When the Taliban fell, women were supposed to get a better deal. It hasn’t happened.
When the Taliban fell, women were supposed to get a better deal. It hasn’t happened.
Samantha Nutt is a Toronto doctor who over the past eight years has visited and worked in hot spots around the world, including, in April, Iraq (she and her husband, Dr. Eric Hoskins, wrote about that trip in the May 5 issue of Maclean’s). Nutt is executive director of War Child Canada, an international group dedicated to helping children caught up in armed conflicts. She recently visited Afghanistan, and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, on behalf of War Child Canada, to launch a women’s literacy and technical training project and to examine the situation now facing women in the post-Taliban era. Despite the presence of nearly 17,000 Western troops in Afghanistan and promises of government reform, she found many women still living in fear, whether in the camps or in their homeland, where they are often suppressed by warlords who control much of the country. Her report:
PESHAWAR is a dusty, rundown border town in Pakistan comprised mainly of lowrise buildings and decrepit Afghan refugee camps. The sweltering heat and traffic congestion combine to produce a haze of pollution so thick that by mid-morning it’s impossible to see the mountains and the famous Khyber Pass in the distance. During 23 years of war and brutal oppression at the hands of foreign invaders, warlords and the extremist Taliban regime, millions of Afghan refugees fled across the pass to Peshawar. More than two million have returned to their homeland since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in 2001, but more than two million, fearing even greater poverty and political persecution at home, remain stranded in desolation.
The refugees are resisting moves to coerce them back to Afghanistan. In recent months, such efforts have included the alleged demolition of at least one camp, public harassment and the threatened closure of refugee schools. Even though almost 17,000 American and European troops are attempting to bring order to Afghanistan,
most of the women I meet in Peshawar are afraid to return. They are too scarred by past atrocities to believe suggestions that they would be safe in their war-shattered country. At a meeting of refugee widows held by the Afghan Women’s Council, a local non-governmental group, they tell excruciating stories of tragedy and loss: families killed in war, how they’ve suffered from hunger and unremitting fear. They are so desperate to remain in Pakistan that Mheer, a woman who lost her husband and a son during the war against the Russians in the 1980s, sold her 15-year-old daughter for 10,000 rupees (US$170) to a person she describes as an “ugly old man with many wives.” As Mheer explains that she only sold her daughter to buy food for her remaining six children, other women in the group console her, but with a certain disdain—selling a daughter to a man of questionable character is regarded as a heinous act. When Mheer is finished, I ask the women when they will go back to Afghanistan, particularly with the promise of freedom they would ostensibly now enjoy under President Hamid Karzai’s government. “We will not go back,” one woman insists while the others nod in agreement. “It is not safe.”
Later I visit the Esmat School for Girls. It’s the last day of classes before summer, and the graduates giggle and daringly allow their chadors to slip off their heads and onto their shoulders. One young woman, Masooda, 19, is less confident than her peers; she is the only student in the class who was in Afghanistan during the Taliban years, fleeing with her family to Pakistan so she could receive an education. Masooda wants to be a human rights lawyer so she can help women in her country, but is concerned about the situation in Kabul. “It is too dangerous,” she laments, “and the conditions are not good.” As I leave the school, a young girl stops and pleads with one of my Canadian colleagues. “Please take me with you,” she begs. “There is no future for me here.”
We leave the women of Peshawar behind,
and travel through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. In Kabul, we meet Marzia Meena, a foreign-educated Afghan woman participating in the drafting of the country’s new constitution, which is expected to be adopted by the Loya Jirga, an assembly of tribal leaders, this October after nationwide consultations. She has cropped, dyed hair and is the only woman I meet in Kabul who walks around government offices with her legs exposed to mid-calf. With the de-
feat of the Taliban, she says, “there was hope and promise for women.” But, she adds, “in a practical sense, the only real advancement has been that women don’t have to wear the burka. That doesn’t translate into an actual advancement of their rights.”
Even with the large number of foreign troops in Kabul, most women don’t feel safe. And those outside the capital must contend with warlords and their militias, who are often as harsh as the Taliban were. In warlord-dominated areas such as Herat, 700 km west of Kabul, women are not even allowed to occupy the same office space as
men or to go to public places unaccompanied—a policy that is enforced by flogging. “When women are not allowed to leave the house to go to the doctor even when they are in labour,” says Meena, “how can they participate in public consultations surrounding the new constitution?”
Therein lies the paradox: efforts to liberate Afghan women are progressing at a speed too fast for religious conservatives, but far too slow for those who believed that the fall of the Taliban would end oppression. Tajwar Kakar is the deputy minister of women’s affairs, and one of only a
handful of women occupying top political positions in Karzai’s government. She is an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and has received numerous death threats. Kakar is also fiercely critical of the Western media’s overly optimistic portrayal of her country since the war. “The views and judgments in the West about Afghan women after the fall of the Taliban were premature and propagandistic,” she says. “In reality, women can never be free without first feeling secure.”
And how can you feel secure, in a society where reports of kidnappings, rapes, forced
marriages and beatings are widespread? Among young women, such stories take on a life of their own, and are offered up as a rationale for wearing the burka, missing school and never travelling unaccompanied by a male. “A young girl walking for ice cream in Kabul was raped by 20 men,” a young Afghan woman whispers to me at a social gathering in her aunt’s home. “It’s better not to go out.”
In reality, it’s difficult to ascertain the truth behind some of the stories. But since July 2002, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, chaired by Karzai’s former deputy prime minister Sima Samar, has received 800 complaints, ranging from killings and burnings to live burials, kidnappings and rapes. It is believed the attacks are being carried out by religious extremists unhappy with the government’s lax attitude toward women, former mujahedeen gunmen, and rogue members of the Northern Alliance, which was allied with the U.S. in the Afghan war.
The Karzai government had hoped to broaden its authority outside of Kabul and rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure. But those efforts have been hurt by sporadic attacks staged by remnants of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and fighters loyal to disgruntled warlords. And although more than $2 billion in foreign aid has been received, it’s well short of the $8.3 billion to $12.2 billion the World Bank says is needed to rebuild the country.
Nigel Fisher, a Canadian who was until recently the UN secretary general’s special representative in Afghanistan, says progress to increase security across the country has been slow. “Most of the human rights abuses are committed by military commanders under the control of the warlords,” Fisher says over lunch at the UN’s walled enclave in Kabul. Fisher says the U.S. supplied weapons to some of the warlords in the fight against the Taliban, but, he adds, “now they have to help rein them in.” It will be difficult. “There are still deep-rooted suspicions at all levels,” explains Fisher. “At one time or another, every group has been responsible for the massacre of another group. To whom do they give their weapons?”
A drive to reduce the number of weapons is underway, and the UN plans to demobilize 100,000 Afghan fighters. In exchange for giving up their weapons, they will be enrolled in employment programs; 6,000 have
been targeted for this year. But UN officials are moving slowly because there are not enough jobs for the soldiers, and if they are released from the military without work they could end up looting and pillaging among innocent civilians. To help the UN create a more secure environment, Fisher urges “any government that has made commitments to Afghanistan to fulfill them in a hurry.”
But as Afghanistan waits for the promises of peace to be fulfilled, women continue to pay the price for decades of oppression. In Tundara, about a one-hour drive from
Kabul, I meet with four Afghan women, all of whom in their own way reflect the attitudes of women across the country. Sheela is 12 years old and the eldest of eight children. She recently attended school for the first time and is feisty and confident. I ask her whether she wears the burka to school. “I do not!” she announces proudly. “And if I want to wear it or not, it is no one’s business.”
Sheela claims not to remember life under the Taliban, and when she tires of my questioning she demands to be excused. I turn to 14-year-old Farzanna, who was tested at the Grade 1 level but does not go to school because her father will not allow it. She is sullen, almost depressed. When I ask what she would like to do when she is older, she replies, “I cannot think of my future, because I cannot think of solving my problems in the near future.” Najeeba, 22, is a healthcare worker and attended school secretly throughout the Taliban’s rule. Her father is a wealthy general, and she is an attractive, graceful young woman. Her husband died of cancer at 25, but unlike the Afghan widows I met in Peshawar, Najeeba has financial resources. “I hope one day my children will be able to leave my home and live and work independently,” she says, “even in this strict environment.”
Khanum is less hopeful. Unsure of her age, she believes she is in her 40s. She wears a burka, and describes a life that has left her grief-stricken and defeated. Russian soldiers shot her husband and son; she is poor, with thick, darkened hands and a deeply lined face. During our conversation she is tearful but open, offering up personal details of a troubled lifetime. “We have never seen a good day,” she confides. “I hope there will be peace in the world as well as peace for us.”
In the end, only democracy will bring security for women, says Ishaq Gailani, chairman of the National Solidarity Movement, representing more than 40 political parties in Afghanistan. A national election is expected in 2004. But unfortunately, he says, the reality of implementing elections in Afghanistan is proving difficult: there can be no election without voter registration, and there can be no effective means of voter registration and participation without sufficient security—especially for women. “It has been a year and a half, and still the people of Afghanistan are eating from the gun,” he sighs. For Afghan women, it is a daily reality that is painfully difficult to swallow, lil
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