12.28.10

Television's Threat to Afghan Women

A well-known television host claims shelters for women support prostitution. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports from Afghanistan on how the allegations put shelter staffers in mortal danger.

Shelters fighting to provide safe havens for abused women in Afghanistan now find themselves battling a newand unexpectedenemy: television.

In the past several weeks, controversial television presenter Nasto Naderi has stepped up a campaign he began this year accusing women’s shelters of supporting prostitution and other behavior considered immoral. In December, Naderi showed footage of a family guidance center run by the organization Women for Afghan Women, followed by pictures of family guidance and women’s shelter staff entering their offices. According to Naderi, women’s shelters encourage behavior that violates Islam, though he has yet to offer any evidence to support his allegations.

The unwanted attention has sent a chill through women’s rights supporters in Kabul and created an environment of both fear and defiance among shelter workers.

The unwanted attention has sent a chill through women’s rights supporters in Kabul and created an environment of both fear and defiance among shelter workers. In a conservative country with little history of providing safe havens for domestic-violence victims, the concern is that Naderi’s charges could do great harmand put shelter workers at risk.

“By these kinds of programs, people’s minds may be swayed, and they may think negatively about these kinds of safe houses,” said Selay Ghaffar of the organization HAWCA, which offers legal aid and temporary shelter to Afghan women seeking to escape domestic abuse.

Other leaders who work on women’s rights issues agree that the danger posed by the television program is real.

“Educated people know Nasto Naderithey know not to believe a word he is saying,” said Huma Safi, who manages Women for Afghan Women’s programs. “But the uneducated peoplethe people who have no information on what shelters are doing and the work that women’s organizations are doingthey may believe him.”

Safi and others say that Naderi’s use of religious leaders to press his case during his broadcasts has further harmed women’s efforts. Women’s advocates say shelter opponents are emboldened by reports of peace talks with the Taliban, and the prospect that more conservative religious forces once again will gain power in the country.

“Our government wants to talk with the Taliban about peace and no one is talking about women’s rights,” said Maria Bashir, the country’s only female chief prosecutor. “If the Taliban comes to government and peace is successful, then they will close those shelters.”

In response, women’s groups have banded together to fight back against Naderi. They say they have no choice but to go on the offensive, given the danger his accusations present to their work. And to their workers, who face the very real risk of being physically threatened or targeted by Naderi’s viewers and those who agree with them that these shelters represent a threat to the honor of the nation’s women.

Shelter leaders want the government to prosecute Naderi for endangering their staff, whose faces were broadcast on Emrooz TV, a private station on which Naderi’s show aired. Almost immediately after the video was shown this month, Women for Afghan Women’s staff reached out to the ministry of culture and information to object to the broadcast that showed their family center. The ministry referred the case to the attorney general’s office, which has pledged to investigate the matter. So far, another meeting between the women’s groups and government officials is scheduled for this week. But in a country where conservative forces are ascending and fighting power is an uphill struggle for women, it remains to be seen how much further the case will proceed.

“Many groups are trying to fight against sheltersthey think every woman will leave their home for the shelters because they have so many problems at home,” said Bashir, the prosecutor.

To some women leaders, Naderi’s provocative broadcast shows just how vulnerable women’s rights are in Afghanistan. Although the government hasn’t moved to close any of the safe houses and has publicly backed women’s right to work and education, last year Afghan President Hamid Karzai bowed to public pressure and created a government commission to look into exactly what services the shelters provide.

“We always faced threats… and problems from families,” said Mary Akrami of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, which manages a shelter for Afghan women. “But nowadays when religious scholars come and talk on TV for just one minute, they destroy everything,” she said. “They are much stronger than we are.”

Akrami and other leaders say they have received little support from either their own government or the international community. And although sources say U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has been briefed on the matter, American and other international officials have so far remained quiet about the controversy.

The silence feeds some supporters’ fears that defenders of women’s rights are waging an increasingly lonely battle.

“Some donors are already pulling out,” said a senior official with a leading international organization who asked that her name not be used. “There is a visible exit strategy and, especially on the issues of eliminating violence against women, there is already not enough support, financial and otherwise; I just see unexpected things happening and there are not enough voices to talk about it.”

And yet, despite long odds and formidable opponents, Afghan women leaders are vowing to push back against Naderi’s potentially harmful and misleading campaign.

“We are not so weak to just listen to him and allow him to do what he is doing,” said Ghaffar. “All the civil society and women’s organizations, we will stand against these kinds of things.”

Or as Safi, from Women for Afghan Women, put it:

“We will advocate and we will fight for this because there is an urgent need for shelters,” she said. “If there is no shelter, then what will happen to those women who are suffering from violence?”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. Her book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011.