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.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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