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For Afghan women: new regime, centuries-old barriers

Tribal attitudes persist as girls schools are torched and women bartered.

By Owais TohidSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2003



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

After the fall of the Taliban, Shakila Zamzama burned her burqa and danced on the streets of Kabul to celebrate her liberation as a performer and woman. But two years later her joy has waned.

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"Caps have replaced turbans. Faces have changed, but not hearts," says Ms. Zamzama, a singer and TV actress. "It is déjà vu."

Like many other Afghan women who fled the repressive Taliban, Zamzama returned to the capital after years in exile, filled with a spirit of liberation. But, their hopes have diminished as cosmetic changes have failed to change traditional Afghan attitudes toward women.

The Taliban prohibited education for girls and forbade women to work in offices. Also devastating to artists like Zamzara, the repressive regime banned music, calling it an "evil and un-Islamic practice."

Nearly two years later, women still face restrictions in their everyday life in Afghanistan. According to a Human Rights Watch report released last month,women in many parts of the country are not always free "to seek education, to seek lifesaving healthcare, and, in some cases, even to leave the walls of their family compound."

While more girls are attending school and some women have been able to go back to work, many others cannot. Outside Kabul, especially in the south and southeast, women still live under centuries-old, male-dominated tribal traditions.

"Bearded people with officials came to me and said, 'Don't teach girls English, as it is a language of the Christians. Just teach them Islamic education,'" says school teacher Abdur Rehman. "'The women do not have to run the government, they just have to run their houses,'" Mr. Rehman quotes them as saying.

Last week, suspected Islamic extremists burned down a school for girls just 30 miles south of Kabul. Another girls school was torched in a neighboring district earlier in the month.

In Pashtun areas, women are bartered to settle tribal disputes or purely to earn money for their families or first husbands under a ritual called "buth." Seemi Jan was sold for $2,000 when she was just 16.

"I served my 30-year-old husband like a maid for years. But he married another woman without my consent and threw me out of the house," recalls Ms. Jan, who now assists a local nongovernmental organization working for women in Kabul. "Now I [learn] that my husband is planning to sell my 14-year-old daughter. For me nothing has changed."

Fearful of attacks by soldiers and police, women even in cosmopolitan Kabul, who have shed the floor-length burqa, often opt to cover their bodies with a long shawl known as a chador.

"When I did not put on a burqa, my problems started as soon as I stepped outside the house," says Rahila Khan, a student of Kabul University. "People in the neighborhood taunted my parents, policemen and soldiers called me a prostitute, and I was sexually harassed on several occasions."

After her father threatened to discontinue her education, Ms. Kahn once again donned a burqa.

Women's rights activists are coming to grips with the realization that a pro-Western government in Kabul provides only an opportunity for change, not change itself.

Inside Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul, educated Afghans, mostly returned from abroad, try to tackle the problems of women, some of whom show up on their doorstep.

"Problems of women are enormous as they are still living in a patriarchal system," admits Soraya Rahim Sobhrang, Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs. "We have the herculean task of needing to change the system, society, and attitudes of men towards women."

The elections next June will mark the first time that women will be registered as voters in Afghanistan. Women's rights activists are hopeful that the extension of franchise to women will increase their "value" as voters in the long run, denting the tribal system and giving them a say in future policies.

And though the draft Constitution has yet to be passed, it includes provisions that give property rights to widows and abolishes the bartering of girls.

"Without the participation of women, the dream of making a new Afghanistan cannot be fulfilled," says Afghan activist, Shukria Barakzai.

But she sees hope in the strength of her sisters. "Women have battled through the worst era of the Taliban and they will fight the present hurdles as well."

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