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.