London ~~ Thursday May 17 2007
Forgotten women turn Kabul into widows' capital
By Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in Kabul
Glass lifts carry people up to the second floor of the shopping mall where gold jewellery and Levi's jeans are being sold in bright new stores. A large poster of a woman in a miniskirt hugging a man is plastered outside a shoe store while music blares from the mall's speakers. But outside, just around the corner, women are begging on the streets. They are the hidden face of modern Kabul.
Walking the streets of Kabul under a full burqa, the traditional garment that the Taliban insisted that women wear and which many still do, it is possible to gain access to Afghanistan's forgotten women.
There are two million war widows in Afghanistan, and their plight is easy to forget in Hamid Karzai's capital, where Western-style shopping malls, bars and French restaurants are opening up for wealthy foreign aid workers and Afghan expatriates.
Every morning Gul, who was widowed when an American bomb hit her house in 2001, leaves her two daughters to go begging on the streets of Kabul. "If I'm lucky, I'll make about 50 afghanis (80p), enough to buy two pieces of bread," she says.
Kabul, it is said, is the widows' capital of the world. As many as 50,000 women like Gul live in the city, and many make their home in the abandoned buildings that dot the suburbs, often living in horrific conditions. In a nation with a fractured infrastructure and, at £125 a year, one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, many widows are left without relatives able to take them in or offer even modest financial support.
Gul's blue burqa at least affords her some dignity. "The men hurl abuse at me, they make indecent gestures and I'm always being harassed, but at least they cannot see me," she says.
There is no social security system in Afghanistan. Widows are not provided pensions or housing so there is no safety net for them to fall back on. In other Muslim countries, getting remarried can resolve the economic problems of widows. But in Afghanistan's that is not so. Most Afghan men do not want to bring up children from a previous marriage.
"They are fiercely protective of their wives and the mere thought of them being married before is an insult to their honour," says Maria Akrami, a social worker who runs a small NGO in Kabul.
On the southern edge of Kabul, among the rubble and bombed-out buildings, Gul and her two daughters, Zeba and Seema, live in a simple one-room flat with no heating or water in a city where winter temperatures can plummet as low as minus 17C.
Inside, Gul's daughters prepare tea for their tired mother. They would like to attend school but do not have money to buy school supplies. "I want to become a teacher," says 14-year-old Zeba, "I wish I could go to school, I am happiest when I am learning," she says.
Sixteen-year-old Seema, meanwhile, is angry at the Afghan government's empty promises. "I don't think our lives will improve," she says. "My mother is a beggar, the government doesn't care about us. They do not offer to help us, nothing has changed for us in this new Afghanistan."
War widows often stand outside government buildings holding frayed photographs of their late husbands, hoping to be noticed. "They should be the government's top priority," says Ms Akrami. "These women are uneducated; they lack basic job skills and cannot fend for themselves. If America invaded us to liberate our women, this is a clear sign that they are failing miserably."
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's film, Dispatches: Afghanistan Unveiled, will be shown tonight at 9pm on Channel 4
Thursday May 17 2007
Journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returns to Afghanistan to find out how life has changed for women in the five years since the invasion by America and its allies and to investigate whether women have been "liberated" as President Bush has claimed.
Five years ago, Dispatches revealed the plight of women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan. 'Beneath the Veil' uncovered evidence of women being denied employment, education and any kind of freedom - imprisoned in their own homes.
In this film, journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returns to Afghanistan to find out how life has changed for women in the five years since the invasion by America and its allies and to investigate whether women have been 'liberated' as President Bush has claimed.
Her journey takes her from the bustling city of Kabul - one vast building site full of shopping malls and warlord palaces - to Herat on the Iranian border, where suicide rates for women are shockingly high, and on to the remote rural areas in the north where Afghan life is at its most basic.
Kabul has become the showcase for women's rights in Afghanistan - its burgeoning beauty businesses and shops touted as evidence of their freedom. But Sharmeen discovers that life has only changed for a privileged few. Just streets away from one shopping mall she finds homeless women wearing burqas forced to beg, steal and sell their bodies to feed their children.
Sharmeen is taken by one woman to her 'home' - a bombed-out block of flats in Western Kabul, an area rarely visited by Western journalists. Here she explains how her husband was killed in the invasion forcing her to beg to ensure her daughters' survival. This woman is just one of an estimated two million widows in a country where women are dependent on men.
To begin to get an idea about what women like her face everyday, Sharmeen wears a full burqa and a secret camera and joins her on the streets. She records the reactions of the men passing by and how women are still made to feel like second-class citizens.
Sharmeen travels to a burns unit at a hospital in the Western province of Herat to investigate the growing number of self-immolation cases. She meets patients and doctors and discovers that for many women facing domestic violence, rape and forced marriages suicide is the only means of escape. But for survivors, the stigma attached to suicide mean many of them claim the burns were an accident as their families seek to conceal it.
In one moving interview, a girl of 12 tells Sharmeen how she was sold by her opiate-addicted father to her future husband at the age of seven - she burnt herself from the waist down when she became old enough to know what her fate was.
In Taloqan, in the far north, Sharmeen visits a maternity ward at a hospital to find out why the country has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. She meets female doctors who explain that women need their male guardian's written permission to go to hospital - which is often difficult to obtain and finds that many women have little or no access to basic prenatal and postnatal care so childbirth can often signal a death sentence for a mother and her baby. Promised western aid to modernise the hospital has never materialised.
Sharmeen then travels to the remote province of Takhar to visit a girl's school which appears to offer some hope. Whereas under the Taliban the girls had to be taught in secret, the headmistress can now hold classes in the open and many of the girls are unveiled. However Sharmeen soon discovers that their enthusiasm for education is not shared by their fathers and their employment prospects are bleak. Throughout her journey, Sharmeen finds little evidence of Western aid making a difference to the lives of women. The streets of Kabul are full of aid workers in flash 'four by fours', but the lives of ordinary people have hardly changed.
Sharmeen concludes that the liberation of Afghan women is mostly theoretical: it was naïve to think that the country could be transformed quickly, when the oppression of women was the consequence of centuries of tribal and cultural practice - not the sole invention of the Taliban. The West should be asking hard questions about where all the millions of aid money has gone, with so little to show.