Saturday 12 February 2011

Afghan women fear for the future

When Zainab Salbi was in Afghanistan this summer she met a woman whose story she could not forget. Married at 15 and widowed by 16, Zarqouna was banned, like all women, from working or even leaving her house unaccompanied during the Taliban regime of the 1990s. One day, needing food for her baby, she defied the law to sell hats in the street, only to be caught by local Taliban members and beaten with the one pair of shoes she possessed.

When the allies invaded in 2001 and the Taliban were toppled, Zarqouna's life was transformed. She started work, sent her daughter to school and is planning to send her to college. But her new-found freedom and that of many Afghan women could be at risk if, as Salbi – founder of Women for Women International, an organisation that supports women in war-torn countries – and other campaigners fear, the allies pull out from Afghanistan without insisting on guarantees for women's rights.

This year will see the 10th anniversary of the US and UK's military intervention in the country. After a decade of war, and with no sign of the insurgency ending any time soon, western governments are talking about bringing their troops home as early as next year. Meanwhile, with the Taliban still controlling parts of the country and unlikely to be defeated, the Afghan government is making plans for reconciliation and reintegration with the hardline militia. This, fear Afghan women, could mean a reversal of all the hard-won improvements of the last few years.

Although Afghan women's rights were a prominent part of the rhetoric of invasion, today the treatment of women under the Taliban is increasingly being dismissed as part of local culture. This apparent change in attitude in the west is seen as a consequence of the British and US governments' desire to extricate themselves from a messy, expensive and time-consuming war. In November, David Cameron stressed he was taking a more "hard-headed" approach to the country. "We are not there to build a perfect democracy, still less a model society. We are there to help Afghans take control of security and ensure that al-Qaida can never again pose a threat to us from Afghan soil."

Today, according to Salbi, who has testified before the US senate, there is little appetite among US politicians for protecting women in the region, despite support from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Instead, she says: "There is a clear, clear opinion that women's rights were a) not that relevant and b) irreconcilable with peace in Afghanistan."

Samira Hamidi, director of the Afghan Women's Network – an umbrella organisation for more than 600 women's rights groups and NGOs – has also noticed this increasing lack of interest and fears that once the troops pull out, the west will turn its eyes away from Afghanistan, even though "the insurgents still kill children, they still put poison in the food of school girls, they throw acid in the face of school girls, they burn schools. They still exist."

"Something most American male politicians have said – 90% of them – is that it's just their culture and we can't do anything about it," adds Salbi.

Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies' gender studies department disputes these claims that the culture is to blame. "These people have been tossed to the wind and displaced, the old society has been eroded. Girls being given away to pay for opium debts, that's hardly traditional. Now it is the people with the guns, the money, and the drugs runners who have power," she says.

Few would argue that improvements have been made in women's rights in the last decade. On a recent visit to the UK, Hussan Ghazanfar, Afghanistan's minister for women's affairs, outlined the progress made: 57% of women and girls now go to school, and 24% of health sector workers and 10% of the judiciary are female.

Yet activists say improvements are patchy and far from ideal – with healthcare, social care and freedom unavailable to many poverty-stricken rural women, many already living in Taliban-controlled areas. Even Ghazanfar admits: "Life is different in the countryside – the literacy level is different, traditional customs are stronger, and women have no financial or economic freedom there."

Hamidi says most women she speaks to "are tired of war and killing", and fearful of the future. "If the situation goes bad again the women here have nowhere to go."

A suicide bomb attack in Kabul last weekend that killed Hamida Barmaki, a law professor and commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, along with her husband and four children, illustrates the everyday danger in Afghanistan, while the release of footage showing the stoning of a couple in Kunduz province reveals the extent of the plight of women in areas controlled by the Taliban.

Politician Malalai Joya, dubbed the "bravest woman in Afghanistan" for speaking out against the warlords in the government after being elected to the Afghan national assembly in 2005, warns: "The situation of women is a disaster. Men and women today are squashed between three enemies – the Taliban, the warlords and also the occupation forces who are bombing from the skies and killing civilians, women and children. Now the Taliban are being invited into the government – there is no question the situation of women will be more disastrous and more bloody."

