An Uneasy Peace

An Uneasy Peace

Afghan women are free of the Taliban, but liberation is still a distant dream.


In January, Hamid Karzai, chairman of the Afghan interim administration, quietly signed the “Declaration of Essential Rights of Afghan Women,” which guarantees equality between men and women, equal protection under the law, equal right to education in all disciplines, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and political participation, and freedom to wear or not wear the burqa or any form of head covering. After five years of Taliban oppression, the worst in the world for women, such freedoms are heartening indeed. Their exercise, however, depends on certain conditions–not least of which is basic security–that do not currently exist in Afghanistan.

Equal protection under the law is meaningless when the courts are not functioning and there is no reliable national police force or army. The exiled King Zahir Shah has twice delayed his return to Afghanistan because of assassination threats. At the beginning of April, a coup d’état in the making by alleged associates of former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was foiled when hundreds were arrested for planning “terrorism, abductions and sabotage.” It’s a misnomer to call the 4,500-strong British-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) “peacekeepers,” since they are confined to the capital and have a mandate to defend only the UN and the government, which precludes any protection for ordinary Afghans. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Karzai himself have said that the ISAF needs to be increased to 30,000 and deployed throughout the country, but President Bush continues to reject such expansion.

“How can we win the war, and lose the keeping of the peace?” asks Eleanor Smeal, whose organization, the Feminist Majority Foundation, led the US campaign against the Taliban’s oppression of women. “President Bush said he would not turn his back on Afghanistan, but not having more security forces is a disaster. It doesn’t make sense.” The situation on the ground belies the Bush Administration’s claims that it has won the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, averted a famine and liberated women. As the US military struggles to stamp out persistent pockets of now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t Al Qaeda and Taliban, death from hunger is common, lawlessness rampant, and little has changed for the vast majority of Afghan women.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that very few women have discarded the burqa–a garment best described as a body bag for the living–because they fear for their safety. Recent reports of gang rapes by armed Afghan factions echo the indiscriminate sexual violence of the four-year civil war of 1992-96, which paved the way for the Taliban, with their promises of restoring law and order. Human Rights Watch now reports a “wave of killing, rape and widespread ethnic persecution” in northern Afghanistan, where an anti-Pashtun pogrom is raging. “We have found case after case of gang-raping of women, and even children,” says senior researcher Peter Bouckaert. Adds Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, a New York-based international women’s human rights organization: “Rape is being tolerated and condoned by regional Afghan authorities. They are complicit in the assaults. The people running these parts of the country have a history of such abuse themselves.”

Hafiza Rasouli, 46, a UNICEF project officer, spoke for many women when she told me during a recent visit to Kabul: “We felt safer under the Taliban. We could sleep with our doors open at night, but no longer. When it comes to our security, we have not forgotten Nahida.”

Thirteen-year-old Nahida Hassan became a symbol for Afghan women and girls who were raped during the two decades of war. When a commander and twenty of his troops broke into her Kabul apartment, killing her 12-year-old brother and gunning down her other male relatives, Nahida understood she was the target. To avoid being sexually savaged, she leapt from the sixth-floor window to her death. Today, there is a shrine on the spot where she fell. “Everyone knew who the commander was. But no one dared touch him,” said the girl’s 64-year-old grandfather, Mohammed Hassan. The commander enjoyed the protection of his party, whose fundamentalist cleric leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, headed the government at the time and, more recently, the Northern Alliance, which holds key positions in the new interim administration. And with Hekmatyar back in the picture–a notorious warlord and rabid extremist who during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s was a major recipient of US military aid funneled through Pakistan’s intelligence service–security for women could become much worse. In his brief sojourn at Kabul University in the 1960s, Hekmatyar was infamous for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled female students. Since then, he has been responsible for a vast list of atrocities and assassinations.

