Skip to main content

What's at stake for Afghan women

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Acting head of women's affairs department in Afghan province was gunned down
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon says the killing fits a pattern of violence against women
  • She says women have made strides in Afghanistan since 2001, but huge issues remain
  • Lemmon: While U.S. focuses on withdrawal, much remains at stake for Afghan women

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is author of The New York Times best-seller "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," which tells the true story of a girl whose business supported her family under the Taliban. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, she has written widely on entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions. Follow her on Twitter: @gaylelemmon.

(CNN) -- "The United States joins the government of Afghanistan in strongly condemning the murder of Najia Sediqi, who was killed in a drive-by shooting Monday morning," read a press release issued December 12 by the U.S. State Department and distributed by the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

"The United States will continue to stand side-by-side with women who are carrying on Najia's fight, the Afghan government and all Afghan people to ensure that the hard-won gains made by women in the recent years are protected and advanced."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Yet as the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of NATO forces approaches many Afghans and some Americans wonder how, exactly, those gains will be safeguarded. And Sediqi's death, along with three other killings of Afghan women in the past several weeks, shows both the gains and potential losses facing women in Afghanistan.

On a recent Monday morning, gunmen opened fire on Sediqi while she walked to her office in broad daylight in eastern Laghman province. She was the acting head of the region's women's affairs department, which meant that she handled everything from helping abused women get to shelters to overseeing regional economic empowerment programs.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Her title was "acting" because, as Afghanistan's TOLO TV reported, only five months earlier her predecessor, Hanifa Safi, was killed in a car bomb blast that also left her husband in a coma. Both Sediqi and Safi are among the hundreds of Afghan officials and leaders who have been targeted for assassination.

The killings of the Afghan officials come alongside several weeks in which horrific cases of violence against women came to light in the Afghan press. In Kapisa province, a 16-year-old schoolgirl named Anisa was shot dead after leaving the Mahmoud Raqi Girls High School.

Days later Afghan women leaders gathered in Kabul to demand justice and a government investigation into whether the Taliban, which are suspected in the killing, were responsible. Some activists saw a link between Anisa's killing and her work volunteering for a polio eradication campaign the Taliban are known to oppose.

A woman like Malala
Afghanistan execution sparks outrage

In Kunduz province, 2012 has been the "most violent on record for women and girls," with more than a dozen killed. Most recently, a 14-year-old was killed by a gunman as she opened her door, allegedly in connection to a failed marriage proposal.

Another schoolgirl, Giseena, was found slain, her throat slit in what appeared to be retribution for her father's refusal to agree to her marriage. The girl's killing came while she was on her way to collect water for her home near the Tajikstan border. One of the men the police detained in the investigation was her thwarted suitor.

This collage of horrific violence against women tells two stories. First, for Afghan officials, death is a frighteningly present possibility at all times, and women serving other women are among the leading targets. A slew of high-profile female leaders have been killed, from Malalai Kakar of Kandahar's police force to Safia Ama Jan, who headed Kandahar's local ministry of women's affairs office, the same position Safi and Sediqi held in Laghman.

And second, as a U.N. official in Afghanistan noted this month, while violence against women remains "largely under-reported due to cultural restraints, social norms and taboos," the last year saw "an actual increase in reporting of incidents of violence against women," with prosecutors and courts "convicting more perpetrators for such crimes."

Certainly the high-visibility horrors that "reach law enforcement, that actually get to the court, or receive public attention due to their egregious nature represent only the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to crimes against women in Afghanistan, but the fact is that more women are bringing their abuse to the authorities and a thriving Afghan media are picking up their stories.

This reality points to progress, say advocates for women. And they say they are coming to believe that these steps forward will not recede as the international troops withdraw.

"I don't see that Afghanistan can go backwards," says Manizha Naderi of Women for Afghan Women, an organization that runs shelters for abused women across the country. "Too many people have experienced and felt the freedom of how it is to live in a safe environment. I really don't think the young people will ever go backwards."

Certainly the years since 2001 have been marked by dramatic changes for Afghan women. Nearly 3 million girls are in school, and more than 3,000 midwives across the country save expectant mothers' lives. Women make up a quarter of parliament, and civil society -- groups pushing for human rights and better education -- is filled with 20-, 30- and 40-something women pushing for their rights and their country's future.

In many ways the stories of these women are part of a larger narrative the American public, exhausted by the country's longest-ever war, has nearly stopped hearing: Some women are making great progress -- and taking great risks -- while some others have seen their lives change little and continue to be plagued by violence and deadly abuse.

Their fates are linked. As three prominent Afghan women entrepreneurs who appeared in Washington at the U.S. Institute of Peace this month made clear, the gains of some women lead to the gains of more. Homegrown role models help show what is possible to the girls of the next generation -- and their fathers.

In the political sphere they show that women can lead and they stand up for girls such as Giseena. And in the economic realm these entrepreneurs are creating jobs for women and men in a country that has an unemployment rate estimated to top 35%.

As these women push forward they bring others with them and bolster families' prospects in the process. But their advancement takes time.

In America's recent election, neither side wanted to discuss in any depth either the stakes of the Afghanistan conflict or a sustainable future strategy for the war. Poll after poll shows Americans no longer think it is a war worth fighting. But Afghan women are still in the fight and will be long after 2014. And their battle for a more educated, richer, healthier country is one in which everyone has a stake.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT