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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war