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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.