The Pitfalls of Predicting Afghan Gender Politics

by Torunn Wimpelmann, author of The Pitfalls of Protection

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I should have known better than to try to predict the forever shifting field of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Recently, a press release by the Afghan Ministry of Justice proved me wrong. In my book The Pitfalls of Protection, I had hazarded a guess that the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) , which many Afghan women’s rights activists had fought hard to keep as a separate piece of legislation would nonetheless be merged into the general Penal Code. But that guess had underestimated the strength of the activists. Despite opposition from large parts of the Afghan legal community, many diplomats and seemingly the Afghan President himself, the urgent press release assures the activists that the EVAW law will be kept a distinct law, as befitting its special status.

When I started my research in Afghanistan, in the summer of 2009, I was thrilled to hear that a new law specifically on violence against women was about to be presented to the Parliament. My plan had been to explore what counted as violations against women in Afghanistan—socially, politically and legally. To be able to observe parliamentary debates over exactly this question seemed like unusually lucky timing. Little did I know then how central this law would become to the gender politics in Afghanistan and that almost a decade later, its fate would still be undetermined.

The EVAW law, listing 22 acts as violence against women, was enacted as a presidential decree in 2009. Presented as a favor to women by then President Karzai, the law was refused ratification in the Afghan Parliament dominated by conservative religious actors with links to the newly rehabilitated mujahedin. The parliamentarians called it an anti-Islamic and foreign product. The law was nonetheless celebrated as a historical achievement by many in Afghanistan, both Afghan women’s activists and their allies in Western embassies. For years now, despite its ambiguous status as a decree, the law has been the focus of a massive implementation apparatus underwritten by development aid.

But not without some controversy. The conservative parliament aside, legal scholars argued that the law had technical flaws and unclear terminology, and that women’s protection would be better served by an upcoming comprehensive penal code that would incorporate the proliferating number of stand-alone criminal bills produced since 2001. By the time my book went to press, this position was gaining force, and some went as far as to accuse the supporters of the law of putting personal agendas above reason. Yet in the meantime, the supporters of a separate law have gained the upper hand.

The ongoing story of the EVAW law has women’s position in Afghanistan at its heart, yet it is also about much more than that. It’s about the source of law and moral and political authority in the country. It’s about the extreme contradictions of the unending US-led invasion, micromanaging gender equality on the one hand and empowering Islamists on the other. And it’s about the choices faced by feminists everywhere; do you seize your victories whenever you can find them, however imperfect or ill gotten, or do you prioritize perfection over timing, even if that risks pushing gains further down the horizon.


Torunn Wimpelmann is a researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute.

The Pitfalls of Protection is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy of the book.

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