Afghan women's safety activists say a new partnership with religious leaders can help stop Taliban attacks on girls and women that have left a Pakistani teen activist for girls just across the border in Swat Province undergoing brain surgery after a gunshot execution.
At an Oct. 10 conference in Kabul, the day after the Pakistani Taliban shot 14-year-old activist Malala Yousufzai, clerics denounced Taliban-style attacks on girls and women.
"Violence is found in a place where there is no understanding of religion and religious knowledge is low or absent," Mohammad Yousuf Niazi, minister of Hajj and Islamic affairs told conference participants. "I am asking the Islamic community to inform people and families about what the Quran had said and how it condemns the abuse of women."
The clerics' conference statement said that forced marriage and child marriage are against Sharia and encouraged people to cooperate with the education of female citizens.
During the conference, the Ministry of Women's Affairs announced the establishment of the Commission on Prevention of Violence against Women to work with religious leaders in all of the provinces to inform the public of the country's violence against women act, the German news agency Deutsche Welle reported Oct. 10.
Under the 2009 decree on the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, police are obligated to arrest those who abuse women. However, both the police and the courts are not yet fully familiar with the act and there's been limited implementation of it.
In the past, women's rights activists have expressed fears that as the U.S. draws its troops out of Afghanistan, it will open women and girls to even more Taliban attacks and that negotiations with the Taliban will be at the cost of women. They're now trying to determine a plan for post-troops withdrawal.
The conference was organized by the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which has been criticized for not adequately standing up for the safety of girls and women, the Ministry of Hajj and Islamic Affairs and the Council of Afghanistan Scholars, a nongovernmental organization that oversees more than 3,500 mosques across the country.
But the Council of Afghanistan Scholars, also known as the Ulama Council, is far from modern Western in its attitudes toward women. In March, it issued a prohibition against women "integrating with men that are not a family member in society" and asked women to respect polygamy.
Soltan said that when Islamic leaders preach that violence against women violates religious law it can carry great influence in vast areas of the country where the word of local religious leaders means more than national laws.
Hassan Bano Ghazanfar, Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, told reporters after the conference that clerics had a unique ability to confront violence against women perpetrated in the name of religion.
In conservative, traditional and religious Afghanistan, mosques and Islamic temples, called Hossienieh, are the best venues to educate the public on tradition and religion. "Only religious leaders can separate the wrong customs and superstitions from the pure Sharia law," Ghazanfar told Deutsche Welle.
Last year, in an incident that drew international attention, police found a child bride named Sahargul tortured in the basement of her husband's home.
The country's Ministry of Women's Affairs has defended itself from criticism for not doing more to stem the violence by saying its job is policymaking, not law enforcement.
Afghan women's rights activists bypassed the ministry and arranged a meeting in June with President Hamid Karzai to ask that more be done. Soltan, the women's rights activist, was at that meeting and raised the problem of rich or powerful families having immunity in corrupted local systems and abusers going unpunished.
"We talked to him about immunity culture in Afghanistan and how that hurts women," she said.
Karzai ordered the Women's Ministry to take action. In response, the ministry arranged this recent conference with the two co-organizing groups to educate and encourage religious leaders to actively put an end to the rampant gender violence. During the conference, Karzai sent a message asking religious scholars to help combat this violence.
By custom, though it may vary by family in big cities, women in Afghanistan cannot leave their home without the company of a relative male guardian. Until recently, running away from home was a crime for girls.
For more than 12 years, Solmaz Sharif has worked as a journalist for Persian media outlets such as BBC Persian and the Etemad Melli Newspaper. She is also founder of the first Iranian women's sports magazine, Shirzanan. She currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and writes for Movements.org. Her website is: www.solmazsharifdj.com