In Afghanistan, anyone who bars a woman from attending school, going to work, or visiting a doctor could soon face prison time.
A bill on "eliminating violence against women" that has been in the works for years is taking final shape, and is expected to be among the first pieces of legislation discussed once Afghan parliamentarians return this week from summer recess.
The bill criminalizes discrimination against women and envisages various punishments -- from financial fines to prison terms -- for those found guilty of violating women's rights.
Women's rights activists in Afghanistan and abroad have welcomed the draft, saying it could pave the way for broader rights for women and their greater inclusion in public life.
The overall situation of women and girls in Afghanistan has improved significantly since the collapse of the Taliban. Under the Taliban’s hard-line rule, the most basic rights of women were severely restricted, but millions have now returned to work and millions of girls have returned to school.
Fateh Muhammad, a former mujahedin turned farmer in northern Balkh Province, told RFE/RL that public attitudes have changed regarding the role of women in society.
"Only a couple of years ago, it was beyond our imagination to accept a woman as a politician, for instance, but now we go and vote for a female candidate and it’s completely normal," Muhammad said.
"In our area, Mazar-i-Sharif, no one gets in the way of their children's education -- no matter if their child is a girl or a boy,” said the former mujahed, whose teenage daughter attends a nearby high school. “Younger girls don't cover their heads. After coming of age, girls cover their heads according to Islamic requirements, but they still continue their education. No one stops them from going to school."
Women ‘Not Valued’
But the situation in Afghanistan's relatively safe and less conservative north is not reflected everywhere in the country.
"Silence Is Violence," a report issued earlier this month by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, warns that a common attitude noted throughout the country is that "women and girls are not valued as individuals with inherent human rights."
"Women participating in public life face threats, harassment, and attacks," sending "a strong message to all women to stay at home," the report warns. This "has obvious ramifications for the transformation of Afghanistan, the stated priority of Afghan authorities and their international supporters."
In Afghanistan's deeply religious society, many people remain wary of women pursuing an education or working outside the home. By and large, a woman's role is society continues to be seen as bearing children and doing housework.
More than 50 percent of Afghan girls marry before the legal age of 16, and most marriages are arranged by relatives. Afghan women are often victims of domestic violence, and some families even marry off their underage daughters to settle debts or disputes.
Asadullah, a 50-year-old resident of southern Helmand Province, says no law or official decree alone can change centuries-old traditions or beliefs.
"Those who have prepared the bill have completely ignored Afghanistan's realities," he said. "I don't believe any woman would ask the police or authorities to punish her family if they didn’t allow her to work."
"It would be very difficult to implement this kind of law in our society,” Asadullah continued. “It is unlikely that families would allow their daughters to discuss their problems with government officials, or let the government interfere in solving their problems. All issues are discussed inside the house by the parents."
Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament and a women's rights activist, agrees that implementing the bill, which is expected to be signed by President Hamid Karzai once it makes its way through parliament, will be a serious challenge.
"Surely, at this point this law cannot be put into practice, even in Kabul,” Barakzai said. “However, by no means should we say ‘we don't need this law because it cannot be implemented.’ We have to pass the law and then try to create conditions to realize it.”
“At the same time, we have to work on raising people's awareness about their rights," she said.
Barakzai says the government, rights activists, and intellectuals must work to break old taboos and change perceptions about women's roles and rights.
"The Afghan people, too, step by step, have to learn and accept a new approach to women's position in society," she said.