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‘Nameless’ Women Of Afghanistan Struggle For Rights

Afghan women attend a consultative grand assembly, known as a Loya Jirga, in Kabul. While they have gained rights like those to vote and to work, they are still faced with a patriarchy that denies them the right to their names.
Afghan women attend a consultative grand assembly, known as a Loya Jirga, in Kabul. While they have gained rights like those to vote and to work, they are still faced with a patriarchy that denies them the right to their names.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Ghazal Sharifi is an Afghan woman and mother of two. But she says her labor pains were nothing compared to the pain of not being able to legally represent her children.

In Afghanistan, women cannot obtain a passport for their children without the presence of the father. The mother's name isn’t allowed on the child's identification card, either. Longstanding taboos and fiercely defended societal restraints deny women the agency to make important decisions for their children, their families, and themselves in a deeply patriarchal society in which men are shamed for even mentioning the names of their female relatives.

As Afghan society makes efforts to advance in regard to gender roles and norms, many women are questioning the male-dominated power structure currently in place in the country. But the issue is layered.

Mawlawi Hamidullah Haidary, an Islamic scholar, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that “from the point of view of Islam and Shari’a, there is no problem, but Afghan society does not accept this, they are not ready to accept this, and it’s seen as shameful.”

Sharifi says that when she went to the legal offices to register her child’s ID, she was told she could not use her name. The officials said they would accept the name of her brother-in-law, or even that of her nephew, but not hers.

"At that moment, I felt so belittled as a mother,” she told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan. “I felt that my husband's brother or nephew had more rights over my own children than I did. I got pregnant and gave birth, but unfortunately men have the authority to get IDs for their children, rather than their own mothers.”

Under Afghan law, the sexism extends much further than IDs. When deciding custody rights of a child, institutions give preference to the father or grandfathers rather than the mother.

In the eyes of Sharifi and many others, this is cruel.

Yet while the issue has gained a certain amount of traction among progressive Afghans in recent years, including a 2017 campaign called Where Is My Name? that sought to eradicate long-standing taboos by generating discussion on the importance of making women's names and identities visible across all aspects of society, a larger discussion has been missing due to the powerful sway of a male-dominated society.

'I Felt Humiliated': Afghan Moms Fight To Get Names On Kids' ID Cards
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Haidary, the scholar, says that the Afghan government has bigger issues requiring its attention, such as widespread corruption. “Focusing on small issues like a woman's name does not solve our bigger problems,” he said.

But for Naheed Farid, a member of the Afghan Parliament, the issue is an important starting point in ensuring women gain their due rights and should be a top priority for a society that is attempting to reshape itself.

“When the names of fathers and grandfathers are mentioned in ID cards and the names of mothers are not, this alone is an act of violence against women,” she said. “It's important to have a meaningful presence of women in society, not just in legal documents but also for their right to work, get an education, and acquire other basic rights.”

Members of the Where is My Name? campaign are encouraged that after three years of fighting for women’s rights to identities, the issue has now reached the doors of the Afghan Parliament. It will be on the public agenda when the parliament reconvenes in September.

Young parliament members like Farid are ready to vote for a positive change in the constitution, paving the way for Afghan women to be recognized in official and legal documents.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women have regained many of the rights that were previously off limits to them. But despite being able to work and vote, many must still deal with the conditions of a patriarchal system that holds back on allowing them to be equal citizens.

-- Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on Shafi Karimi's reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.