Afghanistan must stop the murder of its female leaders | Orzala Ashraf Nemat

The Afghan government's rhetoric on women's rights and condolences when yet another woman is killed are not enough

Afghanistan has lost another woman leader. Last week, Hanifa Safi – head of women's affairs in Laghman province – had gone only a few metres from home when her car was blown up. Apparently a magnetic bomb was placed under the car, targeting Safi and her family. Her children, injured in the attack along with several other people, are now left orphaned as both Safi and her husband died in the attack. 

The targeting of Afghan women leaders in government positions is not a new phenomenon. Safia Amajan held the same position as Safi in Kandahar. Sitara Achakzai was a provincial council member. Malalai Kakar was provincial chief of female police in Kandahar. A number of women aid workers, whose names and identities are not recorded, have also been murdered.

In the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtonkhwa province of Pakistan a young woman aid worker, Farida Afridi, was similarly targeted earlier this month for her work on women's rights.

Sadly, the Afghan government does almost nothing about such incidents apart from condemning them; there is rarely any serious effort to catch the perpetrators. In some cases, attempts are made to blame the killings on "personal disputes" or "family hostility", or to imply some moral justification – in Safi's case, that she "had been known locally for going out without her head covered".

However, it is very important to understand what role women like Safi play on the ground. Politically, she was the most senior female representative of the Afghan government in women's affairs at a provincial and sub-national level.

In that position, she was involved in a continuous struggle to defend the rights of women who were targets of violent acts. This puts a woman like Safi in a critical and socially sensitive position because she is struggling against social norms or harmful traditional practices that clash with the Afghan constitution and laws.

The official reaction to Safi's killing contrasts sharply with that in northern Samangan province last week when a male MP and a number of civilians were targeted. President Karzai announced "an all-out investigation" into the attack. This raises the question of whether the government is serious about women's rights, or whether it is only interested in showing them off for the international donor community?

It is crucial that the government of Afghanistan should move beyond slogans about women's rights and ensure their protection in real life. Merely offering condolences to the families of the slain is not going to change much.

I had an opportunity to meet Safi and her colleagues from Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan during one of their workshops in Jalalabad a few weeks ago. These are exceptionally brave women who take great risks to not only secure other women's lives, but do so in circumstances where their own safety and security is minimal. Safi shared concerns about her own safety when she said:

"There is no guarantee about our safety and security when we implement rules in accordance with our laws. I deal with cases of violence against women on a daily basis, yet I don't even have any protection, or my office vehicle to move around with. The central authorities always speak too much but do nothing to protect us.
"We defend other women's rights but no one is there to defend our rights."

Razia, another woman working in a government post in the country's volatile east, said:

"Our own male colleagues at the provincial government do not believe in our work. They say women should sit at home, yet I tell them, 'If we all go sit at home, how are you going to manage cases where your own daughter runs away from violence in her family? Would you want her to go to other men or police to complain?' Then they give no answer, so we continue in our work."


Regardless of the fact that women working in government positions are targeted for political reasons or for protecting women and girls who become victims of harmful traditional practices, the government of Afghanistan should launch an immediate investigation into Safi's assassination.

The government and its supporters should also listen to female defenders of women's rights across the country who take the risk of their lives to work in the public offices. Listening to their needs and finding practical mechanisms to protect women working for public offices will be certainly one way of gaining trust in Afghanistan's future.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


Orzala Ashraf Nemat

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Sometimes I have to pick up a gun’: the female Afghan governor resisting the Taliban
Salima Mazari, one of only three female district governors in Afghanistan, tells of her motivation to fight the militants

Zainab Pirzad of Rukhshana Media

11, Aug, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Can Afghan women count on Hillary Clinton? | Meredith Tax

Meredith Tax: The US secretary of state promised to protect women's rights – she must be held to her pledge as talks with the Taliban begin

Meredith Tax

04, Jul, 2011 @2:36 PM

Article image
As female journalists flee Afghanistan, the future looks dire for media freedom | Jane Martinson
While individual countries try to do what they can, international pressure is lacking, says Guardian columnist Jane Martinson

Jane Martinson

03, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
We are all Farkhunda: how one woman’s murder could change Afghanistan | Kristin Cordell
The lynching showed that many Afghan men, clinging to their power, feel threatened. Women must educate them to accept a shared, equal future

Kristin Cordell

08, May, 2015 @10:30 AM

Article image
The Peshawar women fighting the Taliban: 'We cannot trust anyone'
The work of the remarkable women known as Aware Girls to counter the extremism of the Taliban would be dangerous even if they weren’t based in Peshawar, a city that feels as if it’s under siege

Billy Briggs in Peshawar, Pakistan

13, Oct, 2015 @11:32 AM

Article image
The Afghan female politician in hiding: 'No one respects women in our country'
Banned under strict refugee laws from applying for asylum from within her own country's borders, the former member of parliament Noorzia Atmar had no choice but to flee

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

14, Jan, 2014 @10:00 AM

Article image
Hina Rabbani Khar offers hope to Pakistan | Shehrbano Taseer

Shehrbano Taseer: Reaching out to India over Kashmir, Pakistan's young foreign minister truly represents the country and its aspirations

Shehrbano Taseer

02, Aug, 2011 @2:00 PM

Article image
Female leaders gather to underline importance of educating girls
Glamour magazine event saw Michelle Obama advise an audience of hundreds of girls: read, write, go to school, beat the boys

Mahita Gajanan in New York

30, Sep, 2015 @12:28 AM

Article image
Where are the west’s female leaders? | Minna Salami
Minna Salami: Women are gaining more political power in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America than in Europe. What’s slowing us down?

Minna Salami

31, Oct, 2014 @2:01 PM

Article image
Female leaders make a real difference. Covid has proved it | Jane Dudman
It may be no coincidence that countries with women at the helm have had fewer infections and deaths, says public leadership editor Jane Dudman

Jane Dudman

16, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM