Don't abandon the women of Afghanistan

The Afghan government’s move to consider reintroducing stoning for adultery may be a sign of things to come. Britain must act now to protect the women of Afghanistan.

Next year UK troops will leave Afghanistan after a long campaign. While many people have mixed feelings about our presence there, most I think would welcome the advancements we have seen in women’s rights. The women and girls of Afghanistan are now protected by law from rape within marriage, they can seek justice and support if they are sexually abused, and millions of girls now have access to education. But these transformative changes are at risk.

The Afghan Justice Ministry delivered a fundamental blow to years of human rights achievements by suggesting a few days ago that public stoning for adultery could be reintroduced. The sentence for married adulterers, along with flogging for unmarried offenders, appeared in a draft revision of the country's penal code being managed by the ministry of justice. The regular stoning of women in Kabul’s football stadium during Taliban rule was a defining symbol of the oppressive and cruel practices of that regime. We cannot let it return.

Though President Karzai has now sought to reassure us that this proposal is going nowhere, the very fact it was even being considered is a deeply worrying sign, and part of a wider trend. The environment for women and girls in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly hostile. Last year, the President endorsed a code of conduct that makes it legal for husbands to beat their wives. And only a few months ago, an effort to secure parliamentary ratification of the country’s Elimination of Violence Against Women Law backfired when conservative Afghan MPs took the opportunity to try to amend it, allowing for rape within marriage to take place legally. The amendment failed only when the Speaker of Parliament shut down the debate.

12 years since the Taliban’s repressive grip on Afghan society ended, we are confronted with the reality of the country’s fragile future. Following some very positive initial steps taken by the Karzai Government, it beggars belief that we have come full circle, discussing the very practices which existed under the Taliban’s brutality.

It may be a sign of things to come. President Karzai is going to come under ever more pressure to abandon the women of Afghanistan. As Western forces leave, he will need the support of conservative hardliners to strengthen his increasingly vulnerable Government. And he will be tempted to offer the abandonment of women’s rights as a concession to the Taliban as part of a deal to end the war. Going back to a society in which people accused of adultery are routinely stoned to death, in which women are banned from leaving the house on their own, and in which girls are not allowed to fulfil their potential and access education, suddenly seems a chilling possibility. The Afghan Government appears unwilling or unable to make the protection of women a priority concern, and incidents against women remain alarmingly high.

Hundreds of British troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Many more bear the physical and mental scars of their experiences of war. Their sacrifices must not be in vain. We must resolutely protect the gains that have been made since 2001. By doing so, we are not imposing our values on the women and girls of Afghanistan. They want to be able to leave their homes without escort, to work, to learn, and contribute to their country’s future. A few weeks ago I heard an Afghan women’s rights activist speak in Parliament. Explaining why British people should support the rights of women in Afghanistan, she said “it gives us strength to know we are not alone…it sends a message to our Government that people all over the world are watching and they support Afghan women.”

Securing women’s rights was cited as one of the original reasons for the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, as one of the main providers of development aid and technical support to Afghanistan, the British Government has major influence. In total, Afghanistan stands to benefit from a total of US$16 billion in development aid. We have leverage, and we should be prepared to use it. Our Government must say loud and clear – we will not support you if you are no better than the Taliban, and we will not accept the rights of women and girls being sold away in any deal with the insurgency. We all want peace in Afghanistan, but a peace built on the oppression of half the country’s population is no peace at all.

Sandra Osborne is Labour MP for Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Co-chair of the AllParty Parliamentary Group on Afghanistan.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai (right) shakes hands with Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif during their meeting in Kabul on 30 November 2013. Photo: S. Sabawoon/AFP/Getty Images.
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism