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We rejoice in the good news that, since the ousting of the Taliban, Afghan women are no longer forced by law to wear burqas to cover themselves from head to toe in public. So why is it that the majority of them are choosing to retain the veil, in real fear for their lives? Lindsay Barnes investigates.

The path to democracy?

Just how much freedom have women in Afghanistan actually gained since the interim government was put in place late last year, and what is the prospect for real change for them to become citizens enjoying full - and lasting - rights? Rather than nearing successful completion, the fight by women's rights activists and groups to secure a better future for Afghan women is in reality just beginning.

There can be no doubt that life for our Afghan sisters has improved considerably since the tyrannical Taliban fled Kabul in November last year. Women may now discard their burqas, wear make-up, expose their ankles and wear high heels that make a “clicking” noise when they walk (thus attracting male attention). They are no longer banned from working outside of their homes, venturing out of their homes without a close male relative, or from attending schools and universities.

The ill-treatment of women

Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to be treated by male doctors, which meant that their access to medical treatment and services was severely limited as most (but not all) women doctors and nurses were banned from practising. The Taliban frequently and regularly subjected women to public “disciplinary” beatings for perceived infringements of the arbitrary rulings, thereby cowing the population into submission. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has reported that the beatings more often than not led to disablement or death. This ill-treatment of women was particularly harsh for the more than 700,000 widows created in the two decades of war - prior to the current US-led attacks - which meant that women comprised 60% of the population. The exclusion of these widows from the right to education, basic economic survival and access to health services set the scene for large-scale tragedy. Many of them (former secretaries, teachers, librarians, medical staff and so on) and their dependants were forced to beg on the streets or turned to prostitution to survive.

New dispensations

The Afghan interim government began its six-month rule late in December 2001. The administration posts were divided up among four Afghan factions in a power-sharing agreement reached during UN-sponsored talks in Bonn in December. The key ministries of defence, foreign affairs and interior are held by the Northern Alliance (NA).

RAWA recently appealed to the UN and the international community to keep developments in Afghanistan in the spotlight and to prevent the Northern Alliance from repeating crimes allegedly committed when the group ruled the country from 1992 to 1996.

”Bands” within the NA have been accused of raping and looting, and also of massacring the captured Taliban and their foreign accomplices in Mazar-e-Sharif after the Taliban fled from Kabul. During the Northern Alliance's previous reign, it is alleged that gang rapes, sexual crimes against women, “lust murders”, abductions of young women and the blackmailing of families with eligible daughters, were rife.

It is probably not surprising that only two of the 30 members of the new interim government are women, and both have been assigned to traditionally “women's” roles - Dr Suhaila Seddiqi, an independent candidate, is head of the Department of Public Health and Dr Sima Samar is Women's Affairs minister as well as one of the five vice-chairs. The extent of their influence and power has been questioned by women's rights groups and activists, who fear that their presence may be nothing more than symbolic and, in the instance of Dr Samar, that the leanings of her political party - towards states with poor human rights records - is highly questionable.

French activist group FemAid has warned that, while the severely oppressive laws enacted by the Taliban may be amended, the fundamentally misogynist ideology existing in Afghanistan remains intact and women's rights will continue to be trampled upon. For instance, instead of being stoned with large rocks, women “convicted” of adultery will now be panned with smaller stones while half buried in sand to prevent attempts of escape, according to the new laws.

But the burqa remains

Fearful of repercussions, most women continue to wear their heavy, hot burqas in public - though some have shortened them some-what so they do not fall right to the ground. While some women are courageously baring their faces as a show of defiance against their oppression, they are in the minority. In removing the veil and hence revealing their views, they make themselves vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremists - and there is no security group that can guarantee their safety. Qudsia Bekeran, a US-based activist for Afghan women's rights who maintains close links with rights workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “The Taliban is still around.

They may have shaved their beards and those that fought may have been taken into custody. But how do you know they are all gone? Those women that remove their burqas show their courage, that they are fighting against the Taliban, that they are strong. They can then be recognised by the Taliban and it is likely they could be killed - not stoned, but shot with guns. Men still have much more freedom than women.”

The Islamic extremist's oppressive and controlling attitudes towards women, coupled with the death and devastation inflicted by the US bombing, have fed into each other to compound the lot of Afghan women.

