Monday, August 29, 2016

Afghan Effort To Boost Protection For Women An Uphill Battle

Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears before the Afghan parliament in Kabul. (file photo)

The rapid withdrawal over the weekend of proposed legislation to expand protections for Afghan women has highlighted obstacles facing elected representatives and others who want to bolster institutional protections for a vulnerable segment of society.

It's a legislative debate that does not necessarily divide along predictable segments. Some women's rights activists have opposed the effort as a hasty move that could boomerang if it's hijacked by conservative forces in the national parliament.

LATEST: Afghan Lawmakers Halt Debate On Women's Rights Law

But it's clear that social and religious hard-liners oppose even the modest legal protections for women on the books now: the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, also known as EVAW.

So it comes as little surprise that they regard the current push for more safeguards as an opportunity to chip away at such laws, which they suggest are an "un-Islamic" intrusion on local and familial authority.

President Hamid Karzai circumvented lawmakers by pushing EVAW through as a presidential decree in 2009, criminalizing and setting out punishments for rape, child marriage, forced marriage, prostitution, forced self-immolation, and other activities that threaten women.

A recent report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warned that there was "still a long way to go" in implementing the existing law on eliminating violence against Afghan women. (It followed a report from the previous year titled "A Long Way To Go.")

ALSO READ: 'Favored Daughter' Sets Sights On Afghan Presidency

Some proponents consider the current legislative effort important to seize on a closing window, ushering in stronger protections while international forces are still around to help keep the peace.

The conservative counterarguments were on prominent display before the bill's withdrawal on May 18.

Article Six of the amended EVAW states that victims of violence -- with their consent -- should be provided with shelter or other safe haven.

Qazi Nazeer Ahmad Hanafi, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat, warned grimly of another jihad, saying that "if the safe houses are approved by parliament, you will witness millions of martyrs in this country."

Parliamentarian Abdul Satar Khawasi, from Parwan Province, said, "I am surprised at the president's signing of this law, since it is completely against Islam."

Clause 22 of Article Five of the proposal says that "marrying more than one wife without the observance of Article 86 of the Civil Code shall be deemed as violence against women."

But Mullah Tarakheil, a religious conservative in the National Assembly, says such wording contravenes Shari'a law: "Based on Islamic teaching, men have been allowed to marry four wives, while this law considers only one -- an article against Islamic teaching."

Fawzia Koofi, head of the Women's Affairs Committee of the lower* house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and a strong supporter of the amendment effort, says the EVAW would provide women with a ray of hope.

Speaking at a press conference in Kabul one day after the withdrawal of the draft from plenary debate, Afghan NGO activist Marzia Yazdan Tanha described the bill as "a sanctuary for Afghan women."

"If the law is not passed by the parliament it will be a strong blow to those who have raised their voices for justice and righteousness," Tanha said. "A failure to approve this law will increase instances of violence against women and trample the hard-won rights they have achieved in the past several years."

*CORRECTED: The previous version of this piece erroneously suggested Fawzia Koofi was in the upper house of parliament.

-- Mustafa Sarwar

Rashid On Sharif: 'I Don't Think The Military Will Be A Hindrance To Him'

Incoming Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wipes his brow during a meeting with journalists at his house on the outskirts of Lahore on May 13.

Pakistan's Prime Minister-designate Nawaz Sharif is seen as keen on improving relations with the country's neighbors. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid weighed in on Sharif's likely approach to relations with Pakistan's neighbors and the United States.

RFE/RL: Do you see Nawaz Sharif pushing for a major overhaul of Pakistan's relations with its neighbors?

Ahmed Rashid:
I think he has the mandate to do that. If his major aim is bring Pakistan out of this economic mess that we face, he will have to improve relations with the neighbors. The economy cannot improve as long as there are tensions with India, Afghanistan, and other neighboring countries.

Any strategic policies that he has depend on dealing with the neighbors. Dealing with the Taliban threat, dealing with the terrorism -- all the domestic issues hedge on the fact that we have a terrible relationship with the neighbors and we must improve that.

