For Afghan women, rocky path to respect exacts a steep price

Western donors have spent heavily to improve women's lives in Afghanistan and teach them to fight for their rights. But the efforts would be more successful, some say, if they better fit the Afghan cultural context.  Part 4 of Reaching for Equity: a global series on gender and power.

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Khatera Ahmadi presents the news Jan. 13 in the studios of Afghanistan's first women's-only television channel, Zan TV, in Kabul. Created in 2017, the channel aims to portray a positive image of what women in Afghanistan can do to confront problems in a male-dominated society.

What do you call a female journalist in Afghanistan?

A prostitute.

That’s no joke. And none know it better than the reporters and producers working at “Zan TV,” an Afghan channel devoted to empowering women.

The all-female TV station operates from an anonymous office down a narrow, pot-holed lane in Kabul, hard by a building belonging to the Interior Ministry. Asked where the “Women’s TV” office is, one of the ministry’s bearded, uniformed guards smirks.

“The sex center, it’s over there,” he replies, pointing to an unmarked door along the lane. “Go on, you will have a great time with those girls.”

His response encapsulates the continuing challenge for Afghan women to learn, to work, and to be respected by Afghan men. But “Zan TV,” which broadcasts news and features around the clock to a female audience, is on a mission to change that kind of sexist attitude.

“Our job is to work on people’s minds,” says Shogofu Sediqi, the jeans-clad executive producer who wears a royal blue headscarf. “I introduce the real picture of what women can do.”

Beefing up women’s role in Afghan society has been a cornerstone of Western policy ever since US forces helped topple the hard-line Islamist Taliban government in 2001. The Taliban had famously refused to allow girls to go to school or women to work outside the home, rolling back rights that women had once enjoyed. (Afghan women won the right to vote in 1919, a year before their counterparts in America, for example.)

By one count, the United States has poured $1.5 billion into efforts to educate Afghan girls and women, to impose quotas for women in government and the security forces, and to bring them into the workplace, among other projects. The goal has been to transform a deeply conservative society known more for child brides, misogyny, and honor killings than for feminism.

There is pride in accomplishment among the growing ranks of women in government, the security forces, and professional life. But both in the towns and the countryside, women working for change are still often harassed, pressured, threatened, and killed for their pains.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Afghan women in traditional clothes welcome activists to the 1st Afghanistan Successful Women's Festival on the grounds of Kabul University, Jan. 10, 2018. US and other Western donors have spent $1.5 billion to empower Afghan women since 2001. Despite progress in education and joining the workforce, Afghan women still report widespread misogyny, abuse, and violence.

Legal advice that cost a life

Zarghona Alokozay, an energetic young lawyer who sports purple nail polish, is one such woman. Since a man threatened before a judge to kill her three years ago, she takes care to vary her routine each day on her way to and from court. Recently she asked the government to provide guards to protect the “Justice for All Organization” (JFAO) legal offices in Kabul, where she and her colleagues are overwhelmed by cases of forced marriage, domestic violence, and other infringements on women’s rights.

But there was nobody to protect Shuibah Naimi, a 26-year-old JFAO lawyer in rural Laghman province, east of Kabul, when angry men came for her in early January. They shot her dead for helping a relative of theirs – a widow who wanted to remarry, an act they deemed shameful.

Such sacrifices are a high price to pay. “The front lines are always bloody places, including the front lines of culture wars,” says a Western official who has lived for years in Afghanistan and who asked not to be identified. “This generation of Afghan women that is trying to promote social change has had it unspeakably bad.”

In the bigger picture, though, argues Ms. Alokozay, “we got a great result” from Western spending on women’s issues in Afghanistan. “Women learned how to fight for their rights,” she says. “When one woman raised her voice, then others would follow and be inspired. In the past, it would be hidden.”

Certainly, a wide range of projects have successfully promoted the women’s agenda; the number of highly qualified women is rising, and the number of women who die in childbirth has fallen by 75 percent since 2002.

“But that is not enough,” says Deputy Minister for Women’s Affairs Spozhmai Wardak.

Sitting behind a wide desk, a male secretary in her outer office, she complains that the changes have not gone as far or as deep as they should have done and that the overall result of Western donors’ spending has “not been very positive.”

That, she explains, is because many non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) often use Western teaching materials that don’t fit the Afghan cultural context, lending the gender equality message a foreign tone. They focus on gender-neutral terms, for example, but they don’t point to verses in the Quran such as “be you male or female – you are equal to one another,” or other Islamic religious teaching about gender equality.

Western advocates for women’s rights also tend to work more in the cities, addressing open-minded urban women already converted to the cause of equality, Ms. Wardak points out. In more conservative rural areas, where the message has not yet spread, it is sensitive, if not downright dangerous to speak about women’s status.

Bollywood vs. Taliban

For Wardak, feminism in Afghanistan is a nitty-gritty business that should tackle real life situations, such as making sure that police posts have separate changing rooms and toilets for women so as to make their lives on the force easier and sexual harassment harder.

“A work environment should be available to women (that gives them) different benefits and special facilities,” Wardak argues.

In 2016, the US spent $93.5 million on measures – including more such facilities – to boost female recruitment into the security services. But it’s an uphill battle.

Nearly a decade ago, NATO and Afghanistan declared that by 2020 they wanted 10 percent of positions in the security forces to be filled by women. That figure currently stands at 1.4 percent.

It doesn’t help that the security forces are notorious for sexual harassment and blackmail. Afghanistan had its own Harvey Weinstein moment last November when a video surfaced of an Afghan Air Force colonel coercing a woman into having sex as the price of her promotion.

In a society traditionally as male-dominated as Afghanistan's, it is not easy to instill the idea that such behavior is wrong. The Ministry for Women’s Affairs is trying to reshape social attitudes, though, with a series of TV advertising spots that use music and simple scripts to highlight women’s rights issues, the value of educating girls, and the message that beating women and forcing them into marriage against their will are wrong.

“Ten years ago there was no TV,” says Shakila Nazari, the Women’s Affairs Ministry communications director. “Compared to 10 years ago, there is huge progress in our work, all over Afghanistan.” 

And it’s not just television. 3G access across much of Afghanistan now allows cell phone users to stream video.

“Things are changing, and I think people are changing it themselves,” says the Western official. “People can choose whether they want to watch Taliban propaganda or Bollywood. And guess what? They tend to watch Bollywood."

But the Taliban have not gone away. Insurgents control or contest well over one third of the country, and “you can’t ignore the way that the West bringing its values to Afghanistan has incited conflict,” says the Western official.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Afghan National Police Captain Zahra Ghaznawi stands for a portrait in an auditorium in the main Ministry of Interior complex in Kabul, Afghanistan, on January 13, 2018.

Police Capt. Zahra Ghaznawi, sitting in her spotless office decorated with three big bouquets of plastic flowers and five certificates of achievement, is in no doubt as to which side of that conflict she is on. Wearing make-up and a black headscarf tucked into her camouflage uniform, the mother-of-three, 16-year veteran of the force is a no-nonsense officer who speaks with pride about her job.

It can be dangerous work. Last Saturday, Captain Ghaznawi lost five female colleagues to a Taliban bomb hidden in an ambulance that exploded outside the Interior Ministry complex where she works, killing more than 100 people.

“I am very happy to wear this uniform because it has a positive effect on other women,” says Ghaznawi. At a recent Kabul University ceremony honoring successful women, she recalls, “many students took their picture with me, and said they wanted to be policewomen. I was really proud of myself.”

“As long as I am alive, I will work for my country,” she adds.

An unexpected question

Also at the Kabul University ceremony, collecting a media award, was Maryam Durani, a well-known women’s activist and radio entrepreneur from Kandahar, the deeply conservative former bastion of the Taliban.

“My first target in Kandahar was that everyone should accept me as a person, with equal rights,” she says.

Ms. Durani’s “Women’s Radio” station claims an audience of 800,000 for its programs highlighting violence against women, women’s education, and women’s rights. Its impact is such that the Taliban once sent a letter – complete with an official stamp – warning that if the radio did not stop broadcasting within 48 hours, Durani would be killed.

It didn’t, and she wasn’t. But Durani still has scars on her hands and her head, reminders of a suicide attack on the Kandahar provincial council in 2009, when she was an elected member.

She has happier memories, too, recalling with special pleasure a women’s event in Kandahar last year – held under the title “Afghanistan Needs You” – that she helped to present.

When it was over, Durani noticed a senior Muslim cleric, a member of the local religious establishment, approaching her. She braced for the critical onslaught she expected from him.

But the preacher had a very different purpose. Could his three daughters get in touch with Durani, he wondered? They needed advice on how to continue their studies.

“For me, that was so important,” says Durani. “It gave me more energy than any prize.”

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