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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 22 Feb 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Kabul’s Women Today: No Escaping the Burqa

By Sahar Saba

February 22, 2010

In 2001, US First Lady Laura Bush said “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’’ In practice, because of the subsequent US military strategy to bring warlords into power to replace the Taliban has proved to be a negation of this. Women’s rights are regularly traded for political deals. Afghanistan’s most famous woman and youngest MP, Malalai Joya, remains suspended from parliament because of the government’s effort to please the Northern Alliance. Gulbadin Hikmatyar, notorious since the 1970s for his anti-women barbarities, has been accommodated. Now talks with the Taliban are underway.

On the streets of Kabul burqa-clad women outnumber those without burqa. So much for images flashed in the global media in 2001 of Afghan women happily removing their veils. Those without burqa are subjected to sexual harassment at workplaces and in the streets and are more vulnerable to groping by men on public buses. This is an outcome of Talibanisation, which views a woman without purdah as having questionable character. Hence, many girls who want to study or work prefer burqa to escape sexual harassment. It is the same Kabul where two decades ago girls went to university in skirts with burqa-clad students, without ever inviting trouble.

Though the Karzai administration keeps boasting about millions of girls being registered at schools and colleges, far more women are unable to read and write than men. Eighty percent of woman suffer domestic violence, 60 percent are coerced into forced marriages while half of them are married before reaching the age of 16. Self-immolation has of late become common practice among desperate Afghan women seeking an escape from the harsh Afghan life. True, the situation is not comparable with the Taliban-era nightmare, but women in Kabul have not regained even a fraction of liberties they used to have before the Taliban and their jihadi predecessors after the fall of the secular government.

The situation remains grim not merely because of the anti-women character of the present regime. An important factor is its failure to carry out the promised reconstruction of the country destroyed by three decades of civil war. Western governments justifiably blame misappropriation of funds by Karzai’s super-corrupt cabinet for the failed reconstruction. This, however, is merely half the truth. The other half was disclosed by a coalition of NGOs called Acbar.

In a revealing report in 2008, Acbar said that $10 billion out of $25 billion the global community pledged to rebuild Afghanistan in 2001 had not even been delivered. Again, 40 per cent of what was delivered, went back to donor countries as corporate profit and the fat salaries drawn by their staff working mostly in Kabul. Two years on, the situation remains the same.

It becomes particularly hard for women when basic infrastructure necessary for urban life is missing. There is scarcity of water. During winter, there is running water for three hours a week in the city’s middle-class neighbourhoods. In summer, as water consumption soars, water supply becomes still worse. Even for women in Kabul, who live a relatively easy life, household chores are a needless drudgery. Washing dishes or doing laundry in ice cold water is torture. Kabul is a dusty city, which means more laundry, as well as dusting of homes.

Water from hand pumps is often hard, and therefore good only for toilets, not for dishwashing or laundry. Toilets consist of small rooms, a couple of feet above ground level, built in a home’s corner of the courtyard. The entire family— particularly women, since men can go outside the home for the purpose—defecate in the deep hole dug there. Once a week, a sweeper comes to remove the filth.

Except for some of its posh areas, Kabul is lacking in sanitation facilities. Countrywide, hardly eight per cent have access to sanitation. Infant mortality during childbirth is the highest in the world.

Until a year ago the electricity was a three-to-five-hour luxury. Regular power supply is a luxury denied to the vast majority outside of Kabul and a couple of other big towns. Only six per cent people in Afghanistan have access to the electricity. Food is in short supply so food prices are sky-high. Every winter news arrives from the countryside of people eating grass to survive.

Afghan television shows unending Indian soaps, which, by and large, is the only entertainment available to women in Kabul. However, women working for television do it at the risk of their lives. Zakia Zaki was killed while Nilofer Habibi was stabbed. Few cinemas have resumed film shows, after being shut down under the Taliban, converted to madrasas in some cases.

Though historic parks like Bagh-e-Babur and Bagh-e-Bala have been rehabilitated, few libraries have been established. Like cafes and restaurants, all these places either remain out of bounds for women or female visitors must be escorted by males.

The same city used to be a favourite destination for middle-class Pakistani families escaping Gen Zia’s stifling Pakistan. They would frequent cinemas showing Indian films. Kabul was also a popular stopover for Western tourists on their way to Pakistan, India and beyond. Now Kabul is a dangerous place even for its residents, let alone tourists.

Source: The News, Islamabad

The writer is an Afghan activist.