How Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani Is Elevating & Championing The Status Of Women

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Ever since the end of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001, the country has undergone major governmental change and there is still much work to be done despite 15 years of progress and upheaval. With the arrival of a democratic government (first with President Hamid Karzai and now with Ashraf Ghani) the country is emerging from a period of major oppression first during the Soviet Occupation and then under the Taliban.

We have shared many stories of hope and inspirational movements happening among men and women in a place where democratic values have not necessarily always been common place. Women’s rights are also becoming more and more pronounced, although sadly it is not always what is shown in the mainstream media in news stories about Afghanistan.

Women have always been resilient, strong and determined in Afghanistan, despite wars, oppression and conservative traditional formally forbidding them to play a public role alongside that of a man. This is evident in Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana’, it can be seen in the spirit of the women running the community radio station in Kunduz where they dare to talk about women’s rights despite being attacked by the Taliban in 2015, and it is so clear in this protest by men who donned burqas to campaign for women’s rights.

These are only 3 of many stories we have covered, but given the trend of emerging voices that for decades have been silenced by oppressive rule, we have to wonder why Afghan men and women are speaking up and promoting equal rights more than ever. Having a democratically elected President who actually walks the talk may have something to do with it. Ashraf Ghani took office in 2014 and since then there has been an increased focus on women’s rights in Afghanistan partly because he is a huge champion of them.

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An article in ForeignPolicy.com explains how women’s rights in Afghanistan was different from the moment of his inauguration, where he mentioned his wife and first lady Rhula Ghani (a women’s rights champion herself) by name.

“In his inauguration speech, he thanked his wife, Rula. Though a seemingly small gesture to a Western observer, there is no precedent for this in Afghan culture and it sent a message to the country that women should be valued and respected,” writes Lael Mohib.

More recently, in December 2015 President Ghani went even further to condemn violence toward women. In an interview with Deutsche Welle he was shown a picture of a woman being publicly beaten after she was accused of adultery.

“This is part of our shame. We have inherited situations that are shameful, that are absolutely despicable,” said President Ghani holding up the image for viewers to see.

While a country’s leader can only do so much, an Afghanistan under Ashraf Ghani is remarkably different than before, because this is man is doing more than just the bare minimum and paying lip service to appease especially US leaders who made sure women’s rights a priority in helping the country form a democratic government after 2001.

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“In his first 15 months he appointed he appointed four female cabinet ministers, two female governors, three female ambassadors, two female deputies on the High Peace Council, nominated a female judge for the Supreme Court, and directed all his ministers to appoint at least one female deputy minister. Afghanistan now has the largest number of women in senior government positions in its history,” states the ForeignPolicy article.

Giving evidence as to why he would be so visibly outraged at a picture of a woman (below) being beaten in public, President Ghani also reviewed the cases of more than 400 women who were imprisoned for “immoral” acts, and so far has released 200. He also urged the Supreme Court to ban a certain part of the Constitution which called for the jailing of women who left home without permission from a male family member. His influence in the area of women’s rights is having a widespread effect.

In the 2014 election, women made up 40% of voters, girls now make up 40% of the 9 million children in school, 22% of Afghan families report having income earned by a woman, and there is an influx of women entering the workforce and going to university like never before, but of course there is still a long way to go to reach the levels of equality many of us have the privilege of taking advantage of every day. The Huffington Post reports there were virtually no girls or women going to school in 2001 when US forces ended the Taliban rule.

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“The programs, policies, and initiatives taken by the government are significant not only because they are results-oriented and driven by leadership that is committed to women’s empowerment, but also because they set an example at the highest level that the full participation of women in every level of society is needed if Afghanistan is to be self-reliant,” continues Lael Mohib about President Ghani’s efforts, but he also adds that to continue the momentum, social attitudes toward women must be transformed.

Having a leader who is setting an example for men in the country to give their wives a visible platform and an empowered voice to speak publicly is already having a huge effect.

After the brutal stoning and subsequent murder of Farkhunda Malikzada in 2015, Lael Mohib was working at the American University in Kabul and he was shocked to see so many young men be affected by this awful violence reminiscent of a bygone era.

“A group of male students came into my office to ask how they could commemorate her life. They were frustrated and distraught — they did not want this brutal act to become the face of Afghan men around the world. These young men joined thousands of others on the streets of Kabul to protest Farkhunda’s murder, and to offer support and protection to the brave women who broke with custom to carry her coffin,” he wrote.

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President Ghani has credited young men like this, who are more inclined toward pushing equal rights than the patriarchy, as part of the cultural revolution which he mentioned in a speech to Congress in 2015.

Huffpost writer Ishani Desai says there has to be an increased focus on ending violence toward women as this directly affects women’s participation in the workforce and their likelihood of getting an education. With a focus on gender equality from a young age, this could made a huge impact on how the next generation of Afghan boys and girls grow up.

“Once Afghanistan is stabilized, the Afghan government can target gender more effectively. But this will only happen with a wider cultural change that includes both men and women, and encourages their participation in a long-term dialogue. Perhaps this begins with early education with young boys and girls or media interventions, such as radio and television programs,” she said.

The George W. Bush Institute recently released a book called ‘We Are Afghan Women: Voices Of Hope’ as a way to highlight the progress made over the last 15 years in Afghanistan. The book highlights the female leaders and wives of leaders from around the world who have continually spoken up about the need to increase women’s rights in Afghanistan, but note that it wasn’t until Ashraf Ghani became president that the country’s own First Lady had a public voice in the nation.

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“For nearly 90 years, wives of Afghan leaders have remained (for the most part) unheard and unseen. That is, until President Ashraf Ghani was elected, and Mrs. Rula Ghani assumed the title of First Lady. Just over a year into her role, Mrs. Ghani has expunged the standards enforced on her predecessors. As Afghan women continue their arduous fight for equal inclusion in society, it seems they can finally count their own First Lady among their ranks,” writes Natalie Gonnella-Platts.

“Cited by some as a liability on the campaign trail and threatened by extremists, Mrs. Ghani has defied her critics, resiliently using her platform, like her global peers, on behalf of women and girls.  At home and abroad, she has reminded the world that they cannot forget the female face of Afghanistan,” she continued.

If this is the effect of having a leader who champions the voice and causes of women, we hope the impact of President Ashraf Ghani will have a remarkable effect in greater society in order to erase decades of damage done by oppressive and harmful power structures. There is no such thing as a perfect leader of course, but there is a huge difference between someone who pays lip service and those who walk the talk. Here’s to a new era of women in Afghanistan.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Afghanistan's Lone Female Governors Defying Sexism & Religious Conservatism To Do Their Job - GirlTalkHQ

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