RFE/RL: Sharif was the only elected Pakistani leader who reached out to India but was deposed by the military for doing so in 1999. How do you see his future relationship with the military?

Ahmed RashidAhmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid
Rashid: Well, the military's attitude towards India has changed. The military also knows that the country is in a terrible mess and it needs to improve relations with its neighbors. So I don't think the military will be a hindrance to him. It may try and slow him down a bit because the military would not like to move too fast with India.

I think on both Afghanistan and on relations with India, Sharif has come in with a very strong mandate and people are expecting him to deliver. And if the military is seen to be trying to resist that, I think the military will be damaging its own reputation.
RFE/RL: How do you see his relations with the United States given that Sharif has spoken against the drone strikes and has said that Pakistan will pull out of Washington's war on terrorism?

Every political leader, during the election campaign, was speaking against the United States because that was a vote-getter. But I think now that he is in power he will be practical because Pakistan needs the United States' support in order to get help and loans from the IMF and the World Bank. I think there will be a relationship.

He knows very well that whatever Pakistan does, the Americans are not going to stop drone missile [strikes]. And this is the main stumbling block. So the issue is how does Pakistan get the best deal with the Americans on the use of drones? I don't see Sharif trying to tell the Americans to stop the use of drones because that is not going to happen.

RFE/RL: Given Sharif's history of being closely allied with Saudi Arabia, how do you see his relationship with its archrival Iran moving forward?

Sharif is going to try and balance relations between Iran and the Arab world. And he would not like to get involved with the American boycott and sanctions with Iran. He also realizes that Iran has the potential of being the quickest provider of gas to Pakistan, and Pakistan does face this enormous energy crisis. So I don't think he is not going to cut out all the options.

RFE/RL: Do you see Sharif pushing for a central role in Afghanistan? Do you see him facilitating reconciliation among Afghans?

He needs a safe American withdrawal from Afghanistan. He needs the Afghan Taliban to be talking to the Americans and talking to [President Hamid] Karzai. I am sure we will see him playing a role to try and get the Taliban to open an office in Doha and preparing the Americans to do the same thing.

Remember, so far the military has been making all the policy decisions on Afghanistan. Now there is going to be a powerful prime minister who in order to improve the economy will take some tough decisions with Afghanistan and with India. And I think the military will go along with that because the military also needs an economy that is functioning.

RFE/RL: During his previous stint in power in the 1990s, Sharif pledged regional cooperation. Do you see him building infrastructure to plug Pakistan to Central Asia?

His first intention will be to improve the domestic economy -- whatever that takes -- and improving relations with India and Afghanistan. I think the wider region will come later on.

Once Allied, Religious Parties Compete Against Each Other In Northwest Pakistan

A supporter of the religious party Jamaat-e Islami takes pictures with a mobile phone as he holds Pakistan's national flag during an election campaign rally in Karachi.

Standing amid a crowd of more than 200 supporters displaying banners and posters and chanting campaign slogans, a local candidate for the Jamaat-e Islami (JI) party is promising Shari'a law to residents of a stronghold for Pakistan's religious parties -- the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Just a few kilometers away, a rival candidate from the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) party is touting his Islamic credentials to another group of potential voters.

Elsewhere in the province's Nowshera district, a candidate from Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Sami (JUI-S) unveils the religious agenda he will take to the national parliament should they vote him into office.

All three candidates are running in Pakistan's May 11 general elections, and all are taking pains to separate themselves from their rivals to win seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's legislature.

It wasn't always this way for the mainstream religious parties in the province and elsewhere in Pakistan's restive northwest, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2002, the three parties ran under the same banner, Muttahidda Majlis-s Amal, and managed to defeat their secularist and moderate rivals -- the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) -- and take over the provincial government.