”Before the (US) war it seemed like things couldn't get any worse in Afghanistan, but they have,” said Afghan Women's Mission (AWM) press manager Martha Heil. “People may have more theoretical freedoms than before, but many in the small, outlying villages are in painful, desperate poverty which the war has only increased. The change is really only happening in the courts, in the UN and in theory: Afghans are still starving, still oppressed, still illiterate, still without health care and sanitation systems and roads.”

It will take years, if not generations, to rebuild what has been destroyed in the attacks. And in the meantime, the ensuing poverty renders the women of Afghanistan - especially its war widows - vulnerable to exploitation, particularly with the growing presence of relatively wealthy, foreign troops.

Foreign aid

To a large extent, help has come in the form of foreign aid. Aid agency Care International has begun a monthly food distribution programme of wheat, beans and cooking oil to help feed the families of 10,000 of Kabul's estimated 50,000 widows. Many are also getting basic training in health and hygiene to protect their children from preventable but fatal diseases (BBC News 16/01/02).

Changes have already occurred in education. Hundreds of women recently sat the entrance exams at Kabul University, according to a recent media report ( The Times of India6/2/02). Across the country, only one in seven of those writing the exams were women - but their results are to be upped by 15% to help boost the numbers of those accepted to study. Naturally, only those girls who finished school before the Taliban seized control in 1996 were eligible as there had been no girl school-leavers since - so what happens to those who were due to complete their schooling in the past five years? The minister for higher education has said that to make up for the “lost” years, the universities would be offering extra afternoon and evening classes to women - but for whom, it is not clear.

It is also a fact that before the Taliban seized control, very few girls were enrolled in school. UNESCO estimated that only 11% of girls enrolled for primary school between 1992 and 1997 (36% of boys) and only 6% of girls/women enrolled for secondary school between 1986 and 1990 (11% of boys) - one of the lowest figures in the world. Adult literacy between 1992 and 1997 was estimated at 44% for men and 14% for women (FemAid).

Towards a just nation

In order to relegate the horrors of extreme fundamentalist rule to the annals of history once and for all, activist groups have called for:

  • help to build lasting peace in Afghanistan;
  • internationally-recognised human rights for all its citizens;
  • a stable, secular, broad-based democratic government embracing all those who have not committed crimes against Afghans;
  • justice under the rule of international law for fundamentalists and terrorists who committed criminal acts;
  • women to be represented politically in the future Afghan government, with the implementation of quotas to ensure that all ethnic groups - and the high proportion of widows - are directly involved in all decision-making processes;
  • with the help of international organisations, the expansion of health and education programmes such as those run by RAWA (to boost literacy levels, particularly among women);
  • international assistance in the training of future women leaders and parliamentarians to help construct a genuinely democratic state.

According to Qudsia Bekeran, Afghanistan needs a continued international monitoring presence “for the next two to three years, at least for six months after the first elections and for the time it will take to write the constitution.

After that, if things appear stable, they should slowly withdraw. Without this presence, the Taliban may regroup and reappear.” Much of the work to ensure the protection of the rights of Afghans will be done by volunteer- run organisations that rely on fundraising to enable them to make this vital contribution. All efforts to help them will be gratefully received.

For international supporters, the most meaningful contribution towards RAWA's aims would be to donate money. Activists could also consider creating a group of RAWA supporters in your immediate community, town or city etc to organise resistance to fundamentalist oppression of women and to urge other groups to help RAWA.

The Afghan Women's Mission (details below) based in Pasadena, USA, and run entirely by volunteers, is dedicated to promoting RAWA and raises funds mostly for the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.

Don't abandon Afghanistan

It is often mistakenly thought that Afghan women know nothing other than the repressive rule they have been subjected to for more than a decade. Yet these women were once free to raise their voices in public, to wear tight jeans and miniskirts and to join the police force if they so wished. And so they will again, as long as international society and each and every individual committed to international human rights does not now abandon Afghanistan on her path to real democracy. Lindsay Barnes is the PN Assistant News Editor and a freelance journalist. She lives in Britain.
Send donations (cheques payable to SEE/Afghan Women's Mission) to The Afghan Women's Misson, 260 S Lake Avenue, PMB 165 Pasadena, CA 91101, USA. (http://afghanwomensmission.org). You should inform RAWA by email of your contribution.
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, PO Box 374, Quetta, Pakistan (email rawa@rawa.org; http://www.rawa.org).
Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, http://www.wapha.org
FemAid, http://www.femaid.org
Afghanistan Online, http://www.afghan-web.com

Topics: Afghanistan | Women