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Afghan women cry for help after Mina Mangal's killing

Masood Saifullah
May 14, 2019

The recent murder of a prominent female journalist has once again shown how precarious life is for women in Afghanistan. There's little hope of the situation improving anytime soon.

Afghanistan Parlamentswahl | Stimmabgabe in Kabul
Image: Reuters/O. Sobhani

A well-known Afghan journalist and political adviser was assassinated in broad day light over the weekend, demonstrating once again the poor state of women's safety in the war-ravaged country. Mina Mangal — who had worked as a presenter for several Afghan television channels before becoming cultural adviser for parliament — was gunned down by unidentified gunmen on Saturday when she was leaving home for work in the nation's capital, Kabul.

Police in Afghanistan have launched a manhunt for Mangal's ex-husband after her parents said he was responsible for her killing. Mangal's brother, Shakib Mangal, told DW that his sister had once been abducted by her ex-husband's family. "Her in-laws had abducted her two years ago but we were able to get her released with the help of some government officials and tribal elders," Mangal said. "Her ex-husband, however, continued threatening Mina Mangal."

Read more: Is Afghanistan ready for a #MeToo movement?

He said his family has now filed a complaint against both his sister's ex-husband and that man's parents. Kabul police cite family disputes as the motive behind the killing. But Mangal's brother stresses that the disputes had roots in his sister's work and fight for young women and girls. Shakib Mangal said that his sister's ex-husband had tried to stop her from working both during and after their marriage despite vowing not to oppose her working as a journalist before their wedding. 

Afghanistan Journalistin Mina Mangal
Mina Mangal worked as a presenter for several Afghan television channels before becoming cultural adviser for parliamentImage: Fararou

Continuing discrimination

Mina Mangal's killing highlights the increasingly life-threatening risks faced by Afghan women working outside the home. Most Afghan men in this traditionally conservative society still hold the view that women need to stay at home and frown upon those in the workplace.

In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Afghanistan as the second-most dangerous country for women, nearly 17 years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The Taliban were notorious for their repression of women during their rule from 1996 to 2001; they banned girls' education, forbade women from working outside the home, forced them to wear full facial covering and shredded any Western notion of women's rights, among other restrictions.

Despite the international community pouring billions of dollars toward female empowerment over the past 18 years, Afghan women continue to suffer from widespread gender discrimination and an unequal access to education, health care and economic resources. Furthermore, honor killings and gender-related violence have been on the rise in recent years. Women face abuse and life threats for merely choosing to take up jobs outside the home, say rights groups.

Read more: Opinion: Western intervention in Afghanistan is a failure

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) says it has so far recorded 26 cases for 2018 alone, in which the killing of a woman was related to her work and profession. This number could be higher as the commission does not record all such cases due to its inability to access some areas of the country.

"These incidents can have an adverse impact on other women and discourage them from continuing their fight for justice," AIHRC director Musa Mahmudi told DW, adding that it's unclear how many Afghan women have left their jobs due to the spike in gender-based violence over the past several years.

Similar concerns were echoed by Kabul-based women's rights activist Maqadasa Atalwali. "When activists, media personalities and other prominent figures are killed in broad daylight, families will find yet another reason to stop their daughters from working outside or fighting for their rights," she said.

Paying the ultimate price

Although Afghan women in general face difficulties when it comes to working outside the home, it's an even bigger challenge for those who opt for certain professions, such as a career in the media.

Many female journalists, for instance, are quitting their jobs and taking up a different profession, said Robina Shinwari from the Afghan Women's Network. "No matter how good a job opportunity it is, if a woman's life is at risk, she will prefer to stay at home or do something less risky," Shinwari stressed.

Zalma Kharoti is a case in point. She quit her job as a presenter for an Afghan TV station after threats against her life increased. "I resigned from my job as a presenter and decided to stay at home until I feel safe again," she stressed.

Read more: Is Germany reassessing its role in Afghanistan?

If the situation is so bad in government-controlled territory, observers and activists say, it's terrifying to imagine how it is in areas held by the Taliban. The AIHRC only records data coming from areas under government control; there's little information available about the situation of women in Taliban-ruled areas. The insurgents, who now reportedly control or influence about half the country, continue to carry out brutal punishments for women accused of acting against their harsh interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, which they impose in areas under their control. 

Talks between the Taliban and the US are another source of concern for rights activists, with many worried that a deal between the two sides could erode the hard-won freedoms and rights of Afghan women and girls in exchange for peace. "We need to keep up the fight and be prepared for what may come to Afghanistan in the near future," said Kabul-based women's rights activist Maqadasa Atalwali.

Additional reporting by Shakila Ibrahimkhail.