Noor Zia Atmar gained international notoriety as one of Afghanistan's first female members of parliament. She travelled the world to speak about the issues women in her country face, and highlighted the amount of progress being made. But that was three years ago. Today, she is seeking asylum to leave Afghanistan, where she feels politically oppressed and physically endangered. Her story should serve as a troubling reminder that, as international forces are set to withdraw, women's progress in the country is unraveling.
The 40-year-old Afghan women's activist, who has served as a politician in her country since 2005, told the Telegraph this week that the country's gender progress has been falling apart as U.S. and other Western forces are withdrawing. She lamented, "Women are in a worse condition now. Every day they are being killed, having their ears, noses cut," adding, "It's not just women in villages — it is also people like me."
Atmar helped push important legislation on a range of issues affecting women in the country's first parliament, including new laws on gender violence. But she now lives in a women's shelter, disowned by her family and fearing for her safety, and is seeking asylum in the U.K.
As the U.S. is pushing for a complete military withdrawal from the country by the end of 2014, hope for real progress for the country's women is dwindling. Atmar helped bring forward the country's first Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009, which officially banned a range of social ills including forced marriage and rape. But the law, despite being signed by Presidnt Hamid Karzai, has not yet been ratified by parliament and continues to face vocal criticism from the country's conservatives. And beyond this pushback, quotas for women's representation in the Afghan parliament has just been lowered, with the proportion of provincial council seats reserved for women dropping in recent months from 25% to 20%.
Shukira Barakzai, another female member Afghaistan's parliament, said these representation reductions in the parliament were indicative of an overall decline in progress for the country's women's rights movement. “In the last three years," she told NBC World News, "I should say that women have been lost from the attention of international community and civil society. They are not getting as much support as they had in the past."
Still, the prognosis is not all bad. Overall, NATO's involvement in the country over the past 12 years has ended with some notable strides in women's education and health in the country. The country acceded to the international Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) without reservations in 2003, and has worked to incorporate the treaty's language into law, banning 22 types of violence to work to better protect women. Girls' access to education has been steadily improving, and maternal mortality rates have been on a steep decline with improved health programs targeting women.
But the conservative stronghold in the country's legislature is attempting to fight back against womens' rights programs, and the Taliban continues to fight back despite over a decade of international efforts to squash their influence. Women like Atmar fear the worst for the future of Afghan women, and this is a bad sign for overall progress.
"We must remove fundamentalism from Afghanistan," Atmar insisted as the only long-term solution to women's plight in her country. She fears the withdrawing Western forces will take away with them the eyes of the international community, pleading, "The world should remember, the fire from here might not reach their country, but the smoke will."