On Monday September 9, The Democracy Forum welcomed invited guests to SOAS’ Brunei Gallery to participate in its second seminar of the year, which shone a glaring light on the contentious issue of Women’s rights in Afghanistan. The event was inaugurated by Peter Luff MP and chaired by Frances Harrison, and on the panel were Nazifa Haqpal from the Human Rights & Women’s Affairs Desk at the Afghanistan Embassy; Karla McLaren, Advocacy Assistant at Amnesty International UK; Shaista Gohir, women’s rights activist and Chair at Muslim Women’s Network UK; and Carron Mann from Women for Women International

Peter Luff, Chairman of The Forum, opened the seminar by briefly highlighting the organisation’s work and goals, before giving a potted history of democracy and its relation to human rights.

Setting the tone for the debate, Frances Harrison introduced the speakers and noted that ‘women’s rights is a life and death issue in Afghanistan’, before handing over to Nazifa Haqpal, an Afghan diplomat who has directly experienced the challenges of women’s rights for Afghans.

Haqpal vehemently stated that ‘Taliban morals are not Afghan morals’ and was vocal about the gains made by Afghan women in recent times, listing the achievements made in the struggle for women’s rights, which included the positive influence of independent media and the increase of Afghan girls in education – a record 40 per cent of girls are currently in education. Haqpal also stressed that ‘we shouldn’t take women’s rights as a western concept’, arguing that in every case of women’s struggles, the context of the community should be considered and all approaches should be fuelled by cultural sensitivity.

From the panel, and the floor, some held the opinion that Haqpal’s version of events aimed to glorify the situation in Afghanistan. The recent remarks of Afghanistan’s justice minister, Habibullah Ghaleb, were raised with an almost dismissive response from Haqpal. Ghaleb controversially claimed Afghan women’s shelters are a hub for ‘immorality and prostitution’. In reply Haqpal said, ‘You cannot stop individuals expressing their beliefs. These statements will not affect the determination and commitment of Afghan women.’

Next up was Amnesty’s Karla McLaren, who reflected on the ‘two-sided coin’ of women’s rights in the conflict-torn nation – the challenges being faced and the good work being done. A key concern in McLaren’s talk was the endemic issue of violence against women, although she was keen to clarify that ‘violence against women is not an Afghan phenomenon, it is a global issue’. The speaker noted that many Afghan women accept violence as an inherent and unavoidable part of life, and those women who have the courage to report violence are often accused of ‘moral crimes’ (such as adultery) themselves.

One of the proactive measures highlighted by the Amnesty representative was the need for investment in the three Ps: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. Attacks against high profile women continue without proper justice being meted out to the perpetrators, and in turn the ‘lack of accountability sanctions the abuse of women’ on a much larger scale, as no precedent of Prevention, Protection and Prosecution has been established.

Following on from McLaren’s talk, Shaista Gohir stuck to the familiar theme of recognising the progress and the remaining challenges of women’s rights – although she admitted that the latter was rather more extensive. After acknowledging the increasing number of females in education and those participating in politics, Gohir admitted that on a wider scale women’s participation in public life and work had significantly reduced compared to the pre-Taliban era. She highlighted the fact that faith is used to undermine the rights of women: ‘Sharia Law is a man made law, packaged as God’s law, so nobody challenges it.’

‘I don’t know what the Taliban hates more: Western occupation or women’s rights,’ remarked Gohir. In order to make a change, the Chair for the Muslim Women’s Network stated that women should be taken on in roles such as police officers and civil servants. They should be in charge of budgets and given meaningful participation in Afghan government. “I want accountability, I want to see indicators”. She then referred to the issue of Habibullah Ghaleb’s comments that were brought up during Haqpal’s talk. Gohir stated that Ghaleb should have been dismissed in order to set a precedent and communicate the fact that the Afghan government will not tolerate such prejudiced values and ideologies.

Last but not least, Carron Mann took the mic to stress the importance of economic empowerment for women. ‘Economic empowerment is at the heart of Women for Women – knowledge does not put food on the table,’ said Mann. She went on to outline the significant progress being made as a direct result of the programmes put in place by Women for Women. An emphasis was put on offering micro credit to women, ‘giving women the skills to be independent and to strive to be entrepreneurs rather than employees’. All these efforts are in place to counteract what is known at economic violence against women, where women are not prevented from earning a wage but are restricted by male voices when it comes to spending that money.

Such a complex and controversial issue can never be wrapped up neatly in a three-hour debate, and the ambiguous future of women’s rights in Afghanistan was reflected in closing comments by Haqpal and the Chair of the seminar. Referring to the progress of women’s rights, the representative for the Afghan Embassy remarked that ‘these gains are fragile’. ‘The fragility of these gains will be witnessed by what happens to you as a female diplomat,’ replied Harrison.