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The best path to gender equality is through family law reform

For the past 20 years, International Women’s Day has been celebrated across Afghanistan’s urban centers. The government hosted official events attended by politicians, dignitaries, international organizations, and civil society leaders. Men gave impassioned speeches in support of women’s rights and women were given seats in the front row – a privilege usually reserved for male participants. While we women in attendance knew that there was still a long way to go before true gender equality was a reality in Afghanistan, there was a palpable sense of progress and forward momentum. We had a seat at the table, enabling us to be part of the solution rather than an afterthought, at best, or collateral damage, at worst.

But March 8 in Kabul will look very different this year. There will be no government-sanctioned celebrations, there will be no speeches embracing progressive thinking, and there will be no women in the front row. Instead, millions of Afghan women and girls are once again pleading for their most basic rights – food, jobs, and freedom of movement.

Unfortunately, this is not an entirely new situation for Afghan women and girls. Over the past century, women’s rights have taken one step forward and two steps back as the pendulum of regime change have swung back and forth. The government has repeatedly changed hands between those who say they represent “authentic” Afghanistan and those who avow a commitment to democratic principles. The former claim that gender equality is a Western construct, while the latter often pay lip service to feminist ideals in order to appeal to international aid requirements and international powers.

The result has been superficial efforts tied to time-bound projects rather than systemic change that addresses the root causes of discrimination against women and girls in Afghanistan. To ensure that future gains – not just in Afghanistan, but across the world – can withstand governments hostile to women’s rights, change cannot just be promulgated from the top and written only into official documents but must be mainstreamed into all aspects of daily life – starting with the family.

As the foundational unit of society, the family is where most people begin their socialization. Whether directly or indirectly, they are taught what relationships look like, who has value, and how to interact in society. Throughout the world, the family, whatever form it takes, is revered and closely bound to beliefs about culture, religion, and tradition. Because of this, as well as the desire to respect the private choices that families make about their lives, family law is among the most intractable areas of legal reform.

Family law refers to a body of statutes, rules, regulations, and court procedures, along with customary and uncodified laws and practices that govern relationships within family units. With laws pertaining to divorce, inheritance, marriage, and guardianship of children, family law governs the most intimate and arguably most important aspects of our lives. Because of this, they greatly influence our everyday reality as well as society writ large, and thus if we want to embed gender equality we must tackle discriminatory family laws.

Feminist organizations around the world, but especially in the Middle East and North Africa, have long recognized the need to address shortcomings in family law and have been leading the way on this reform: the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, founded by, Musawah, Equality Now, Muslims for Progressive Values, The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), The Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), UN Women, Act Church of Sweden, and the Women’s Learning Partnership. On the eve of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the Global Campaign is calling on all governments to implement their treaty obligations and international commitments that require them to guarantee equality in the family – both in law and practice.

Change, of course, is a gradual process, and reforming family law is not a panacea that will create gender equality overnight. But because laws form the backbone of societal relations and play a foundational role in shaping norms and culture, it is one very critical piece of the puzzle. Striking out laws that declare the husband the head of the household as found in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or those that claim a woman or girl’s silence is an indication of her consent to marriage in Yemen and Afghanistan would make it more difficult to justify women’s subservient position in the family, offer legal recourse to mistreatment and encourage a cultural shift.

While good laws are a prerequisite for change, they must be followed up by robust implementation and enforcement so that progress is not merely theoretical but also practical. Thus, reforming family law is both a top-down and a bottom-up endeavor to mainstream gender equality.

It is only when we dare to confront the difficult nexus between culture, religion, and politics that we can foster sustainable progress. In the case of Afghanistan, shying away from this complex interplay has resulted in women’s empowerment and participation turning into a castle in the sky. To bring it back down to earth, we must focus our efforts on the nucleus of society – the family.

This op-ed by Roya Rahmani, Former Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States and Global Strategist at Equality Now, was originally published on March 8, 2022 in Al-Jazeera.