Toronto -- Wednesday October 11 2006
Trembling in fear behind the burka
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan The letters are delivered in the night, dropped on the doorsteps of female Kandahar professionals. The anonymous missives warn the occupants that they will “bleed” if they don't stop working.
Other threats are more urgent. A female employee at a United Nations agency in Kandahar was warned by an unknown caller to leave Afghanistan within half an hour. More than half a dozen female government workers in the southern and western provinces have complained of death threats.
These are a few examples of the rising tide of violence against women in Afghanistan, especially in the south. Five years after the fall of the repressive Taliban regime, women in particular working women are increasingly being targeted by extremists.
“When I leave for work in the morning, I don't know if I will be coming home,” one working woman lamented during a Monday-morning meeting at a women's resource centre in downtown Kandahar.
“I change my route every day,” she continued. “I wear a different coloured burka. Everyone has fear.”
The weekly meetings are a chance for female professionals to gather and vent about the current spate of violence against women in this troubled city.
The sessions are organized by Rangina Hamidi, the resource centre's director and head of Afghans for a Civil Society, a human-rights group.
Ms. Hamidi, 29, was raised and educated in the United States after her family fled Afghanistan in 1981. She was part of the wave of exiles who returned to rebuild after the Taliban fell.
Ms. Hamidi did not attend Monday's meeting because she was visiting her family in Virginia. She said her parents and friends are pleading with her to stay in North America.
She plans to return to Afghanistan, but predicted that educated women will once again flee. “I think the majority of the working class will leave the country,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Last month's assassination of activist Safia Ama Jan, the director of women's affairs for the province of Kandahar, who was gunned down outside her house as she left for work, put a chill in the hearts of female professionals. It harkened back to the time when the Taliban were in power and women were routinely beaten, mutilated and killed for disobeying their restrictive edicts. The women now say the death threats are on the rise, but local police can do nothing to protect them.
At Monday's gathering, eight women sat around a table in a shabby board room, lamenting the rise in violence. They are educated, married women with families. Like nearly all Kandahar women, they wear burkas in public and remove the head-to-toe covering once inside their offices.
They are articulate and impassioned about deteriorating conditions for women. Throughout the two-hour session, their voices often rose in emotion and they frequently interrupted one another. But they are leery of giving a name to their voices.
None of the women agreed to be identified or have her face photographed.
“Sorry, but we are afraid,” said a bespectacled middle-aged woman with a cream-coloured chiffon head veil. After Ms. Ama Jan's slaying, girls' attendance at Kandahar schools dropped off. Some women quit their jobs.
“They are staying at home,” the woman said. “We have educated women who are sitting at home.”
Some men have ordered their wives to stop working. “We're going backward again,” she said.
Afghanistan women made significant strides after the ultra-conservative Taliban was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The country's new constitution has equality guarantees for women and girls, including the right to a public-school education. Twenty-five per cent of Afghanistan's members of parliament are women.
But the women at the Kandahar meeting say these rights exist only on paper. They have little faith in enforcement by Afghanistan's army and police force, which they say are poorly trained, with little aptitude for dealing with civilian complaints or protecting the public.
“People who are in the ANP and ANA, they are people who have been fighting for 30 years,” said another woman who works at the Kandahar resource centre. “They only know how to fight and use weapons. They don't know how to keep the peace.”
Not only are Kandahar's women struggling to recover from years of the Taliban's influence, they are also up against their own culture's centuries-old, conservative view of women, which, among other things, permits girls to marry as young as 7 or 8.
As if to illustrate this point, a woman arrives at the resource centre with her six-year-old son in tow, asking for help.
At 38, Shahla has been married nearly 30 years; she was 9 when she wed her already adult spouse. For the past 15 years, her husband, an unemployed labourer, has been a heroin addict. She earns some money cleaning houses but her husband steals it. Lately, he's been taking the couple's six-year-old son out to beg for money on Kandahar's dirty and dangerous streets.
But Shahla, who uses only one name, has no desire to leave him. It's rare even dangerous for a woman in Afghanistan to leave a spouse, even if he is abusive. Shahla is no exception. Her brothers have told her she can't live with them and her in-laws have said the same.
Shahla plans to stay with her husband but she needs money to keep her son off the street.
The resource centre offer women like Shahla jobs embroidering tablecloths, scarves and clothing. Their work is sold in shops and Ms. Hamidi's organization exports it abroad.
As the meeting wraps up, the women are asked what they think can be done to halt the violence against working women. None has an answer. But they say it helps to gather and talk about it.
“We don't feel so helpless,” said one woman as she raised her beige burka over her head to leave.