London -- Tuesday November 28 2006
'We are just watching things get worse'
When Britain and America went into Afghanistan in 2001, they claimed that the liberation of the country's burka-shrouded women was one of their top priorities. So did they deliver? Five years on, Natasha Walter visits Kabul - and is shocked by what she discovers
Women at a street market in Kabul. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP
Five years ago, when the US and the British arrived in Afghanistan, they sold their mission to us not simply as a way of driving out the terrorist-shielding Taliban, but also as a way of empowering women. As Cherie Blair said in November 2001: "We need to help Afghan women free their spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see." Or as George Bush boasted in December 2001: "Women now come out of their homes from house arrest."
Five years on, however, the Blairs and the Bushes have become less vocal about the women whom we were meant to have liberated. Bush has not commented on the fact that the majority of girls in Afghanistan still cannot go to school. When Tony Blair visited Kabul earlier this month, he did not comment on the recent report by one charity, Womankind Worldwide, which stated: "It cannot be said that the status of Afghan women has changed significantly in the last five years."
I went to Afghanistan soon after the Taliban had been ousted from Kabul, and found that their departure was genuinely allowing women to hope again - even in places where you might have thought all hope would have died. I remember interviewing women in the very first post-Taliban Loya jirga (grand assembly), who said: "The doors of everything have been closed to women for so long. Now we hope the doors are swinging open."
One of the places that stuck most clearly in my mind was a dirt-poor village called Sar Asia, on the outskirts of Kabul. There I met women who had been unable to leave their houses for education during the Taliban regime, who had just set up a literacy course with the help of Rawa, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. When I asked the students, who ranged from 13-year-old girls to 50-year-old widows, if they thought all women in Afghanistan wanted more freedom and equality, my translator struggled to keep up with the clamour: "Of course we do," said one widow furiously. "Even women who are not allowed to come to this class want that. But our husbands and brothers and fathers don't want it. The mullahs keep saying freedom is not good for us."
Over the past few years, as news from Afghanistan has become less positive, I have been wondering what had happened to these women. Last month I was able to revisit the country, and one of the first things I did was to go back to Sar Asia. The teacher invited me back into the room that once had been crowded with women learning to read.
This time, the room is empty, its net curtains closed against the bright sun. "We're not teaching here any more," the teacher - I'll call her Alya, because she has asked me not to use her real name now - tells me sadly, sitting alone on the cushions on the floor. "They were threatening us, telling us not to do it any more, and we were scared. For a while we continued, but we were afraid that they might do something worse. This place is a place of Taliban. Neighbours may work for the government in the morning but at night they are the same Taliban with the same thoughts." I tell her I remember the enthusiasm of the women in the course four years ago. "Yes, we were very happy. Rawa members came and talked about how they could help us to make a literacy course for women. We were all very pleased. But that has stopped now. I think in the west you think that now conditions are good here, that everyone can go to school or go to work for the government. But now we are just watching things get worse."
Alya, who lost her husband and one of her sons during the fighting in Kabul in the 90s, tells me that fewer than half of the girls in the village go to school now. She has managed to find work as a teacher in a government school in Kabul, but hopes that the men in her village don't know that this is what she does. She always wears the burka when she goes out. "We have heard that if somebody kills a male teacher he will get 20,000 Afghanis, but if someone kills a female teacher he will get 50,000 Afghanis," she says. "We don't know if that is true or not, but it makes us very scared."
As I leave Alya's house, she asks me to hide my bag under my coat in case the men in the village see it and think I have a camera in it (which might reveal that she was speaking to a western journalist). I feel immensely depressed.
You can't say that things haven't improved at all in Afghanistan since the Taliban were "removed", and even Alya wouldn't quite go that far. You can now see women moving around Kabul in a way they could not five years ago; the majority do not wear the burka, sporting instead a variety of Islamic dress from shalwar kameez to a short coat with a bright headscarf, as they go to the markets, to the schools, to the university, and to work.
During my time in the city I seek out evidence of change, and I certainly find it. I meet women in the government, including in the ministry of public health, where they are trying to deliver a package of basic healthcare for women. I meet women in non-governmental organisations working on literacy and advocacy projects, women professors and students in the university, and women in the media, including newspaper reporters and television presenters. But each of them has a negative to set beside the positive.
Farzana Samimi, for instance, a television presenter who anchors a weekly programme on women's issues, is the target of constant threats. "It's not for me I'm scared, but for my children - if anything happened to them," she tells me when we meet at the television studio just after her programme. "The situation here has not changed as much as we wanted it to change, and in the last year I have become more afraid. I would like to broadcast political programmes, but I cannot because of the insecurity. It would be too dangerous."
The situation in Kabul, however - which has a tradition of women's education and employment - is inevitably far better than in the rest of the country, however. Human Rights Watch says that a third of districts in Afghanistan are now without girls' schools, due to attacks on teachers and students by the Taliban and other anti-government elements; and traditional practices such as child marriage and baad, in which women are exchanged like objects in tribal disputes, still continue unchallenged. "Every day women are sacrificed for their family or tribe," Nilab Mobarez, a 45-year-old doctor who stood recently as a vice-presidential candidate, tells me angrily. "We still do not have the judicial system to resolve this." Women who stand up against oppressive traditions are vulnerable; the number of assassinations and threats against women working for the government and international organisations is rising. Even in Kabul many women I meet are talking about not only how change is more elusive than they hoped, but even how things now seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
Malalai Joya is, at 28 years old, the youngest and most famous of all the women in the Afghan parliament. In a way her very presence in the parliament is a powerful symbol of change; a woman who had to work in secret in underground schools in Herat during the Taliban time is now able to speak out against her enemies in the parliament. She rose to fame at the end of 2003, when she made a speech attacking the warlords who still hold the balance of power in Afghanistan. On that occasion, one of the men she was attacking, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, rose and told her that her speech was a crime, announced that "Jihad is the basis of this nation" and asked for her microphone to be disconnected. The then speaker of the house, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a former mujahideen leader, called her an infidel, and said that if she did not apologise she could not attend the next session of parliament.
Since her historic speech, Joya has survived assassination attempts and constant denunciations. Even meeting Joya is difficult; the night before I leave, her sister calls to ask me to drive to the front of the parliament building, where she sends a car to meet my car, and we travel through the darkness of Kabul's night streets in looping circles, to arrive eventually at a house where men with guns wave us quickly inside. The house feels cold and unlived in. "I have only just moved here," Joya says. "I have to keep changing my house. I hate guns, but I have to have men with guns guarding me all the time. One day they will kill me. They kill women who struggle against them." Although Joya hated wearing the burka during the Taliban years, she is still not able to take it off. "I wore it today," she tells me, "while I was travelling, because I am not safe." Joya is a beautiful young woman, with wide dark eyes, simply dressed in a black wrap and long dress. When she isn't speaking she looks calm and poised, but when she speaks she is on fire, raging about the situation for herself and her country.
"Here there is no democracy, no security, no women's rights," she says. "When I speak in parliament they threaten me. In May they beat me by throwing bottles of water at me and they shouted, 'Take her and rape her.' These men who are in power, never have they apologised for their crimes that they committed in the wars, and now, with the support of the US, they continue with their crimes in a different way. That is why there is no fundamental change in the situation of women."
Joya talks like this to me, furiously, for more than an hour, almost weeping as she catalogues the crimes against women that still keep them in a state of fear: from Safia Ama Jan, the leading women's rights campaigner assassinated in Kandahar earlier this year, to Nadia Anjuman, a poet murdered in Herat last year; from Amina, a married woman who was stoned to death in Badakhshan in 2005, to Sanobar, an 11-year-old girl who was raped and exchanged for a dog in a reported dispute among warlords in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan last month.
She is desperate for people to take account of the silent women whose voices we never hear. "Afghan women are killing themselves now," she says, "there is no liberation for them." This is not just rhetoric: the Afghan Human Rights Commission recently began to document the numbers of Afghan women who are burning themselves to death because they cannot escape abuse in their families.
I visit an organisation called Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), whose director, Orzala Ashraf, is a driven young Afghan woman. "It is 99% tragedy here, but there are always stories of hope," she says. To illustrate that, she begins to tell me a story of a woman whom I'll call Jamila. She ran away from home, in a traditional community near Kandahar, four years ago when she was 15, because she was being forced into marriage with an elderly man. "Her family are Taliban," says Orzala. "I don't mean that they are political fanatics, I mean that they are traditionalists who are against women's freedom - they had already killed an aunt who wouldn't marry according to their wishes." Jamila dressed as a young man and came in a smugglers' car to Kabul, but when she got to Kabul she was arrested and taken to prison - and although she was guilty of no crime, she spent a year in jail. But then Jamila got lucky; HAWCA brought her to the women's refuge it had just set up, where she learned to read and grew in confidence.
In the past there would have been no way for Jamila to survive in Afghan society without her family, but Orzala Ashraf eventually suggested to her that she could try a brand new route - the women's police force. And that is where she is now. A few days later I go to visit Jamila at the new female police academy, which is set on the hills to the west of Kabul. She works there in the administrative office, wearing a uniform of khaki pants and jacket. "Once I was illiterate and I didn't know about anything," she says quietly but decisively, "but I was one of the lucky ones - I began to learn. Now I know that Islam gives rights to women as well as to men."
The principal of the women's police academy, Homera Dakik , a tall 25-year-old woman wearing an elegant leopard-print scarf over her khaki-coloured uniform, is also eager to talk to us. She was forced into marriage 10 years ago with the head of the Taliban secret services. "My father said no, but they kidnapped me. I spent four years in his family's house. I experienced terrible mental torture." After the Taliban fell, her father managed to get her away and brought her home. "It is really my dream now," she says, sitting in her office with Jamila, "that we should be able to tell the world how such criminal things have happened to the women of Afghanistan. Once I thought it was only me who had suffered like this, but now I know that the majority of women in this country have known situations like this."
She and Jamila show us round the academy, which is like a palace compared with the rest of Kabul - it has dormitories, kitchens, lecture theatre, even a kindergarten, all spanking new, clean and lovely, built with money from international donors. But it is empty. How many trainees can this place hold, I ask? 200. How many do they currently have? Four. "Families will still not let their women join the academy," Homera says sadly. "They don't see it as honourable." Whenever they go out, Homera and Jamila hide their uniforms under abayas (cloaks), so that they won't be attacked. Homera is not sure that things will get any better. "For three years after the fall of the Taliban I was happy. Personally, as long as I have blood in my body, I will fight for my rights. But now we have great fear in our hearts that things are not going in the right direction."
The empty academy, fronted by these brave young women, is a powerful symbol of the fragility of Hamid Karzai's government. Although Karzai may speak in favour of women's rights, he does not have the reach and resources to deliver on his rhetoric. His alliances with warlords whose record is little better than the Taliban's and his inability to give any real power to the women in the government have made women leaders sceptical of his commitment to their rights. Alongside that scepticism goes women's disappointment about the promised rebuilding of the country. In order to get grounded in popular support, the government needed to rebuild everything from healthcare to roads in this devastated country. To do so it looked to the international community to help. Five years ago Bush and Blair were quick with promises. But the consensus now is that those promises have not been matched by action.
Everywhere I go, from the offices of big international organisations such as Oxfam, to government ministries, to little Afghan organisations, I hear anger and frustration. Anger at promised money that never arrived, even from blue-chip donors such as the World Bank. Anger at unaccountable donors who set up useful projects, but decided to move on after six months, leaving workers penniless and floundering. Anger at US aid that was tied to using US contractors with little knowledge of the country, so that, say, a vital health clinic in Badakhshan was built in a region where it would only be accessible by helicopter during the winter months. Anger at poor central planning and lack of transparency in the government.
These failures of development mean that people still do not have the clinics, schools, clean water and roads that they need to start rebuilding civil society after decades of war. Even in Kabul most areas are still desperately poor, with no functioning sewage system and just a few hours of electricity a night. But in one area of the city is an unexpected string of half a dozen brand-new wedding halls, each three or four storeys high. These have their own generators, and night after night, against the pitch black of the unpowered city, their neon lights blaze out as hundreds of Afghans turn up to dance and feast.
The men and women sit separately here, and at the wedding celebration that Dr Nilab Mobarez takes me to, I watch women in the kind of outfits that would not look out of place in an 80s nightclub - sequined and spangly, full-length and fabulous, accessorised with pearlised makeup, platform sandals and bouffant hairdos - dancing to a band that jazzes up their traditional songs. Among the silver painted pillars and electric chandeliers I talk to bright-eyed, confident women, from Dr Malika Popal, who works at the ministry of public health where she is helping to deliver a basic package of healthcare aimed at bringing down the rate of maternal mortality, and her daughter Kausar, a tall and ambitious 20 year old currently studying at the university. "My dreams are complicated," Kausar says. "I want to go and study in America. I know I don't want just to get married." But even here you cannot escape the other side of women's lives in Afghanistan.
At one table, I meet Kochai, a serious woman more soberly dressed than the others in a long olive skirt and jacket. She has come to Kabul for the wedding from Kandahar, where she works as a police woman in the airport. She was married into a traditional family, and was abused for years by her husband. It was when her daughter then got married to a relation of her husband's, and started being beaten too, that she decided she had to get herself and her daughter away from these violent men. "I had to defend myself and my daughter," she said. The women now live without their husbands, although her daughter has not been able to get a divorce from her husband. "It is very, very difficult. I am sick of being frightened. During the nights especially I am frightened."
Like all the other women I meet on my trip, Kochai is very sure that despite all the insecurity and lack of progress, life would be far worse if western forces pulled out. "If the British and American soldiers left now, we wouldn't be able to leave our houses. We would lose all that we have."
Yet everyone knows that the Taliban are regrouping in and around Kandahar; Safia Ama Jan, the head of the department of women's affairs, was assassinated there recently, and Kochai says the actual number of kidnappings and assassinations is far higher than we hear about. "In one week six women were killed. They were ordinary women, working women, but the Taliban say they are spies of the government. They tell them, 'Don't work,' and if they do not listen, then they are kidnapped and killed far from the city." She has two bodyguards who take her to work and back, but after work she has no bodyguards - so in a way they only make her more of a target. "I wear the burka, and I change the colour of it regularly so that I hope nobody knows it is me under it. The morale of women in Kandahar is getting worse every day," she says.
When I express my horror, Nilab Mobarez looks at me rather pityingly and says: "This is only one case among so many. So many Afghan women suffer like this."