A growing schism between a few apparent progressives and the conservative hard-liners in the interim administration was highlighted when, days before Karzai signed the emancipation document, his justice minister announced that the new government would still impose a strict form of Sharia law. In an interview with the French news agency Agence France-Presse, his chief justice explained that public executions and amputations would no longer be held at Kabul’s sports stadium, but that they would continue. “The stadium is for sports. We will find a new place for public executions,” he said, adding that adulterers, too, will still be publicly stoned to death. The new interior ministry, meanwhile, requires women to have the permission of their male relatives before traveling or applying for passports, just as the Taliban did.

For the first time in its history, Afghanistan has a ministry of women’s affairs, but Minister Sima Samar, three months into her six-month tenure, already feels she is being marginalized, even by Karzai. She has also received a number of death threats, and not long ago, one of her private clinics in Bamiyan was targeted and the staff massacred. Samar, a 45-year-old physician, is now talking about resigning, possibly before her term ends. “She’s not being taken seriously by her own government. Very few of the men in the interim administration believe there should be a women’s ministry,” says a senior UN official. “These are not for the most part liberal, progressive men; many of them have similar attitudes to the Taliban.”

In conversations with visitors, Samar frequently relates how, toward the end of a wide-ranging meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, she passed a note to Karzai reminding him that he hadn’t once mentioned women’s issues. “I wanted Powell to know we are serious about women’s issues. But we are not,” she said. On International Women’s Day, March 8, she was asked to write Karzai’s speech for him. Samar was decidedly unhappy when he eviscerated it, cutting it by 50 percent.

Samar, who is given to wearing jeans or pants and leaving her head uncovered, has other problems, too. Despite crowds of women who daily clog the entrance to the ministry looking for assistance, thus far she has received no operating funds. The ministry building is still under renovation; it was full of bomb rubble when it was assigned to her and lacked a roof, windows and many doors. Afghanistan’s land-line phone system is as devastated as the rest of the country’s infrastructure. Samar has no Internet access and can’t afford to use her satellite phone. At the end of March the ministry had received only $64,000 for building repairs and renovation, and $30,000 from a foundation for a school uniform project.

The Afghan Interim Authority Fund, set up after the Bonn Agreement established the interim administration, channels funding from twenty-five donor countries, including the United States, and is intended to meet urgent needs. The UN Development Program, which manages the fund, says $50 million is required; $37 million has been pledged, but only $26 million has been received, and much of that still sits in New York. “The running cost of the government was not included in this amount,” says Julia Taft, who heads the fund. With the Afghan economy in tatters and the treasury all but empty, omitting day-to-day operating expenses would appear to be a colossal oversight.

In addition to the shortfall in donor funding, one of the biggest difficulties, says Taft, is getting the money into Afghanistan. “We’ve had to resort to flying in planeloads of cash because the banks aren’t functioning, and we couldn’t wire it. This, of course, is a major security issue.”

“When we have no money, how can we work, or pay staff?” asks Samar’s deputy minister, Shafiqa Yargin, a former magazine editor. “There is much we want to do, but all we hear is that the countries who have promised us money have not given it.”

Slamming the international aid bureaucracy for being “way too slow” for the needs of the country, Eve Ensler, the Vagina Monologues playwright, brought in bundles of banknotes and satellite phones for the women’s ministry on a recent trip to Kabul. “Since Sima Samar has no money to pay her phone bill, V-Day will do it,” says Ensler, the founder of V-Day, an organization aimed at stopping violence against women and girls.

Some of the responsibility rests with the finance ministry in Kabul, through which all incoming funds are distributed. “If the ministry doesn’t like you, they can be very slow, or simply not give it,” said one insider. Sohaila Sidiq, the minister of health and the other woman in the Cabinet, is having an easier time than Samar, according to Shafiqa Habibi, a prominent journalist in Kabul and former director of the Afghan Women’s Journalists Association, because the ministry of health is more established and has the support of the World Health Organization and other international bodies. And whereas healthcare is universally accepted in Afghanistan, women’s rights are not.

Samar’s battle to be accepted has been compounded by other factors: Because she is Hazara, a minority ethnic group reviled by many Afghans, her support within the country is largely limited to other Hazaras.

