We Don't Want Our Burqas Back: Women In Afghanistan On The Taliban's Return
By Tracy McVeigh
13 January 2013
When the troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, many fear a terrible backlash. Tracy McVeigh meets seven women who rebuilt their lives after Taliban oppression – and finds them at risk once more
“How many women really make their voices heard? I can count them on my fingers”: Fawzia Koofi, MP for Badakhshan, who plans to stand as a presidential candidate in 2014. Photograph: Farzana Wahidy for the Observer
Pre-dawn in Kabul. In each dark street a short line of giant light bulbs switch on, red, green and white, marking bakeries where warm slabs of golden flatbread are handed through open shop-front windows to sleepy little boys in white tunics and to men with blankets round their shoulders picking up lunch on their way to work.
"This is man's bread," says Hamil Fareed, a young baker. "Women's bread," he explains, is different, the dough kneaded at home by mothers and cooked out of sight at the back in the clay ovens and returned to the family.
The segregation of Kabul's daily bread is not a cultural tradition, but started under the Taliban in the 1990s. Faced with a half-starved city of war widows barred from working, studying or leaving their homes, someone began a clandestine communal fire pit where women could bake flatbread for their children and earn a few coins by selling them on. The UN, impotent in quelling the vicious war, encouraged more such schemes and, when the Taliban soldiers who roamed the streets seemed to tolerate figures in Burqas creeping out to little backstreet bakeries, heralded it as a "step forward" in women's rights.
The international community said the fall of the Taliban in 2001 would bring in a new era of rights. Afghanistan's women and girls would be returned to schools and workplaces and freed from the infamously fierce restrictions on their lives. It was a key political justification used by the British and Americans for their continued presence. That year US secretary of state Colin Powell declared that restoring women's human rights would "not be negotiable". Prime Minister Tony Blair promised: "The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before." Now, with the withdrawal of international forces and their caravan of international agencies, consultants and contractors looming in 2014, there is evidence that Afghan women have seen very few of the promised changes and are terrified of the future.
The outside world has used Afghanistan as a pawn in its geopolitical "great games" since the 19th century and ensnared it in a labyrinth of strategic and economic interests. Since 2001 the country has received some £60bn of aid; there have been tangible improvements in education, maternal mortality, employment, and the representation of women in governance. But there are signs that those gains are too fragile to survive the international community's departure.
A 2012 survey of women across Afghanistan by the charity Action Aid found that nine out of 10 feared the departure of the international community, believing that their lives will significantly deteriorate. And violence against women has never been higher: 87% of women report domestic abuse.
The return of 2.2 million girls to school after 2001 was considered the international community's great triumph, but in the past few years schools have been closing behind the departing backs of phased-out foreign forces. There have been reports of schoolgirls poisoned and beaten, head teachers assassinated and classrooms firebombed. The majority of girls don't stay on after fifth grade and nine out of 10 15-year-old girls are illiterate. Some girls are enrolled in schools but never go.
The British and other forces have built dozens of rural schools which the Afghan government cannot afford to keep open after 2014, and the same is true of the health clinics. Of the 5.8 million without access to healthcare in Afghanistan, 4.4 million are women.
There is rhetoric. And there is reality. Last year the UK's international development committee found "little evidence" to back up the British government's claims of commitment to promoting the rights of Afghan women. Among projects that receive the current £178m of UK annual aid poured into Afghanistan, only two are earmarked to help women.
The Elimination of Violence Against Women Act was brought into law in 2009, but it is widely ignored by courts, religious leaders have declared it un-Islamic, and in 2012 the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai undermined it by upholding the right of a husband to beat his wife.
Half the female prison population are convicted of "moral crimes" – which include running away from violent husbands, fathers or in-laws. Federal law is universally ignored in the local courts, where nearly 90% of all criminal and civil legal disputes are settled, and where girls are bartered to settle family disputes and a man who kills his wife can expect a fine.
It is estimated the US government put $15m (£9.3m) into supporting the "informal justice" sector last year, entrenching repressive mentality. In April 2011, the Afghan government sought to reintroduce public morality laws; regulation was drafted to impose wedding codes to ensure that brides were modestly dressed, to ban music at weddings and to prevent male and female guests mixing. Shops were to be fined for selling inappropriate wedding clothes.
That caused consternation among the businessmen owners of Kabul's kitsch wedding halls. But Afghan's wealthy are unlikely to be around much longer. In the capital building grit still smothers the air, rising from spades and pickaxes as men work the giant ditches that line the pock-marked, uneven streets, but construction is slowing – many villas remain half-built and building sites deserted. The boom is over, the exodus has started, and property prices are dropping as houses empty of foreign agencies and wealthier Afghans.
Outside Kabul, in Balkh Province where the Taliban is gaining strength, signs of its influence are everywhere. Few women in Mazar-i-Sharif travel without a Burqa – last year the religious council of the famous Blue Mosque, one of the few places where women are able to socialise in public, banned women from its weekly meetings.
The women I spoke to in Afghanistan were deeply afraid of the future, and thoroughly exhausted by their precarious lives, in which bombs and rockets still explode. 2014 will bring elections and a powerful network of conservative men; Taliban and warlords are edging into the gap the internationals will leave. And the little clay ovens still cook up women's bread and men's bread in a country expecting their return.
The MP: Fawzia Koofi
"Women know how to use social networks – and if a woman is beaten in the streets I hope there will be a phone camera and the world will know": MP Fawzia Koofi. Photograph: Farzana Wahidy for the Observer
A mother of two teenage daughters, Fawzia Koofi, 36, has been MP for Badakhshan Province for seven years, and recently announced her intention to stand as a presidential candidate in 2014. Her husband died in a Taliban prison. Her father was killed by mujahaideen during the civil war. The seventh daughter, as a newborn she was left out in the sun to die before her parents relented.
If it hadn't been for the Taliban, Koofi would be a doctor now. "I was studying medicine when the Taliban came in 1996. That was my last day as a student. All of a sudden I was at home. You can see everything from your window, but you can't taste it, you can't touch it. I felt like a dead body."
Today she fears for the security of women in the public eye. "When the opportunity came in 2001 that was the time many of us started thinking of doing greater things, to contribute. We started programmes in health and education. We were told the international community was behind us – it was as if life had begun again after having been buried away in a box for so long.
"But the reality has not been what we were promised. There is lip service paid by the Afghan and US governments – gender projects created – but we can't access budgets.
"A few in this nation have come to the understanding that stopping girls' education halts a family's progress. I'm hopeful we will not go back to scratch. But I also know we will suffer – the main victims of the political games will be women and children."
She believes the women of Afghanistan have become "stronger" and adds: "They know how to use social networks, and if a woman is beaten in the streets then I hope there will be a phone camera and the world will know." But for women activists, "day by day it becomes more difficult. How many women really make their voices heard? I can count them on my fingers. There are 18 committees in our parliament, and I'm the only woman chair.
"When we talk about rights, about the taboos we face, they undermine you. Then they will use all the techniques including commenting – men will comment on your clothes, the way you talk and look, to bring you down.
The doctor: Qumar Frahmand
"We worry where we will find the money to keep the clinic going when the troops leave, and I cannot think what will happen if these clinic doors have to close": Dr Qumar Frahmand. Photograph: Tracy McVeigh for the Observer
Dr Qumar Frahmand, 40, is the head of a busy public clinic for women and children in Balkh Province. She sees 35 to 40 patients a day. "The situation has been getting better all the time because of the international NGOs coming in, and access to family planning, and vaccination for children has improved. But we still have a big problem with malnutrition because of poverty and ignorance.
"In the past 10 years, women have started to come out of their houses and see that having fewer children could mean a better life. Before, if a woman didn't have a boy she would keep having babies until she did.
"But will it all slip back? There is so much uncertainty, insecurity and rising unemployment, and the big thing I'm seeing is a rise in domestic violence. Last week a woman who was five months pregnant came here very seriously beaten and the foetus died. She went back to this husband because she has no other opportunity.
"We worry where we will find the money to keep the clinic going when the troops leave, and I cannot think what will happen if these clinic doors have to close. It's too terrible to think about. The security situation is worse for women in the rural areas and if they cannot come here… I'm terrified to think how their lives will be."
The businesswoman: Zarghona Walizada
"Even the young boys make threats and throw stones": businesswoman Zarghona Walizada. Photograph: Tracy McVeigh for the Observer
A large desk puts space between Zarghona Walizada and her visitors. Beneath her chair are two large stones, her second line of defence. "I keep them close to my hands," she says. Her office in a suburb of Kabul – where she runs her own freight firm – is no longer a safe place.
"They came in cars with windows blacked out," she says. "My assistant tried to lock the doors, but these men with scarves around their faces came up the stairs with guns and broke down the door. I sat here behind my desk and stayed calm. I offered them tea, but I had my stones ready.
"They threatened me and demanded why I was not at home. For a long time we argued. They said it was not right for a woman to run a company. I thought they might shoot me, but finally they left. They'll be back."
On the wall is a newspaper cutting, a report of a speech by a UN official citing Walizada as an example of how women are forging ahead in Afghanistan. But Walizada is not the rule – she is the exception. "Women are encouraged by the US and the UN and the UK to make handicrafts, not to make business. The US army has contracts but gives them only to the corrupt politicians."
A widow, she trusts no one but "my driver, my brother and my sister. That is all. I can't worry about what people think. In Afghanistan two people accept me and 20 don't. People say bad things. Even the young boys make threats and throw stones."
She fears troop withdrawal in 2014 will kill the firm she has built. Her truck drivers face increasing threats from bandits, and three have been murdered in as many years. Fuel prices are rising, and those firms with US and UN contracts, which will dry up after the withdrawal, will come looking for the smaller freight contracts, like those she holds. "But I have my son studying in Paris, and at least I have done that – educated my son."
The family: Maryam, Mahaba and Shahla Farid
"I am afraid for my daughters, who might be kidnapped or punished for the advocacy work I have done": university lecturer Shahla Farid with (from far left) Maryam, 20; Mahaba, seven, and Fatima, 17. Photograph: Farzana Wahidy for the Observer
Medical student Maryam Farid, 20, lost her voice after being caught up in a bomb blast aged six and still has a speech impediment. Her father, a university professor, is liberal in allowing his seven daughters to be educated – their mother ran an underground girls' school in their tiny flat during the Taliban rule – but he has chosen her future specialisation, gynaecology, so she will only work among females.
"Is it what I want to do?" asks Farid. "Maybe not. But there is no choice, and I have accepted that." Farid studies hard and looks tired. She shares a laptop with her sisters, but internet access is prohibitively expensive for most young Afghans and the computer is mostly used to play educational CDs.
"The boys my age are the worst – they think we should not be studying," she says. "They say: what is the point, because after 2014 we will have to go back into the home again. They say it is against Islam. I know it is not. I love Islam. I am proud of my religion.
"All the girls are worried – we all think about this issue all the time that after 2014 there will be no girl students and the women who worked to help other women in society will be killed.
"When I go to classes, only half of my energy is spent on my studies because the other 50% is spent in dealing with harassment from the male students. The teachers do not interfere because they do not want to get involved. You cannot complain to the principal because they say there are not these problems at our university, and I often want to leave. I am so tired of it."
Farid's mother, Shahla, is a former judge and teaches in the faculty of law and political science at Kabul University. She has acted as an advocate for battered women and is writing a book about women's rights in Afghanistan. A fifth of her students are female. She was the first woman from her region, Faryab Province, to study law.
"At that time there were more girls studying than now," she tells me.
"Myself, I am afraid for 2014. I have seven daughters – two are married, five are studying. I fear my youngest two will not get the chance to go to university even though both are best in their class. The youngest, Mahaba, doesn't understand, but my 13-year-old feels hopeless about the situation."
She says that when the foreigners go, Afghan men will fight again. "Our government doesn't think about women. If I had known this would happen I would have taken another path and not have been an activist. So I'm angry. I am afraid for my daughters, who might be kidnapped or punished for the advocacy work I have done.
"Women have started to reduce our activities; because the closer we get to 2014 the laws made to support women are losing their strength. My students who can leave are doing so.
"I've a daughter who begs us every day to leave, but my husband will not. He says we must all love our country."
The engineer: Raihana Karimi
"It is shameful for a man to know a colleague’s wife’s name, so my husband could not have me working with him. He is happy now that I work among women": engineer Raihana Karimi. Photograph: Tracy McVeigh for the Observer
Raihana Karimi is an engineer, like her husband. "But in this country it is shameful for a man to know a colleague's wife's name, so he could not have me working with him. He is happy now that I work among women."
In 2008 she joined a programme that trained women as paralegals. Now she runs a safe house for women, directly funded by the US embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif. "It's usually girls escaping forced marriage or violence – if they run away they can be arrested and go straight to jail. The effects of war are plain, and women bear the brunt. I talk to families to see if anything can be done to help solve the problems and their girl can return. But often they are very angry – they want to find and burn down the safe house."
Karimi says she now faces "a lot of threats. I know I will not only lose my job but will be the first target after the international community pulls out in 2014. The safe house will close, and although some NGOs say they will stay, everyone is working separately – there is no one aim. Our government is weak.
"I burned my Burqa when the Taliban left; I don't want a new one. I beg the US and the UK, do not leave us. Please stay. We are very vulnerable, we are very afraid."
The teacher: Shekiba Azizi
"Most of the other teachers now wear a Burqa. But I hate it. I cannot see out and it's very claustrophobic": teacher Shekiba Azizi. Photograph: Tracy McVeigh for the Observer
A 28-year-old teacher in a boys' high school in Mazar-i-Sharif, Shekiba Azizi also has three children of her own. She feels that uncertainty is allowing a creeping conservatism to dominate women's lives once again in Afghanistan. "Most of the other teachers now wear a Burqa. But I hate it. I cannot see out and it's very claustrophobic. To walk to the bus stop I have to pass some warlords' houses, and they have armed guards who shout at me and harass me, so now I have to take a taxi to work, which is expensive. I even have to carry a Burqa in my handbag now – just in case," she says, showing me the blue swathe of nylon fabric in her bag.
"The international community has spent a lot of money in Afghanistan, they say, but I have seen no effect on poor people. Now that they are going, we have the right to know our own future. They have to be clear about what is going to happen to us – they owe us that."
The government adviser: Dr Monisa Sherzada Hassan
"The younger women are the most broken and depressed. We try to show them we are with them, but they see no future": government adviser Dr Monisa Sherzada Hassan. Photograph: Tracy McVeigh for the Observer
Dr Monisa Sherzada Hassan, 53, answers the communal door to her small apartment block in Kabul. Two small boys in the street stop and gape. Her head is covered but her heels are high and her make-up liberal. "I am a woman, and in my own home I will allow myself to be a woman even if outside I am not allowed," she says, leading the way to her modest living room, where every surface is heavy with welcoming platters of nuts and dried fruits. She escaped the Taliban in 1994, fleeing over the mountains by donkey with her toddler daughter. Her son and daughter are studying medicine in Germany. Hassan returned in 2001, and sits on a government committee set up on the insistence of the NATO coalition to look at peace and reconciliation.
"There are 70 members, and nine are women. The women have just a symbolic presence. By voting they get nothing – committees only have functions to hear, not be heard. For women it's not that they are not tough or capable, but that their position is not equal. I see progress if a man says: 'Hello, how are you?' Otherwise they see a woman and they look over her head.
"The younger women are the most broken and depressed. We try to show them we are with them, but they see no future. They are dependent financially on their families.
"If the US and UK wanted, they could eliminate the Taliban in two days. They brought them and they can get rid of them. Now they are trying to leave Afghanistan isolated.
"I don't understand why the foreign forces would leave now, because they just ensure that the next Afghan crisis will be bigger. Our young people have never lived without bloodshed, and the hunger of youth is a great weapon for fundamentalists.
"When the conservatives come back they will shoot all these women who have been fighting for justice. Any fundamentalist knows the addresses of those who speak out for women's rights. The international community should support and protect these women, but they just think about their own departure. These women think about what will happen when the doors of these embassies are closed in their faces and when nobody at all will think about them.
"I am lucky in that I've got a German passport and can leave when I want, but I would beg the British and the American politicians who promised so much: please make one page in Afghanistan's history a lighter one. Before it's too late"