A bold step of an Afghan woman

A plaque from President Hamid Karzai sits on Noor Zia Atmar’s desk, congratulating her for her achievements as a lawmaker. The desk is in a shelter for abused women.Ms. Atmar—who served in Afghanistan’s first Parliament after the Taliban’s downfall—has nowhere else to live these days after escaping an abusive husband and a family that disowned her after she divorced him.
The tale of Ms. Atmar—who helped pass Afghanistan’s landmark legislation protecting women’s rights—shows just how far the country has to go in improving the treatment of women.
The laws themselves, including one aimed at ending violence against women, are increasingly coming under threat as U.S.-led international forces pull out and conservative politicians reassert themselves.
“The achievements of the past 12 years are really in danger,” cautions prominent lawmaker and women’s rights campaigner Shukria Barakzai. “They want to push women in the corner.”
Ms. Atmar returned to Afghanistan from exile in Pakistan within weeks after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime. She was determined to make the most of new opportunities in her home country.
She started working at a local radio station as an on-air presenter in the eastern city of Jalalabad, but then quit to run in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
She ran her campaign on a shoestring budget, selling a gold necklace to pay for her election posters. She won, helped by a constitutional provision that reserves a third of elected seats in the lower house of Parliament for women.
In 2010, as her term was ending, Ms. Atmar married Toryalai Malakzai, who ran a small construction company and was helping her with her re-election campaign.
“He told me he liked women politicians,” Ms. Atmar recalled on a recent afternoon, “But then he started behaving like a villain from Bollywood movies.”
Ms. Atmar, who once toured world capitals as a symbol of female empowerment in the new Afghanistan, became confined to her home after losing her re-election bid in the fall that year. The rare times she went out, she had to wear a full-body burqa, something she had never done before.
Once a passionate public speaker, she was barred from using her phone. She was asked to remove her husband’s shoes, “and if I refused, he would beat me up,” recalls Ms. Atmar, a youthful 40-year-old whose lightly made-up face was framed by a loose head scarf.
After a few months, her husband attacked her with a kitchen knife, says Ms. Atmar, revealing a small white scar on her neck. That is when she says she escaped his home.
Mr. Malakzai could not be reached to comment.
Ms. Atmar’s older brother Zmaray confirmed that she has been disowned by her relatives. “People in Jalalabad are very traditional,” he explained.
These days, Ms. Atmar’s movements are limited to daily commutes between her shelter and her office—a hidden corner of a government ministry—where she works as an adviser.
It is unclear how long she can stay in the shelter, as the very existence of these shelters has become controversial.
Conservative lawmakers say the law on the elimination of violence against women—legislation that Ms. Atmar lobbied for in Parliament and that was passed by presidential decree in 2009—runs against Islam. They point to the law’s provisions authorizing shelters for abused women and girls.
Mawlavi Abdul Rahman Rahmani, a bearded mullah who sits in the lower house of Parliament, says these shelters are little more than brothels.
“What kind of woman escapes her husband’s home and goes to a shelter?” he said in an interview. “It is against the rules of Islam.”
This echoes the position of the Taliban. “Islam has clear instructions: A woman can’t go outside her house without the permission of her husband or of her guardian,” says Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, who described shelters as a conspiracy to westernize Afghan society.
In May, male lawmakers removed quotas for women in provincial and district councils. That decision by the lower house of Parliament was reversed by the upper house in June. Now lawmakers will try to reconcile their differences.
“The women of Afghanistan are still suffering from the same kind of mentality we have seen in the past,” says Fawzia Koofi, who chairs the Parliament’s women commission.
Efforts to revive peace talks with the Taliban, who last month opened a political office in Qatar, have intensified fears that progress on rights may backslide.
“If you are having a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, you are actually having a dialogue between a group that hates women’s rights and a group that couldn’t care less about women’s rights,” says Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The government says it is committed to upholding women’s rights at the negotiating table should talks move forward. “The progress that has taken place in the past 10 years has to be maintained,” says Adela Raz, a spokeswoman for the president.

Source: Yahoo News

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