02.17.11

Why Is Karzai Cracking Down on Women?

The Afghan president is planning to take control of women’s shelters, accusing them of corruption. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon talks to women who are afraid their rights are being taken away as a compromise for the Taliban.

Afghan officials are moving ahead with a plan to take over the country’s 14 women’s shelters, accusing them of misusing funds and a lack of transparency, though neither allegation has to date been substantiated with any evidence.

It seems that safe havens for women suffering from domestic abuse and forced marriage would be an unlikely target for an anti-corruption crackdown from Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s government, which is mired in a number of corruption allegations, including those relating to Kabul Bank.

“Their allegations are baseless, and there is a very political reason behind this,” said Afghan civil society activist Palwasha Hassan of the Afghan Women’s Network. “We are afraid that this is just the beginning of the decline of women’s rights and every day they will take another freedom that women have won.”

As early as Monday, there could be a vote to move all shelters out of the control of NGOs, now running nearly all of the country’s shelters, and into the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. If passed by Karzai’s cabinet, women seeking shelter would be required to win approval from an eight-member board. They would face a compulsory immediate medical exam, followed by monthly medical screenings. They could be evicted from the shelter if a family member arrives to say they will take them in.

Afghan women’s advocates are vowing to battle back against the government regulation, though there is little they can do to stop the move. They say they see this as the Karzai government’s first assault on the gains women have won in the past ten years.

The Afghan president simply wants to pacify conservative elements, both Taliban and Northern Alliance, at a time in which he is seeking to make peace with the Taliban, say shelter organizers.

“The government is getting ready for the Taliban to come in—we can see signs all over the place… My biggest fear is that the clock is going to be turned back pre-2001.”

“The government is getting ready for the Taliban to come in—we can see signs all over the place,” says Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs four shelters and five family guidance centers in Afghanistan. “My biggest fear is that the clock is going to be turned back pre-2001, and we are going to experience everything all over again.” That fear is shared by Hassan and others.

“The Taliban will not have too much work because the government is already working on things before they arrive,” Hassan says.

Until today the international community, which funds the Kabul government, has remained largely silent on the issue, though U.S. Embassy representatives in Kabul have told women’s advocates privately that they support their cause.

State Department staff in Afghanistan have been monitoring the situation closely since late last year when, as The Daily Beast reported, television presenter Nasto Naderi grew even more vocal in his unsubstantiated charges against the shelters, sparking wild rumors of prostitution and drugs.

On Thursday the State Department released a one-paragraph statement expressing its concern about the proposed regulations. “While we recognize that the government needs to monitor shelters, it is important that civil society be allowed to operate these facilities independently.” For its part, the United Nations has released a statement calling the draft regulations “a positive step towards recognizing and setting standards for protection centers/shelters,” though some of the measure’s “provisions are in violation of women’s rights as guaranteed under Afghan and international law.”

The government’s move is only the latest fight facing those who run the country’s shelters for abused women, which have been accused of promoting prostitution, drugs, and immorality by the country’s conservative clerics, ministers, members of Parliament, and television personalities such as Naderi.

Earlier this week the acting minister of women’s affairs alluded to “violations” and “serious problems” in the shelters, including corruption, but admitted she had no evidence for the charges before saying that her ministry’s leadership of the shelters would stop the “rumors” against them.

Many of these rumors came directly from broadcaster Naderi, who has hosted a series of shows targeting women’s shelters, one of which showed shelter staff entering a Women for Afghan Women family guidance center. He accuses the centers of behavior that goes against the teachings of Islam, though Naderi, too, has yet to provide proof of his allegations.

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 upcoming book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011.