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Elections hold key to fragile gains for women

June 17, 2014 7 minute Read by Melissa Charbonneau

Atia Abawi is a foreign correspondent based in the Middle East whom I first met in a Kabul gym. That day she was interviewing a team of young Afghan girls clad in head scarves and tennis shoes who were pushing cultural boundaries through sports at a basketball training session.

Abawi, an Afghan-American fluent in Dari and Farsi, served as CNN's Kabul bureau manager and correspondent before moving to NBC's Kabul bureau where she landed an exclusive network interview with President Hamid Karzai.

During her nearly five years in Afghanistan, Abawi not only covered the war and politics, she also shed light on critical women's issues, ranging from education and domestic abuse to the plight of women in the judicial and penal systems.

In her recently-released novel "The Secret Sky" Abawi explores other oppressive challenges women face throughout Afghan society.

As Afghans await final presidential election results next month, Abawi looks at what the future could hold for the women of Afghanistan under the leadership of the top presidential contenders. 


by Atia Abawi

Looking into the eyes of an Afghan woman can be one of the most soul crushing and yet inspiring moments a person can witness. You see pain, you see love, and if you are lucky – sometimes you see joy. But a common sight is that of resilience in a life that has witnessed continued atrocities.

Afghanistan will soon have a new President. Both remaining candidates have pledged to stand up for the country’s women in a land labeled ‘the most dangerous place to be a woman’. But is it possible to turn the tide of injustice?

Both candidates claim they will fight violence against women, a disease that continues to plague the country. According to the United Nations, 87-percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse – women’s rights advocates say the number is even higher.

"The protection of women's rights marks on our top working priorities, and we will combat violence against women practically, not just in rhetoric," candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah pledged.

His opponent had stronger words.

"Those who harass and commit violence against women will be treated with the harshest of penalties," Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai announced at a rally.

Ahmadzai has also promised to build the first university for Afghan women run by Afghan women. Adding that he would also give women the right to register land and homes with their names and not that of a male family member. Both promises would have been unheard of more than a decade ago.

Since the US invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime, women have witnessed many achievements. They’ve gone back to schools, they’re back in the work place, and they even hold seats in the Afghan government. But the gains are fragile and the women want more. Proving that by showing up in masses to vote in both the first and second round of the Presidential elections this year. According to the Independent Election Commission, 38% of the more than 7-million voters on Saturday were women.

But it takes more than just political changes. There needs to be cultural and educational shifts to bring peace to half of the country’s population. And that can happen with time, proper leadership, and assistance.

As someone who has worked and then later lived in Afghanistan on and off as a journalist since 2005 the hardest part of moving last year was the guilt of leaving sisters behind in a world that has only fought against them.

As a journalist, you tell story after story of brutalities and horrors. Stories that you internalize and can’t escape. The smell of charred bodies instantly returns the moment you remember them. The tears of a mother still spike at your heart like a dagger. And the sad empty eyes of a girl brutally raped and tortured can still tangle your insides.

But you also remember the women and even men who have devoted and sometimes sacrificed their own lives to help bring change. The head of women’s shelters who put their lives on the line on a daily basis, to protect the victims – some of them who have been victimized themselves. And the youth groups who take to the streets and protest injustices, not stopping even as cars threaten to run them over.

When I was given the amazing opportunity by Philomel, an imprint of Penguin Group, to write a story about the life of a teenage girl in Afghanistan I wanted to show the reader a world that isn’t seen through the lens of a camera or the words of a reporter. In ‘The Secret Sky’ I wanted them to experience, if even for a moment what the life of a female in Afghanistan truly entails – the beauty and the horror. And I hope my readers step into a world that we so often hear about but really know so little of. 

Beyond the burqa, the scars, and the remnants of nearly four decades of war – 35 years that has all but crushed the spirit of a people – remains the Afghan woman. A group who has shaped Afghanistan and I believe is the key to saving a broken nation.

I once wrote about Afghan women in a piece while living in Afghanistan:

She is like many other women in the world.  She loves her family, especially her children; they give her the strength to survive in the face of defeat.  She’s proud of her country; no matter how many tears she has shed for it. And there is no one or nothing she loves more than her God; the only reason she believes that a change will come.

And I believe this still to be true. And I know that every woman I met there does not want the world to forget her again. They have the power to change the nation but they still need support as they try to rid themselves of their crutches.