But the alliance fell into disarray by the time of the 2008 polls, which the JI boycotted nationally. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa race was won by the ANP, which formed a ruling coalition with the PPP. After the election the JI withdrew altogether, and the alliance folded.

Now, the former allies find themselves competing against each other at both the local and national levels.

The three parties have nearly identical political agendas: they seek the introduction of Islamic law, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, peace negotiations with all Taliban groups, and an end to drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In seeking to differentiate themselves, the parties have turned to mudslinging -- to the potential benefit of the province's secularist and moderate parties.

When asked to comment on the prospects of forming an alliance with the JUI-F, a senior JI leader referred to its former partner as "a party of property agents." The "JUI-F is no longer a party of ulema [religious scholars]," added professor Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, the head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's JI branch. "It has become a party of rich people."

The JUI-F retorted with a statement, published in the media, that alleged that the "JI is being run with dollars of foreign NGOs and the party is promoting secular politics in the country."

Such tit-for-tat exchanges have become a daily feature of the campaign and are causing serious divisions among the parties' supporters.

"Of course this is going to divide our vote pool, which will benefit our rivals," lamented Sahibzada Haroonur Rashid, a former member of Pakistan's parliament and the head of JI in the FATA. Rashid is running on JI's ticket in the Bajaur tribal district, where he faces a tough challenge from the JUI-F candidate.

Jan Mohammad Achakzai, the international media coordinator for JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is seen to be a rising political force in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tells RFE/RL that the party promotes moderate politics and should not be considered a hard-line religious party.

Presenting a copy of the JUI-F manifesto, Achakzai says the party believes in the sanctity of the elections, wants Pakistan to be a social-welfare state, and endorses a soft image of Islam.

Analysts believe that although the election campaign violence and allegations of corruption could prove a serious blow to the secular ANP and PPP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it's doubtful the province's religious parties can regain the majority they achieved in 2002, leaving room for the secular and moderate elements to maneuver in the future provincial government.

-- Daud Khattak

Former Actress Takes On Pakistan's Leading Islamist Cleric

Former Pakistani film star turned politician Musarat Shaheen (right) in Islamabad in 2000

She was once the darling of millions of filmgoers. Today, she begs for votes in a dusty city in northwestern Pakistan.
Mussarat Shaheen is in the news for taking on the country's leading Islamist leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose conservative Jamiat-e Ulema Islam (Society of Muslim Clerics) wants to turn Pakistan into a Shari'a state through the ballot box.

Shaheen's election pitch is to expose Rehman's alleged corruption and hypocrisy to Dera Ismail Khan's predominantly conservative voters.

"Maulana Fazlur Rehman gets votes in the name of religion. But once elected, he only enjoys the perks and privileges of power," she told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "Now we will see how he wins."

Maulana Fazlur RehmanMaulana Fazlur Rehman
Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Dera Ismail Khan, in the southern part of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, is plagued by sectarian violence and Taliban attacks. It borders the Waziristan tribal regions, where the Taliban has exerted influence for a decade.

Shaheen says that she is often taunted, both because she is a woman and due to her former career. She says she has also heard that hard-line Islamists have declared that she should be killed for spreading obscenity.

"I have no security because the administration only worries about protecting Maulana and other rich candidates," she says. "I will be proud if I die for the rights of the people of Dera Ismail Khan and Pakistan."

Shaheen was once a leading heroine in Pakistan Pashto film industry, also known as Pollywood. She was known for her raunchy dance steps.

After nearly two decades on the silver screen, she formed her own political party in the 1990s called Tehreek-e Massawat, Urdu for Movement for Equality.

But her political career never took off. She ran against Rehman in the same constituency in 1997. The contest attracted a lot of media attention because of her public swipes at the bearded cleric. Both lost the contest to a third candidate.

Shaheen now thinks she will win the election on May 11 because Rehman has been deceiving people in the name of religion for decades. She declared him a "flop" actor.

-- Abubakar Siddique

Candidate's Slaying Rings Alarm Bells In Restive Pakistani Region

Pakistani police and security officials collect evidence at the site of a bomb blast in Dera Allah Yar, in Balochistan Province, on March 22.

The killing of a candidate in Pakistan's troubled southwestern Balochistan Province has provided a stark reminder of threats to the country's parliamentary elections on May 11.

Officials say unknown gunmen killed independent candidate Abdul Fatih and two relatives in the remote Jahl Magsi district on April 30.

Under a unique Pakistani election law, the killing triggers a postponement of the election in the constituency where Fatih was planning to run.

ALSO SEE: Pakistani Women Hit Campaign Trail To Ensure Their Voices Are Heard

Balochistan has been the scene in recent years of an increasingly bloody separatist insurgency that has seen thousands of separatists, soldiers, and civilians killed.

In the run-up to the elections, many politicians struggled with whether to participate or refrain from elections.

Some autonomy-minded leaders feared the Pakistani military, while others felt threatened by Baluch separatists who had vowed to target anyone taking part in the polls.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: Mapping Out The Former President's Legal Troubles

Further killings of candidates in the vast but sparsely populated region could conceivably force postponement of the elections throughout the province. Despite making up about half of Pakistan's nearly 800,000 square kilometers of territory, Balochistan has just 14 seats in the popularly elected lower house, or National Assembly, of the parliament.

That makes elections in the province extremely vulnerable to disruption through violence.

Islamabad is deploying additional troops to thwart possible disturbances. On April 29, authorities sent additional army units to nine districts of the province considered high-risk due to a history of separatist violence.

-- Abubakar Siddique

Afghan Message Of Solidarity With Boston Was Loud And Clear

A makeshift monument to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings on Boylston Street.

It was spring 2007 when I landed in Boston to pursue my graduate studies at Brandeis University. I made several American friends and enjoyed numerous dinners with generous American families during my stay in the United States.

So I felt a particular connection when the images were broadcast on April 15 after explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But many of my countrymen and -women back home in Afghanistan were equally saddened to hear the news, and some came forward to express their sympathy.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, "The Atlantic" published a series of photos of Afghans holding placards that read "From Kabul to Boston with Love." The photographs got thousands of social-network shares. Similar photos of Iraqis and Syrians also appeared on the Internet, with messages like "We mourn with Boston" and "...Do accept our condolences."

The photographs were taken by author and documentary filmmaker Beth Murphy. She wrote that she planned to send her "love" home through the sign she wrote and wanted to take a picture with it but changed her mind "as I listened to good and innocent people express the heartache that all [of] us feel when other good and innocent people are suffering."

When those pictures hit the web, they elicited a range of emotions and responses. Someone on a Reddit thread said, "What a couple of nice gentlemen, not letting a petty war get in the way of humanity!" On the other hand, others suggested that the Afghans who held the placards didn't even know what was written on them. "They probably don't know what it says...," one user commented. Never mind that Murphy wrote that she actually talked about the subject matter with those subjects before photographing them. "I said, 'Would you be willing to hold this sign to send a little love from Kabul?'" Murphy wrote.

The stereotyping that led the skeptics to conclude that the Afghans in the photographs are illiterate or were paid to hold that sign is a disservice to those people and their courage. They chose to stand in front of a camera and display solidarity with Boston, many of them showing their faces not only to the rest of the world but also to the terrorists in the region that are a constant threat to them and their country.

Some online commenters found it hard to believe that Afghans, themselves the unfortunate victims of U.S. and international bomb strikes, could feel sympathy for the people of the United States in a situation like that. Implying that human nature should be to seek revenge, they suggest that these Afghans should be acting differently; that they should be indifferent or even pleased over the infliction of such pain on the country that has military presence in Afghanistan.

But Afghans in no way revere killings or hold killers in high regard, and neither do they think Americans deserve death or terrorism. Even though a week earlier, 10 children had died in an apparent NATO air strike in Kunar Province, Afghans continued to share the "From Kabul to Boston with Love" images because they know Afghans respect lives -- whether of Americans or anyone else around in the world.

Some have written that Afghans have been through a lot and it seems unrealistic to imagine them feeling sorry for others, given their own situation.

But in fact, there is little to suggest that those who live in turmoil cannot empathize with others, whether because there's too little room left in their hearts or because they've been numbed to the effects of violence. Even having lived in a virtual state of war for three decades, ordinary Afghans value life and peace and solidarity. They understand pain, whether their own or that of others.

The messages sent to Bostonians by those Afghans may not heal the pain of the loved ones of 8-year-old Martin Richard and other victims of the Marathon bombings. Neither would any "From Boston to Kabul" message remove the sorrows of the loved ones of those killed by Taliban insurgents, NATO bombardment, or cross-border shelling from Pakistan. But the message of solidarity was loud and clear.

-- Malali Bashir

Afghans Hail Effort To Protect Rare Raptors From Smugglers

An Afghan man with a falcon at a refugee camp near Radja Bahoudine.

Afghan authorities are welcoming a foreign-based NGO's actions to help curb a runaway trade in smuggled exotic birds from Afghanistan.

The group, Nada Al-Sheba Lel-Hayat Al-Bariya from United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), invited journalists to an event to mark the freeing on March 17 of 30 such birds near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

The animals had been seized from smugglers in the Middle East, where reports on such trafficking from South Asia suggest there is high demand for birds of prey and other exotic animals among the very wealthy.

Last year alone, some 5,000 wild birds were smuggled out of Afghanistan, according to the head of the country's Environmental Protection Agency, Mustafa Zahir. Falcons, hawks, and geese are said to be among the smugglers' favorites.

The most highly prized falcons can reportedly sell for as much as $100,000.

Afghan authorities are constrained by budget limitations and other obstacles to enforcement after decades of war and hardship, with infrastructure, security, and rebuilding projects generally regarded as more urgent priorities.

So Zahir was in Mazar-e Sharif on March 17 to lend government support to a newly launched wildlife protection center.

"Unfortunately, the smuggling of birds that is continuing from Afghanistan must stop," Zahir says. "In Mazar-e Sharif, in Herat, and Bamian the hunters are hunting the falcons and hawks. Most of these birds are smuggled to Gulf nations."

Zahir adds that such rare birds will vanish unless "stark steps" are taken.

So the U.A.E.'s opening of a wildlife research farm in northern Afghanistan is seen as a good omen.

Nada Al-Sheba Lel-Hayat Al-Bariya has pledged to invest some $1 million in the Afghan effort.

“God willing, our main goal is to protect wildlife in Afghanistan, and we are trying to attract the attention of other organizations, mainly in the Gulf nations," says Sayeed Abdul Samad Munib, the U.A.E. group's local head.

Munib says the NGO plans to launch a bird-breeding program in the near future for release into the wild.

The choice of locations for his group's operations -- about 50 kilometers from Mazar-e Sharif -- was important because the sandy deserts outside the Balkh Province capital provide an ideal habitat for such wild birds to nest and brood.

The EPA's Zahir says mature female hawks lay about four eggs a year and the NGO is determined to protect those eggs in order to boost Afghan bird populations.

Decades of near-constant conflict in Afghanistan has held dire consequences for its wildlife. The plight of millions of internally displaced persons, drought, and deforestation have contributed to the endangerment of Afghanistan's wildlife.

Zahir suggests the U.A.E. NGO will expand its operations southward, to Nimroz and Helmand provinces, by setting up similar wildlife protection centers there.

-- Mustafa Sarwar in Prague and Latif Sahak in Mazar-e Sharif

About Gandhara

Gandhara is a blog dedicated to Afghanistan and Pakistan written by RFE/RL journalists from Radio Mashaal (Pakistan), Radio Azadi (Afghanistan), our Central Newsroom, and other services. Here, our people on the ground will provide context, analysis, and some opinions on news from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Send comments or questions to gandhara [at]