Orzala Nemat, a human rights activist who risked her life to set up a secret network of literacy classes for girls under the Taliban regime, agrees that the situation has worsened since 2006 with the revival of the Taliban. "Places which were very safe last year are very unsafe now," she says. "If this conflict is not winnable, we need a political settlement."

Last summer, the Afghan government created a peace council to pursue talks with the Taliban. Ghazanfar says there are safeguards to protect the women in any deal, with the government of Afghanistan insisting the Taliban abide by the country's constitution, which enshrines women's rights.

But Kandiyot is among those worried about the direction negotiations are taking. She points out that the Taliban continue to reject the constitution, and that the document includes a clause that says no law can contradict the principles of Islam. "And who decides what these principles are?" she asks. "It is the supreme court, which is full of hardline clerics."

Salbi, meanwhile, says informal, closed negotiations have already begun between a small group of politicians and the Taliban, with women's rights being traded as collateral. She describes one of "the advisers in the process" talking of women's "mobility and attire" being an area for "compromise".

The government itself has appeared keen to promote what it sees as improvements in the Taliban's hard line on women, possibly in a bid to make negotiations seem more palatable. Earlier this year the education minister, Farooq Wardak, insisted the Taliban leadership was prepared to drop its ban on girls' schools.

Yet Rachel Reid, Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan researcher, says: "There may be some low-level Taliban leaders who negotiate with communities that want girls' education, but there is no evidence to suggest that the leadership has done a U-turn."

She points out that the ministry's own statistics show that 20 girls' schools were bombed or burned down between March and October 2010. At least 126 students and teachers were killed in the same period – an increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, night letters – missives containing terrifying threats – are still being sent to working women in Taliban-controlled areas. One sent to a teacher in a girls' school read: "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter."

President Hamid Karzai's government has traded women's rights for political power in the past. The Shia personal status law in 2009 was only toned down after women took to the streets in protest, sparking an international outcry. If implemented it would have meant women from the Shia minority sect could not leave their homes without their husband's permission or refuse them sex – making rape within marriage effectively legal. Other campaigners point to the president's pardoning of two men sentenced by the supreme court for brutally gang-raping a woman in public.

The Taliban are not the only group in Afghanistan keen to destroy women's rights, says Nemat. "Westerners think the only enemy Afghan women have is the Taliban, and when they go we will be liberated. But Afghan women have many men who are scared of women having power. These are warlords, conservative clerics, many powerful authorities sitting in key government positions."

In this anti-female environment violence against women in general is rising daily, fuelled by the war, the poverty it brings, and the conservative values it leaves behind, according to Hamidi. Refuges are attacked in the media, while anecdotal evidence suggests that self-immolation, domestic violence and suicide among women are increasing.

In December, a UN report on "harmful traditional practices" revealed that 57% of Afghan marriages are child marriages (where one partner is under the age of 16) and cited the case of an orphaned 13-year-old girl who was bought by a 65-year-old man for $3,000 (£1,895).

Then there are the honour killings and the fact that women and girls who run away – to escape forced marriages or violence – are often arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, usually under a charge of attempting to commit zina (sex outside marriage).

Campaigners say the only hope for women is to give them a chance to fight for their rights at the negotiating table. But with little political will among Afghan politicians, pressure for this must come from abroad, says Hamidi. "If we are going for a negotiation involving insurgents who don't believe in women's rights and there is no commitment from the international community [to help women] . . . we may go back to the years when Taliban were ruling this country." And even Ghazanfar seems to echo this when she says: "Afghan women need and require peace with justice. This is our request to the world and international communities."

The alternative could be terrifying, says to Salbi. "'One Afghan woman said to me, what would it take for the allies to know that by abandoning us, it will hit them later on? That violence that manifests itself with us will spread. The Taliban started with us, then Afghan men, then America, and the world."

Nemat is more sanguine about the possibility of western troops pulling out soon, believing the only hope is for women to fight for themselves. "As someone who has worked under the Taliban, I don't believe there will be a return [of their rule] in the same way as in the past," she says. "They won't silence our voices. We will not sleep and stay passive in our homes. We will continue to struggle."


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