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In defence of women’s shelters

Rafia Zakaria |

Many of the women’s shelters currently operating in Afghanistan have been founded and funded during the Nato/US presence over the past decade.

As is well known, the United States based part of its justification for the invasion of Afghanistan on the premise of liberating Afghan women from the misogyny and brutality of the Afghan Taliban. The then first lady Laura Bush announced that the war required the support of all civilised people because it was a war for women’s liberation, and at least one female congresswoman donned a burqa on the floor of the House of Representatives, going on to detail how claustrophobic she found the garment.

It followed from all this that in the run-up to the invasion and in the months and years after, programmes and development focused on Afghan women received a lot of attention in the international media, including pictures of Afghan women going to school and walking on the streets of their country without the burqa that the Taliban had made mandatory.

Indeed, in 2015, over a decade after the invasion, the New York Times was still publishing articles touting how American-established shelters were the only thing standing between abused Afghan women and the men who would kill them.

There is a lot of truth to that premise. In Afghanistan (as in Pakistan) family and tribe are the venue of refuge and recourse. This means that women who rebel against tribal mores, be it those who are accused of sexual crimes or those victimised by men (often from their own family), have no place to go. With nowhere to go, many women would either have to put up with the abuse or take their own life. Until the establishment of shelters, no third choice was really possible.

Unsurprisingly, everyone, except the women living in the shelters, has been critical of their presence. When the whole structure of society, specifically the project of making women ascribe to the rules and whims of men, is predicated on the fact that they have no choice but to obey, it follows that anyone or anything that offers them an option is going to be viewed less than favourably.

Even Afghan government officials, who have otherwise been eager to take help and funds from the Americans, view the presence of these shelters with scepticism. As scholar Sonia Ahsan quotes in her ethnographic study of Afghan women’s shelters (called khana-yi aman), even the Afghan justice minister described the shelters as encouraging girls to disobey their fathers and family members, their presence conveying that they did not have to worry, they could run away and stay at shelters and did not have to bother with what their family members thought.

On top of all this, Ahsan notes, the fact that these women are runaways, imagined or known to have been abandoned by their families, lends further ambiguity to the moral status of the shelters themselves. The places that provide shelter to women accused of being disobedient or depraved are hence imagined as venues of disobedience and sexual promiscuity.

All the problems afflicting women’s shelters in Afghanistan exist also in Pakistan. The absence of choices for abused or accused women is just as instrumental in ensuring that they comply with everything and anything that is demanded of them. Similar to Afghanistan, Pakistani women’s rights organisations have been helped by international donors over the past decade. The idea, as in Afghanistan, has been to provide options for women who otherwise have none. Government-run shelters in Pakistan have to contend with the same criticism, often facing accusations of immorality just because they are seen as intervening in private matters where the family and their agendas are supposed to have complete sway and supremacy.

As long as state and society remain intractable, the need for women’s shelters will be there. In Pakistan, the scale of urbanisation and demographic change has meant that more women are in need of such venues when marriages and parental relationships become abusive.

However, while the newspapers are full of pictures of dead women, of women who had nowhere to go and were killed for honour or disobedience or some other reason, neither Pakistani nor Afghan society seems particularly concerned with seeing women’s shelters as a necessity. Rather, these are viewed as a product of a Western feminism that contravenes culture and religion. As funding from external sources dries up, such a recalibration is absolutely imperative in both countries. Unless lawmakers take steps to indigenise the idea of women’s shelters, and present them as crucial to the welfare of women, such a change is unlikely.

If the developments of the past few weeks are a sign of things to come, Pakistan is moving in the wrong direction. The recently passed Alternative Dispute Resolution Bill, 2017, which grants legal legitimacy to decisions made by jirgas and panchayats, is a huge blow to women’s welfare. These male-dominated extra-legal bodies, which have been known to promote the abuse and persecution of women and deny them choices, are one of the biggest enemies of institutions such as women’s shelters.

As international aid dries up in the coming years, women’s shelters in Pakistan and Afghanistan are likely to face existential issues that will threaten their survival. Unless there is urgent and immediate recognition of the need and importance of these institutions, even those that exist are likely to be no more. The consequence, and one that is sadly meaningless to many Pakistanis, will be more dead women, killed simply because they could not run and had no place of safety where they could take refuge.