Afghan women fear loss of hard-won progress

By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A01

LAGHMAN, AFGHANISTAN -- The head-to-toe burqas that made women a faceless symbol of the Taliban's violently repressive rule are no longer required here. But many Afghan women say they still feel voiceless eight years into a war-torn democracy, and they point to government plans to forge peace with the Taliban as a prime example.

Gender activists say they have been pressing the administration of President Hamid Karzai for a part in any deal-making with Taliban fighters and leaders, which is scheduled to be finalized at a summit in April. Instead, they said, they have been met with a silence that they see as a dispiriting reminder of the limits of progress Afghan women have made since 2001.

"We have not been approached by the government -- they never do," said Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women's Network, an umbrella group. "The belief is that women are not important,'' she said, describing a mind-set that she said "has not been changed in the past eight years."

The Taliban's repressive treatment of women helped galvanize international opposition in the 1990s, and by some measures democracy has revolutionized Afghan women's lives. Their worry now is not about a Taliban takeover, Hamidi said, but that male leaders, behind closed doors and desperate for peace, might not force Taliban leaders to accept, however grudgingly, that women's roles have changed.

Those concerns share roots with the misgivings voiced by many observers, including some U.S. officials, about Afghan efforts to forge a settlement with the Taliban, whose leaders promote an Islamist ideology that seems wholly at odds with rights the Afghan constitution guarantees.

The unease about such a settlement stretches from Kabul to the mountain-ringed valleys of Laghman, a scrappy town in a province still stalked at night by Taliban fighters. As a young girl here, Malalay Jan studied in a private home, hidden from the Taliban regime that forbade her education. Four years ago, her girls' school was torched in a rash of suspected Taliban attacks. Now, she said, she is sure of one thing: Afghan women should have a spot at the negotiating table.

"We don't want them to stop us from getting an education or working in an office," said Jan, 18, wearing a rhinestone-studded head scarf at her rebuilt school. Women, she said, should be "the first priority."

Karzai, the Afghan president, has endorsed the idea of talking with all levels of the Taliban, and his aides insist that women need not worry about the equal rights the Afghan constitution guarantees them. But they also say they are performing a difficult balancing act, and suggest that making bold statements about the sanctity of such topics as women's rights might kill talks before they start.

"We will act from a position of principle. And that principle is that half the public wants these rights to be protected," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who is drafting Karzai's reconciliation plan. "It is not the authority of a group of people in government or a group of people in the insurgency to decide the fate of a whole nation."

In today's Afghanistan, females make up one-quarter of parliament, fill one-third of the nation's classrooms and even compete on "Afghan Idol."

But violence against women remains "endemic," according to the State Department. The percentage of female civil servants is steadily dropping. Just one of 25 cabinet members is a woman, and female lawmakers say their opinions are often ignored.

That point was underscored in January, many observers said, when the women's affairs minister was not invited to an international conference in London on reconciliation and reintegration.

Bringing the Taliban into the government could make things worse, Hamidi said.

"They think women should stay at home," she said. "And all of them have the same perception and same beliefs, from the lowest to the top level."

The Taliban itself, led by Mohammad Omar, has tried to dispute that. As part of what analysts call a public relations campaign to soften the movement's image, Omar, though still in hiding, released a statement last fall that said the Taliban did not oppose women's rights and favored education for all.

Arsala Rahmani, a lawmaker and former Taliban government official, said he thought women's activists were being close-minded, defying what he called "a mother's duty to always try to unite their sons." He said that the Taliban restricted women to protect them from conflict -- not out of ideological misogyny -- and that Omar and his fighters would accept any ideas the Afghan public favors.

To human rights activists, those Taliban messages are ploys to dim support for U.S.-led military efforts in Afghanistan. They point to Taliban-dominated Kandahar province, where militants have closed two-thirds of schools, and Helmand, where tribal leaders say female teachers are threatened with death.

It is a worrisome prospect to women such as Khujesta Elham, an aspiring politician who on a recent day was chatting with friends between classes at Kabul University. She said she thought Taliban fighters should be shunned, though she did not expect that to happen.

"Whatever decision Karzai makes will be his alone," said Elham, 22. "The government does not care about women's rights."

The depth of the Taliban's control varies across Afghanistan, as was the case during its rule, and so do views on the movement. In the 1990s, the Taliban viewed Kabul as a den of depravity, and it was there that its notorious Vice and Virtue police most brutally wielded batons against women who exposed their faces or wore high heels.

In Laghman, a rural Pashtun province in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, patriarchal traditions meant many of those rules were already in force. The area's Taliban officials mostly ignored unauthorized girls' schools, said Qamer Khujazada, who ran one until the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Khujazada became principal of Haider Khani high school, but militants burned down its administrative offices four years ago.

Hanifa Safia, the women's affairs representative for the province, said she thinks a settlement is the only way to peace. The Taliban fighters who throw acid on schoolgirls' faces or threaten professional women do so just to antagonize the government, she said. "I have talked to so many Taliban. They are not against women," Safia said. "Once they have been given positions in government, they will definitely change."

Khujazada, the principal, tentatively agrees. She walks confidently through the halls of her fraying school, overseeing a staff that she boasts is exactly half female.

But many of the girls slip into blue burqas before they leave the concrete-walled schoolyard, and Khujazada acknowledged that most will be married off before they ever set foot in a university. What is important, she said, is that they have the right to continue their schooling.

"Education has a lot of friends," Khujazada said cautiously. "But it has some enemies, too."

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