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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times