Skip to main content

What's at stake for Afghan women

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
December 27, 2012 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT