September 25, 2012
Afghan women who fight for freedoms
by YALDA HAKIM
An Afghan woman visits Karti Sakhi cemetery in Kabul. Up to 90 per cent of women in Afghanistan are living under conditions of cruelty and violence. (AP Source: AP)
WHEN a burka-clad young woman crouched helplessly awaiting her death sentence in Afghanistan two months ago, many feared little had changed in the 11 years of US-NATO occupation of the troubled central Asian nation.
The grainy mobile phone footage, captured by one of about 200 witnesses to the 22-year-old's death in northern Parwan province, shocked the world and brought back chilling memories of the recording of a public execution in Kabul's football stadium in 1999 at the height of Taliban rule. That faceless, nameless woman became a symbol of the suffering and oppression of Afghan women under the strict Islamic doctrine practised by Taliban.
Today, despite more than 100,000 foreign troops in the country and a protected democratic regime in power, Taliban-inspired atrocities can still happen in daylight just an hour outside the heavily militarised capital.
In July, when the images of a crowd of men cheering each bullet fired into the young woman's submissive body made news around the world, it left many in the West wondering whether the sacrifices in Afghanistan had been worth it.
As part of a team with SBS's Dateline program, I took the 60-minute journey from Kabul to Parwan province, travelling as close as I was able into Shinwari district to discover the woman's identity and why she died.
Her name was Najiba, and locals described her as the most beautiful woman in the area. She was forced to marry a Taliban commander for the price of $5000. Villagers said Najiba told her father she would rather die than marry the man.
After more than year of physical abuse from her husband, Najiba fled to the home of another Taliban commander, who gave her refuge. It's unclear if she had sexual relations with him. There were also rumours that Najiba had been used as a sex slave by different commanders over several months. None of these claims could be verified. But the shame and dishonour she brought to her husband was her undoing.
To resolve the dispute between the feuding commanders over Najiba, the Taliban created a fake court. Accusing her of adultery, the local Taliban cleric, known as Mullah Khaliq, fabricated a fatwa and declared the only punishment based on their version of sharia law would be execution.
As the crowd gathered along the hillside of the village of Qol in Shinwari, a mullah chanted verses from the Koran while Najiba's husband prepared to kill her, clipping a magazine into his AK-47. The audience of men cheered as he trembled and prepared to take his aim. Mobile phone recordings showed Najiba's husband missing his target twice. His third shot entered her back, causing her to sway and fall in a heap. "The order was given by Mullah Abdul Khaliq. Every time her husband shot her, Mullah Abdul Khaliq would say 'Keep firing'," recalls Mullah Badam.
Once fully extended on the ground, Najiba's husband fired a number of shots from close range into her feeble body. The roar of the surrounding men at times deafened the gunshots.
While this horrifying scene may resemble what happened in that football stadium 13 years ago, in fact, much has changed. Within hours of Najiba's horrible death being broadcast worldwide, women in Afghanistan poured into the streets, seeking justice.
The leading voice was Fawzia Koofi, 37, an MP from the northern Badakhshan province, who is also Deputy Speaker of the Afghan parliament and aims to lead the country after elections due within two years.
As an outspoken advocate for women's rights, Koofi is only too happy to make Najiba the latest symbol of her campaign. "You bring a woman, and she is very defenceless, you bring her out and you kill her in front of everybody, and people cheer it and say 'Allah Akbar'. That is not part of our identity but rather an important phenomenon of war," Koofi says.
In the three months since Najiba's death, Koofi has travelled to Parwan many times to take on the authorities. On a visit to the local governor in his guest house, she puts the men in the room on notice, from the state governor through to the representative of foreign forces and local police.
"So what is your plan for conducting operations in Shinwari to arrest the murderers of this woman, without trial?" she demands. The US commander gives a vague response: "We will continue to work with the Afghan army and police."
Koofi looks unimpressed. The police chief then attempts to give the MP an answer. "We have a number of operations underway and we give you every assurance that in the very near future we will capture these killers of this innocent woman," General Mohammad Bekzhad says.
Koofi has many male allies within the district who are supportive in her fight for Afghan women. It was General Bekzhad and his police chief Haji Abdul Hussein who smuggled a mobile phone into the execution ritual to record it for investigators.
"People in the valley wanted to capture this and show the world what was going on in their district, that there are these terrorists living among them who want to kill people," says Hussein.
Of the 2000 residents of Najiba's village, only about 80 are Taliban. "If you look at the geography of this country and terrain, it's possible that even if there were less than 80 fighters they can be victorious because they know the area so well," Bekzhad says.
For every execution that appears on the internet, hundreds of episodes of abuse and slavery in Afghanistan fail to attract publicity. "Najiba's story is a small example because it got out to the media and came to the attention of politicians," says Koofi "Cases like this happen a lot, but they're like a silent tsunami - we don't know about them."
One such case was that of Sahar Gul, 14, whose plight was revealed by The Australian's South Asia correspondent, Amanda Hodge, in July. Now living in protective custody in a women's shelter in Kabul, her scars have healed from the six months she was confined in a cell at her husband's home in the northern Baghlan province. She had been beaten and tortured by her in-laws.
Shelter supervisor Anisa Nuzhat keeps pictures of the girl's condition when she was discovered. Her face is black with bruises in the photos, her hair is ripped out of her scalp and her nails removed.
Koofi, who helped the girl seek treatment, describes the first time she saw her months after she had recovered.
"It was interesting because she had nail polish on the same nails that were removed by her in-laws. She had nail polish on and was cheering her liberty."
Sitting next to Sahar Gul is a playful and affectionate 18-year-old, Mumtaz. Despite her outgoing personality, Mumtaz will never be able to hide the visible battering her face has taken from an acid attack by one of her suitors.
"It was 1am when seven men entered the house. They hit me, broke my arm and attacked my parents," she recalls.
"Then they threw acid over us and left. I fell unconscious. When I woke up I was in hospital. They wouldn't let me look in the mirror."
Without the social workers who rescued them, the fate of these women would be uncertain. "I get death threats all the time," the social worker says.
"Yes, I worry about my safety, but I can't just abandon these women. I see how much danger they are in and how much violence they face.
"Ninety per cent of Afghan women, a large majority, are living under cruelty and violence."
Many Afghans - from the palace of President Hamid Karzai down to local authorities - have joined a genuine attempt to boost the status of women. Violence and suppression continues, but many women now have freedom to demonstrate, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
Women in Afghanistan have a long way to go, but they also know they've come a long way since the days of the Taliban regime. None of them is prepared to give up the little they have gained.
Yalda Hakim is a presenter and video journalist. Her report on the execution of a young Afghan woman that shocked the world, “The Taliban’s War on Women”, was on Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS One.
OR READ THE FOLLOWING TRANSCRIPT:
Tuesday September 25 2012
The Taliban’s War on Women
At the height of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan in 1999, a burqa-clad woman was executed in Kabul's main football stadium. Footage of the killing shocked the world and it galvanised international opposition to the Taliban's brutal rule. Now a democratic government is in place with the backing of Australian and other troops, and cash from nations around the world. But how much has changed? Just two months ago, another defenceless woman was mercilessly killed by the Taliban, in a village just one hour's drive away from the government in the capital, Kabul, and the international force that is support it. Yalda Hakim goes to Afghanistan seeking answers to how this pitiless death could have occurred. And a warning - her report contains some disturbing scenes.
REPORTER: Yalda Hakim
Driving out of Charikar is a journey towards darkness. We're on our way to the scene of the Taliban execution. I'm travelling with Haji Abdul Hussein, police chief of the area where the killing occurred.
REPORTER (Translation): What do the police do to ensure women’s safety in the area?
HAJI ABDUL HUSSEIN (Translation): What should they do?
REPORTER (Translation): Yes.
HAJI ABDUL HUSSEIN (Translation): Our police are actually not properly equipped to fight the enemy in this region. The number of police in the area must be increased and they must be equipped to take on the enemy and prevent such tragedies
The village is only an hour from the capital, but we might as well be travelling back five centuries. The Taliban hold sway just beyond the mountains. It's not possible for me to come here without this heavily armed escort. But despite all the weapons and 100,000 foreign troops in the country, it's too dangerous to go any further.
For security reasons we can't move beyond this point. But just behind that mountain over there is where 22-year-old Najiba was killed. The Taliban created a fake court, and, once they decided she was guilty, executed her within an hour.
The grainy video shows the woman, Najiba, awaiting her fate. Moments before her execution, she looks over her shoulder, towards the person filming. The last person she will ever see.
Today there's an opportunity to find out more about this outrage. This is Mullah Badam. He lives in the same village and was an eyewitness to the killing.
MULLAH BADAM (Translation): A man called Mullah Abdul Khaliq was there, he read a false verse from the Qur’an, which was not at all relevant to this situation. He said that based on that verse, she should be executed. It was tyrannical and barbaric – it is impossible that the law would allow what they did.
The guards are amazed that the Mullah is prepared to speak out. Many have been killed by the Taliban for far less.
MULLAH BADAM (Translation): Let me tell you that thousands of women are suffering under their tyrannical rule. It is not only Najiba.
This brave man has more chilling information.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you know the men who killed her?
MULLAH BADAM (Translation): Yes. Yes, I do.
REPORTER (Translation): One was her husband?
MULLAH BADAM (Translation): Yes. Her husband shot her at the command of Mullah Khaliq. Before each shot there was a command and it was given by Mullah Khaliq.
We can't stay long here. It's too risky. Travelling back to the safety of the police base, I find that the video which was played around the world was obtained through insiders in the village.
REPORTER (Translation): So capturing this on video and showing it to the world wasn’t just a coincidence?
HAJI ABDUL HUSSEIN (Translation): No, not at all. The people in this area wanted to show it to the world so they can see terrorists are in the area killing them.
The journey out here has been worthwhile. But I want to know more about Najiba - a woman dying in front of an audience of men.
FAWZIA KOOFI, VICE PRESIDENT AFGHAN NATIONAL ASSEMBLY (Translation): Hello. Looks like the Governor has a lot of guests today.
And this woman is determined to bring the perpetrators to justice.
FAWZIA KOOFI: Hi. It's Fawzia Koofi, Member of Parliament.
MAN (Translation): He is the head of ISAF security in Parwan province.
Fawzia Koofi is the Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and intends to run against Hamid Karzai in the next election. The 37-year-old is an outspoken advocate for women's rights, a dangerous position in a country where women are seldom heard.
FAWZIA KOOFI (Translation): There are two other journalists coming. Please let them in.
She quickly puts the representative of foreign forces on notice.
FAWZIA KOOFI: You are from which country? US Army? OK. So what is your plan for conducting operations in Shinwari to arrest the people who committed the murder of this woman without trial?
SOLDIER: We'll continue to work with the Afghan police and Afghan Army, with the ANP and ANA in league at the governor’s direction.
And wants to hear the Governor's response to the killing.
GOVERNOR (Translation): We need to organise a better plan for Najiba’s case. It should be a joint operation by the defence and interior forces and the national security forces will also need to participate. Unfortunately, up until now, the operation hasn’t been organised or actually taken place.
But Fawzia Koofi says even though the police have fought in that area, President Karzai won't send in the army.
FAWZIA KOOFI: That place has Taliban and Karzai has some sympathy with them. And there are some political figures from that area, who are in government and they don't allow operations. So basically women's rights are a matter of sacrifice when it comes to politics.
Hamid Karzai's office rejects these allegations, describing them as baseless. Now we're off to visit another woman from the same village, who narrowly escaped the same fate at Najiba. But it's not just poor women who are at risk. Fawzia describes how she survived an assassination attempt. Something she has learned to make light of.
FAWZIA KOOFI: Because it was like bullets everywhere. My bodyguards were also shooting from their window, when they were targeting them. It was a very funny moment, because I tried to hide myself under the seat and my daughters were sitting here, because I just wanted them to be safe. And so I put myself here under the seat and then I realised that the driver is going out of control. Um, so I sit back and said, "OK, whatever happens. I'm not going to die because of car accident."
I wanted to know what she thought of Najiba's execution. She says Afghan society has been corrupted by fundamentalism and war.
FAWZIA KOOFI: In cases like this, you bring a woman and especially she is very defenceless, you bring her out and kill her in front of everybody’s eyes and people cheer it and they say “Allahu Akbar” and they cheer it. That is not part of our identity, I think this is an important phenomenon due to war. It is an imported element of war.
This compound is on the edge of town, about 20 minutes from where Najiba was killed. Mina, not her real name, is from the same village. She's being sheltered here by her relatives. The Taliban murdered her husband, accusing him of being a traitor and working for the Afghan government. Then it was Mina's turn. They dragged her past her husband's corpse.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you think they’d have killed you in the same way as Najiba?
MINA (Translation): Yes. That’s how they wanted to kill me. Twice I was separated from the others with a gun aimed at me. Another Talib said “She is pregnant, it’s a sin…. Kill her once the baby is born.”
In the dead of night, Mina managed to escape the village with her seven children.
REPORTER (Translation): Could you tell me something about Najiba? About her looks, her character, her personality?
MINA (Translation): She lived a long way from me, every time she visited her mother I would see her on the way. She was so beautiful, such a warm person, I’ve never met a more honest person in the area.
Mina believes Najiba ran away from her husband and was sacrificed to preserve the dignity of the two men who both claimed ownership of her.
REPORTER (Translation): Was there a relationship with another man?
MINA (Translation): Not at all, the reason was Najiba’s escape from home.
As a survivor, Mina knows the terrible life of women in a village like Shinwari, where 2,000 people are terrorised by a handful of Taliban.
REPORTER (Translation): Has this happened to other women in the past?
MINA (Translation): They can’t ask a man for a divorce. They are too scared.
REPORTER (Translation): Have other women been killed like this?
MINA (Translation): Baitullah’s wife was one who they killed this way, they chopped her into pieces.
REPORTER (Translation): When was that?
MINA (Translation): 3 or 4 months before Najiba.
FAWZIA KOOFI: To reduce this kind of violence, we need to have strong commitments from the government, which is not there. We don't see perpetrators of human rights violation being put on trial and receiving the required punishment they are supposed to receive.
We leave Mina behind, with a promise from Koofi that she will be given the chance of a new life in the capital.
Today is a special occasion for the province and its powerbrokers. These men have come to honour the memory of legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. His fighters have long been bitter enemies of the Taliban. With foreign forces leaving soon, it will be up to them to try and keep the fundamentalists out of power.
SPEAKER (Translation): The freedom of our nation is the basis of our religion, that responsibility has now been passed on to us.
The police chief who escorted me out near Najiba's village is here, as is his commander, General Mohammad Bekzhad. He knows a great deal about Najiba's killing. He was with his men in the same valley, locked in a 10-day battle with the Taliban.
GENERAL MOHAMMAD BEKZHAD (Translation): This is an image of the actual battle. On this side are our trenches and this is their side.
They did a good job to get the video of Najiba's killing, but why can't they defeat the Taliban and end the executions?
GENERAL MOHAMMAD BEKZHAD (Translation): The geography of Afghanistan and the nature of warfare in this country mean that even if there were fewer than 80 of them they can, based on that geography and the fact that they are locals - be victorious. They don’t have a base. Understand? No permanent base – they can dress as civilians and blend in anywhere.
Tonight, in Kabul, it's a world away from defenceless women and barbaric executions. Here, the women, including a number of MPs, exude wealth and privilege. But religion and culture still deems the rooms be segregated. Husbands not allowed and I learn more about the woman who would be president. Fawzia Koofi is attending her brother's wedding. But even in here, the Taliban influence is strong.
FAWZIA KOOFI: For a while, you basically forget who you are and what are your responsibilities but security is a main challenge. Like, you're always worried that something might happen from somewhere, like, God forbid, an explosion or whatever because such public events are always the main target for security.
Today we have come to one of Afghanistan's prisons. Some of these women are hardened criminals, but others are serving time for adultery, still a criminal offence in this country.
TEACHER (Translation): As you can see, the sun is very big and these planets orbit it.
For some, it's their first time in a class. And it's no small irony that, under lock and key, they are safe from the Taliban. And, thanks to General Hakim Baryalai, the women are also able to learn life skills. Everything from English lessons to sewing classes, carpet weaving and hairdressing. Something the Taliban wouldn't tolerate. Fawzia Koofi has been a key backer of the courses.
GENERAL HAKIM BARYALAI (Translation): Are you all well – not sick?
There's even the chance for the children of the prisoners to start their education. This too would be stopped if the Taliban returns to power. After they have served their sentence, many of the women end up here, in this nearby shelter. They are locked in for their own protection. There are yet more examples of this undeclared war on women and girls.
14-year-old Sahar Gul was left in an underground cell in her husband's home, beaten, had her fingernails removed and hair ripped out. She was sold to her in-laws by her brother. If it wasn't for the work of people like Anisa Nuzhar, Sahar Gul may never have had another chance at life.
REPORTER (Translation): So you are very happy here? You’re studying here?
SAHAR GUL (Translation): Yes.
REPORTER (Translation): Which subject do you like the most?
SAHAR GUL (Translation): The verses from the Koran.
18-year-old Mumtaz had acid thrown on her face by her would-be husband, who she refused to marry. It's a common form of abuse.
MUMTAZ (Translation): They would not let me look in the mirror – I cried a lot.
She's safe for now, in the shelter.
MUMTAZ (Translation): In future, I’ll pray to God that I can study and become a successful lawyer.
REPORTER (Translation): Why do you want to be a lawyer?
MUMTAZ (Translation): God willing, when I’m a lawyer I will confront this cruelty and help women who have been oppressed.
I leave the refuge wondering whether Mumtaz's dream of becoming a lawyer could ever become reality. Strong women like Anisa Nuzhar and Fawzia Koofi may play a big role in the future of this war-torn nation. But foreign forces will be gone from here by 2014 and just behind the mountains, the Taliban are waiting.
Camera RYAN SHERIDAN
Producers GEOFF PARISH and VICTORIA STROBL
Editors MICAH MCGOWN and DAVID POTTS
Translations/Subtitling NASIBA AKRAM
Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN
25th September 2012