Rights still lag for Afghan women

While women still face rampant abuse, some 160 are helping to choose the next Afghan government.

Ariana is nearly invisible beneath her blue burqa, which billows in the wind just outside the huge canvas tent where hundreds of Afghans, mostly men, are meeting to help decide her future.

Still, there are hints that a real person exists underneath. The bottoms of leopard-patterned slacks and a pair of black high heels whisk along the sidewalk as she struggles to cradle her young son in her arms.

"We hope this loya jirga [grand assembly] will be useful, especially in terms of safeguarding our rights, which have been abused for decades," she says. "We want to live like modern women in the rest of the world with all of our freedoms."

Still pursued by 'police'

Ariana explains her love of literature and fading dreams to become a university professor. And just as she concedes that she still lives in fear of armed men who shadow her and threaten her in the streets, a tall, helmeted policeman moves over and interrupts her. He stamps his boots, brandishes his Kalashnikov, and shoos her away from a foreign reporter.

When US air power and Afghan ground fire combined to chase the Taliban out of most big cities, women's groups both here and abroad had high hopes that Afghan women would begin to regain some of the freedoms they held decades ago, when Kabul was a city of upwardly mobile women sporting fashions as liberal as those in most Asian cities.

But although in some cases there are improvements – like more women being admitted to universities – there was something the optimists were forgetting, Ariana says. "We remember that many of the men in charge now were the same ones who repressed us between 1992 and 1995, before the Taliban arrived to take their place. They raped and kidnapped Afghan women."

A recent Human Rights Watch report says that, despite government-backed efforts to integrate women into the educational system and the workplace, most Afghan women continue to fear physical violence and repression even after the end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

"Most Afghan women remain sequestered and largely invisible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "That makes the courage of the nearly 200 women delegates attending the loya jirga stand out all the more profoundly."

Ms. Brown contends, however, that the West, which promised so much help to Afghan women, has let them down by refusing to provide the kind of security they need to fight for their rights and forge ahead in the new Afghanistan.

An estimated 1,500 delegates are meeting in Kabul this week, mostly to decide the framework of a new government. Women's rights, however, are also on the minds of many representatives.

"The female delegates are pushing for a special declaration on women's rights to protect them from suffering similar atrocities as those suffered under the Taliban," says Surya Parlika, a senior member of the Loya Jirga Commission, who ran an underground women's group in Kabul during the time of the Taliban. "It would give us the same rights that we had before, in the 1964 Constitution, and we hope that it can be passed by the loya jirga and then put to the test."

The tales that Afghan women and girls tell of continuing attacks and intimidation suggest that in many parts of the country, more than seven months after the fall of the Taliban, conditions have not improved much.

Harassed by former Taliban

Yasmin Hasanat, a married mother with two young sons, is a representative to the loya jirga from Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.

At a recent meeting of her chapter of the Afghan Women's Association, senior members asked young women, some of them their own daughters, to go outside and buy cold drinks.

"They were attacked by a group of men with knives," says Ms. Yasmin. "These former Taliban elements stopped them and beat them and carved up their faces. They said, 'This is a warning. If you try to change the role for women in Afghanistan, you will be killed.' "

Human Rights Watch officials say they have credible reports that the Taliban's special Police for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are still patrolling some remote districts of southern Afghanistan.

"They carry wire rods and beat women who don't wear burqas or wear them in the wrong way," says Ms. Brown.

She says that the US and its allies could prevent these problems if they sent their peacekeeping forces beyond Kabul to other parts of the country.

"When the US-led military coalition started bombing, the president's wife, Laura Bush, and other influential Western women spoke out in favor of helping Afghan women and suggested that the fight in Afghanistan was, in part, aimed at helping to free these women from the bondage of the Taliban," she says by telephone from New York City. "Now, the Western governments that these women represent are refusing to take the measures that would make it secure enough for Afghan women to make a choice about their own future."

In war-torn Kabul, life for women is gradually improving even if progress is measured in small steps.

The Taliban refused to allow women to study medicine at the Medical Institute of Kabul during their first two years of rule there – from 1996-1998. But under pressure, a handful of females were allowed to re-enter the school after the first two years.They continued to refuse, however, to allow any new entry-level female students. Now, 50 of the 300 entry-level students are female.

And positive attitudes about what the role of women in Afghan society should and can be are now being openly expressed outside the gates of the institute.

Mohammad Naseem, a student, says he believes the government in Kabul is committed to doing more for Afghan women. "Women need to receive their equal rights," he insists. "They should be teachers and doctors, because they can perform these jobs just as well as a man can."

But Shahla Mahindost, a female representative to the loya jirga from the far northeastern province of Badakhshan, blames the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance for picking up discrimination against women right where the Taliban left off.

"Members of the Northern Alliance are the ones now warning us not to forget to wear our burqas," she says, standing within the safe bounds of a UN-protected office compound. "They threaten to throw acid in our faces if we don't wear a burqa. Several weeks ago, right here in Kabul on the road to Logar a woman was kidnapped and raped for not wearing one."

Also, as in many strict Islamic states, in Afghanistan the justice system is riddled with differences in the treatment of male and female offenders. Kabul's notorious Central Prison offers several examples.

Nasima's father caught her in an intimate embrace with her boyfriend. "He forced the police to bring me here, but my only crime was love," she says now, cringing on the floor of a prison cell yesterday along with four other similarly accused young ladies.

"If a girl in Afghanistan runs off with a boy or tries to escape from her family, that is a crime," says Nasima's jailer, Ismail Abdul Rehman, who until this year was fighting the oppressive Taliban regime from his rebel base in the north of the country.

Nasima is only 14 years old and has hopes of marrying her boyfriend if and when she gets out of prison.

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