There is a growing school of thought in Kabul among the expat aid community and the UN that Samar was appointed to fail. The minister’s biggest problem, she herself says, is that Afghans don’t think she is a real Muslim, that she is too Westernized, too secular, too radical for the country’s orthodox leaders and opinion-makers. It hasn’t helped that she once espoused Maoist politics. Samar’s first husband, who shared her party philosophy, was arrested in 1979 and never seen again, and she was forced to flee to Pakistan. Samar was also one of the founders, in 1977, of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a group that has garnered considerably more publicity in the United States than it has credibility in its own country. RAWA’s leader and two colleagues were assassinated in the 1980s, and it continues to be marginalized within the culture.

Ensler recognizes that Samar walks a thin line in her position. “I don’t envy her. She’s trying to appease a Western agenda, and a feminist approach doesn’t help her in Afghanistan, since women’s rights there need to be incrementally introduced.”

A major challenge will be undoing five years of Taliban indoctrination on gender roles. “Small boys as young as 6 or 7 are treating women like dogs,” says Rachel Wareham, a women’s rights lobbyist in Kabul for Medica Mondiale, a German humanitarian agency, and a newly appointed planning, strategy and policy adviser to Samar. “There’s incredible arrogance and lack of respect in boys so young. They refuse to let their mothers speak, and speak for them.”

The return-to-school program, which is sending 1.5 million children (nearly half of them girls) back to school this month, will still leave more than two out of three without access to education, the vast majority female. Currently, only 4 percent of women and girls are literate. There’s an estimated shortage of 100,000 teachers, and thousands of schools were destroyed during the fighting. Even before the Taliban ban on girls’ education, enrollment was rarely higher than 5 percent. Also, since schools were frequently used as military bases, many have been heavily landmined. “And how do you educate children when they are hungry? People are in dire need of food,” says Ensler.

Security issues have hampered food aid distribution. UN aid convoys are regularly attacked and robbed. Compounding the problem, the World Food Program has only received 5 percent of the nearly $300 million it needs for emergency food aid this year. And because the bulk of the food aid sent to Afghanistan is confined to wheat flour, the daily diet for too many families is limited to flat nan bread and sugarless green tea, if they can afford the latter, or nonpotable water if they can’t. Death from hunger has become tragically commonplace. I spoke to many women who related how they had lost as many as five, six, seven children to starvation and exposure in the past two years. According to UN statistics, 12 million Afghans–70 percent of the population–are severely malnourished, and 1 in 2 children is stunted. Children’s health is so fragile that a quarter don’t survive to the age of 5, and 35,000 a year succumb to measles.

Since only 12 percent of women have access to even basic healthcare, it is perhaps not surprising that every thirty minutes an Afghan woman dies from pregnancy-related causes, according to UNICEF. The British medical journal Lancet also reports that the maternal death rate among Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps is among the highest ever recorded. Two decades of war, poverty and the recent drought have given Afghanistan one of the worst health profiles in the world, says Dr. Sidiq.

In this desperate situation, the US pledge of $296 million at the donors’ conference in Tokyo this past January for the first year’s reconstruction demonstrates a lukewarm commitment at best (especially compared with the billion dollars a month the United States says it has spent on the war effort). And the Tokyo pledge is even smaller than it seems: Only $50 million of the $296 million is new funding; the remainder had been previously committed for existing programs. Worse, with the delays in money transfer to Afghanistan, any funding not transmitted expires at the end of the year, and cannot be carried over.

The interim administration will run only to June, when a traditional loya jirga, or grand council of elders of some 1,450, headed by the 87-year-old King if it is safe for him to return, will help select a subsequent transitional government. This is expected to lead to democratic elections eighteen months later. Since proof of citizenship is usually a prerequisite for voting and 98 percent of Afghan women do not possess identity cards, their voting rights could be threatened unless they are registered in the next two years, according to Noeleen Heyzer, head of UNIFEM, the UN women’s affairs agency.

