Western female aid workers targets of rogue violence

After a French aid worker was raped in June – the fourth in 10 months – some Western women consider leaving Afghanistan.

Patricia Omidian looked up through her glasses. Her palm-sized diary was open to an entry on June 8 – the day that a French aid worker was gang-raped by seven men in Pul-i-khumiri, a small town in northern Afghanistan.

"It's just starting to sink in," says Ms. Omidian, an American who has been working with Afghans for two decades. "[Security personnel] are telling us if we're not careful, the same thing could happen to us."

The assault – the fourth reported rape here against a foreign woman in the last 10 years – took place more than a month ago, but hundreds of expatriate women here are only beginning to cope with the consequences.

Under the Taliban rule, foreign female aid workers were spared the rules that oppressed Afghan women, such as being forbidden to work or attend school. As foreigners, they enjoyed a sense of freedom and immunity that local women did not.

With the Taliban overthrown, however, factional fighting has increased in Afghanistan – and with it lawlessness.

The new government, under President Hamid Karzai, has little control over citizens beyond Kabul, especially in the north where armies loyal to regional warlords reign. The result is an increase in random acts of violence against civilians and aid workers. Gunmen last month robbed two aid agencies and fired on a health clinic in Sholgara in northern Balkh province. Ultimately, human rights researchers say, women – regardless of nationality – are in more danger now than when the Taliban ruled.

Male bosses are more sensitive to female employees traveling alone or working after dark. In some places, like Mazar-e Sharif, women aid workers no longer feel safe shopping alone or interacting freely with colleagues.

Jackie, a Western aid worker who did not want to give her real name for fear of losing her job, has worked in Mazar-e Sharif and other areas for about a decade.

Having endured years of negative confrontations with Afghan men and authority, she's the first to say that life for foreign aid workers has improved since the Taliban government was toppled.

"It's night and day. I can't even describe it. It's easier to work with Afghans. There are other women in the office," she said.

But since the June rape, her sense of safety and comfort have diminished. "When these incidents happen, you consider leaving," says Jackie, who survived the massacres of 1998, when thousands of Mazaris were brutally killed and homes were looted. "You realize how naive and vulnerable you can be."

Omidian, who is the only foreign worker for the Afghan agency Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance shares Jackie's frustration about the situation.

Omidian began studying Afghan culture in 1979, eventually converted to Islam, and moved to Pakistan five years ago to work with Afghan refugees on health and gender issues. She lived with and supported an Afghan family of eight until a few months ago, when they returned to Kabul.

Omidian's first trip to Afghanistan was in 1998 when the city was silent under the Taliban. Although she wrapped a large head scarf around her body and hair and interacted secretly with local men and women because it was forbidden to do so openly, she says she was able to work in quiet rebellion.

Now, while she's traded in her Pakistani long shirt and loose pants for fashionable Kabuli-style jeans, Omidian says she has less freedom and mobility than in previous visits to Afghanistan.

"I always felt as a woman I had more of an advantage," Omidian says. "I could cross over both genders since I'm not Afghan. But now I've lost that sense of independence."

Aid organizations and the United Nations apply strict measures to protect their employees. UN workers have a 10 p.m. curfew in the capital and must travel in a convoy of two cars between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on long distances. They are discouraged from socializing with local Afghans. "UN missions are in places where there's instability and tension. We're erring on the side of caution," says UN spokesman David Singh.

But workers like Omidian complain that these rules don't solve the larger problem of instability and limit their access to the civilians they're trying to help.

Omidian, who teaches gender workshops to Afghan men and women, is now required by her agency to take a male escort any time she leaves the office.

"It's hard to do anything in Kabul now. I feel trapped more than anything else," she says.

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