The world hasn't witnessed a celebration so unconvincing since George Bush flashed his dopey grin under a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
This week, Amnesty International pulled the NGO communications department equivalent of half-heartedly blowing a sparkly noisemaker when Afghan President Karzai announced that he would - after careful thought, consideration, and many, many outraged messages from international organizations - graciously allow Afghan women to continue testifying against male relatives who raped or violently abused them. Yay! "Success!" read Amnesty's poster that tried (unsuccessfully) to appear excited.
Unlike Bush, women's rights defenders in Afghanistan have a lot to be proud of. They also have a lot to fear. Celebrating the fact that women's rights haven't been completely annihilated in the country is sort of like celebrating the fact that the lion growling at the base of the tree you're hiding in hasn't eaten you. You're happy, but only in the it's-really-nice-that-I'm-not-dead-yet kind of way. Women's legal rights in Afghanistan aren't dead yet - but they are in danger. The justice system isn't supported by widespread recognition of women's rights, so Afghan judges and prosecutors are ignoring laws designed to protect women from violence, and Afghan legislators are proposing laws designed to inflict violence upon women. This week a Pentagon-sponsored review predicted that as troops withdraw, the Taliban will surge, endangering women even more.
Women's lives were ghastly, of course, under five years of Taliban rule, and the grim fact of their lives' ghastliness, of course, provided a convenient secondary justification for anyone wanting to invade Afghanistan after September 2001. The world suddenly learned - or suddenly cared - that Afghan women couldn't independently leave their houses. That they couldn't work outside their houses. That they couldn't step onto the balconies of their houses. That they couldn't even look through the windows of their houses. So we promised to let Afghan women out of their houses.
The early days of Women's Lib 2.0 in Afghanistan were heady ones. Girls entered schools. Women entered parliament. Local Afghan women's organizations worked alongside international organizations to enshrine women's rights in the 2004 constitution and advocate for the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law. But female school enrolment stalled below 50 per cent and political quotas have been lowered. Moreover, women's legal rights - to a fair trial, to see their rapists and abusers prosecuted, to not be prosecuted themselves for doing things they're entitled to do (like escaping an abuser) or for things that someone did to them (like raping them) - have been rolling down the slope of an uphill battle.
The legal structures supporting women's rights in Afghanistan have been built over the past decade on unsteady sand, vulnerable to judges, prosecutors and police officers who don't want to work within them and legislators who want to axe them. Building a stronger socio-political foundation for women's rights takes a combination of time, security, education, proper coordination among and monitoring and evaluation of local and international NGOs, and even a sympathetic pop culture: a recent Foreign Affairs article made the not-entirely-ridiculous claim that television crime dramas in Afghanistan are as important as legal training. The foundation for women's legal rights isn't strong enough. Overwhelmingly, men aren't going to prison for crimes against women; women are going to prison for men's crimes against them.
Most incarcerated women and girls commit "moral crimes:" running away from home or being accused of sex outside of marriage. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that a woman usually runs because her husband - often one she was forced to marry - beats her; a girl, because her family is forcing her to marry, or beats her. If a male relative or friend helps her escape, she'll be accused of having sex with him. Accusations mean convictions: many women sign confessions to having committed "moral crimes" on documents they can't read. Once incarcerated, many don't want to leave the jails they should never have been thrown into. One, featured in the recent documentary No Burkas Behind Bars, felt freer in prison than in her home, where she knew she would be beaten and thought she might be killed.
Meanwhile, men rape and abuse with impunity. Reports of violence against women and girls increased by 28 per cent in 2013 - and also in brutality - but prosecutions hardly budged. Most rape victims are imprisoned for unmarried sex. Most male abusers are released. Sending male attackers to prison or avoiding it themselves may be the least of women's worries. The justice minister - a conservative, if we're being polite - recently oversaw drafting of Taliban-esque adultery legislation. If lovers were unmarried, they'd be flogged; if married to other people, they'd be stoned to death. Karzai stepped in - again, after international outrage - but he won't be around for much longer.
Nor will many troops, especially if Karzai's successor doesn't sign a security agreement with the U.S. Rights groups fear that as troops leave, the legal structures women raised will sink into a socio-political foundation that hasn't solidified enough to support them yet, and there won't even be hollow victories to celebrate. There won't be many victories at all.