In the meantime, Afghan women activists are working hard to make sure they are fairly represented at the June loya jirga. “We sincerely hope it will be better than what we had in Bonn, when it was three out of thirty,” says Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development in Washington, DC, and a delegate at both Bonn and the Afghan Women’s Summit in Brussels that followed. While 160 seats are guaranteed for women, early indications are that their numbers are unlikely to exceed 200, making the ratio considerably lower than the 15 percent they had in the last meaningful loya jirga, in the mid-1970s.

The twenty-one members of the UN-appointed loya jirga commission, charged with convening the larger body, are of key importance–especially amid reports of large amounts of money changing hands in factionalized horse-trading as warlords jockey for position. Interested states are also involved. “We know the Russians gave a lot of money to Rabbani before Bonn; they printed the Afghanis for them,” says Barnett Rubin, a leading Afghan analyst and director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “The US is paying their people, and the Iranians are supporting their own [Afghanistan’s Shiites, a 15 percent minority].”

Many Afghans are outraged that a number of those on the loya jirga commission were ranking Communists during the Soviet occupation, including Soraya Parlika, one of the commission’s three women. Parlika was head of the Democratic Afghan Women’s Association, a government-affiliated organization, during the Najibullah regime. “Afghanistan’s tragic legacy of total destruction began with the Communists. The Marxist-Leninists killed more than a million Afghans trying to force their ideology on us,” complains Zieba Shorish-Shamley, an anthropologist and executive director of the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, based in Washington, DC, who was a delegate at Brussels.

Even as Karzai calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Afghanistan, the sad fact is that his interim administration includes a number of known war criminals, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, a barely literate, brutal and self-appointed general. Dostum was named deputy defense minister, a classic case of the wolf guarding the chickens, in an attempt to stop him from being a bloody spoiler. The transitional government is unlikely to escape such associations, as feudal warlords, many of them big-time drug traffickers, and war criminals from the 1980s Communist regime are certain to make the final cut. Despite loya jirga restrictions meant to exclude such people, the commission’s chairman, Ismail Qasimyr, has already stated that all members of Karzai’s administration have an automatic right to attend.

A number of insiders believe that the UN–including Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General’s special representative for Afghanistan–is willing to turn a blind eye to such problems. “The truth is, Brahimi’s priority in Afghanistan is not human rights,” says the senior UN official. “This has been a major concern of Mary Robinson [the UN human rights chief, who recently said she was stepping down]. Brahimi’s imperative is to make sure the political process in Afghanistan works. Karzai could be a donkey with a red rosette pinned to his back. The UN’s entire credibility is behind him and the political process. But if nothing is done about the human rights violations, there will be major problems down the road.”

Afghanistan’s challenges appear almost insurmountable. But now, says Shorish-Shamley, is the best time to fight for women’s rights. “Patriarchy has existed for thousands of years in Afghanistan,” she says. “As we reconstruct the country, we are also restructuring the society. If we don’t push now, we will not get anywhere.” Many women in Kabul would agree with her.

“Young women especially are raring to go and want to have opportunities. They have such spirit,” says Wareham of Medica Mondiale. “Girl students and women teachers who are back in school are thrilled to be there. There’s a tae kwon do class for women starting in Kabul, even a driving course. These are things they couldn’t have dreamed of before.” But right now, funding and security are the biggest obstacles.

Afghan women activists see a parallel between their lives and the condition of the once much-loved women’s garden, Barg-i-Zenana, in the capital. The flowers and lawns are gone, and so too are the almond trees, their trunks blown up, their branches taken for kindling by the Taliban. All that remains today is a barren, walled-in plot. “It was a magical place before the fighting, a huge, beautiful garden, where women and girls loved to come and relax,” says Fatima Gailani, who was an adviser at Bonn. “The garden, when it is restored, will be a symbol for Afghan women. If it can come back, so can we and the country. It will be a microcosm for the nation.”

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