A pre­car­i­ous time

Afghan women worry they’d lose the free­dom they have gained when uS troops leave next year.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By DAVID ZUCCHINO

GHAZALAN Koofi loves her mother, but not the life her mother has been com­pelled to live. The older woman, her face cloaked in a shawl, had an ar­ranged mar­riage at age 11. She didn’t go to school and spent her life rais­ing seven chil­dren with lit­tle help from her hus­band.

To­day, at 50, Shah­gol Shah still obeys mahram, the Afghan cus­tom that for­bids women to leave home with­out a male rel­a­tive. She wears a burqa in pub­lic. “That’s our tra­di­tion,” Shah says. Koofi, 26, lives a life her mother could never have imag­ined. She leaves home un­escorted ev­ery day, work­ing at a govern­ment min­istry and at­tend­ing univer­sity classes at night. She speaks flu­ent English and has never worn a burqa. She dresses stylishly, but mod­estly, her wavy black hair peek­ing from a head scarf.

She chas­tises sex­ist male col­leagues and de­mands their re­spect. She in­sisted on a seat at a re­cent tribal gath­er­ing dom­i­nated by white-bearded men in tur­bans. She trea­sures her “love mar­riage” with Shoaib Az­izi, 27, a po­lice depart­ment em­ployee who calls his wife “a very brave woman”. He helps with house­work and car­ing for their in­fant son, a rad­i­cal act that some male friends con­sider weak and shame­ful.

Koofi came of age af­ter the US-led mil­i­tary in­va­sion top­pled the re­pres­sive Tal­iban govern­ment in 2001. She has ben­e­fited from 12 years of slow, fit­ful gains for Afghan women. But with US com­bat troops leav­ing Afghanistan next year, Koofi and other Afghan women worry that their free­doms will be­gin to erode.

“We are en­ter­ing a very dan­ger­ous pe­riod for women,” Koofi says. “I’m very wor­ried that we will re­turn to those ter­ri­ble days when the only place for a woman was in the home, do­ing house­work and serv­ing the men.”

Koofi and her mother play with her 11month-old son, Ah­mad, in­side the fam­ily’s tidy con­crete home on a hill­side over­look­ing smoggy west Kabul, two gen­er­a­tions filled with equal parts hope and fear about the fu­ture of the next one.

Dread­ing the fu­ture

Across Kabul, Shukriya Matin also be­longs to that vul­ner­a­ble gen­er­a­tion of women who have be­come adults in a world of new free­doms, and fear a fu­ture with­out them.

Matin was in grade school when her fam­ily fled the Tal­iban in 1996; she was twice beaten on the street for not prop­erly cov­er­ing her hair. For six long years, she was a low­paid child car­pet weaver in Pak­istan af­ter her fam­ily fled the Tal­iban.

She re­turned to Kabul af­ter the US-led in­va­sion and earned a high school de­gree and a mid­wife’s cer­tifi­cate. Now, at 28, she di­rects a pri­vate hospi­tal pro­gramme in Kabul that pro­vides ma­ter­nal care to il­lit­er­ate vil­lagers.

In­side the neat, sparsely dec­o­rated home she shares with her hus­band and three-yearold daugh­ter, Si­tayesh, Matin de­scribes her sense of dread about the fu­ture.

“Only God knows what will hap­pen to women af­ter 2014,” she says in lightly ac­cented English as her daugh­ter plays on the floor, watched over by her par­ents.

The arc of Afghanistan’s re­cent his­tory can be traced through the three gen­er­a­tions of Matin’s fam­ily.

Her mother, Zahra Matin, 52, was en­gaged at nine and mar­ried at 13. She is il­lit­er­ate; she spent her life work­ing at home so that her chil­dren could at­tend school. Now, she dreams of her grand­daugh­ter at­tend­ing col­lege.

The older woman dreads the de­par­ture of for­eign troops and wor­ries that the Tal­iban – “They are crim­i­nals,” she says harshly – will quash her dreams, and the dreams of her daugh­ter.

But she also has faith that Afghanistan will con­tinue to al­low women to break free of the past. “For my­self,” she says, “I’m still hop­ing to take lit­er­acy classes and fi­nally be­come an ed­u­cated woman.”

Her daugh­ter sits on the floor and cra­dles young Si­tayesh. She plans to send the girl to school and ul­ti­mately to col­lege, but she fears she may have to go abroad to do so.

“Some people are say­ing the Tal­iban might come back, and we’d all have to flee to Pak­istan again,” she says, stroking the girl’s hair. “I don’t want that life for my daugh­ter.”

Re­ver­sal of gains

The gains Afghan women have made since 2001 are un­der threat. A re­cent United Na­tions re­port said a land­mark 2009 Afghan law on vi­o­lence against women has been ig­nored or poorly en­forced; a hu­man rights com­mis­sioner ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai wants to re­peal the law en­tirely. The re­port de­scribed “fears and anx­i­ety” among Afghan women about a swift re­ver­sal of gains af­ter 2014.

Heather Barr, a se­nior re­searcher in Afghanistan for Hu­man Rights Watch, warned in De­cem­ber: “Signs are every­where that a roll­back of women’s rights has be­gun.” The Afghanistan In­de­pen­dent Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion re­ported in Jan­uary that vi­o­lent crimes against women reached record lev­els last year, ris­ing 24% over 2012.

Afghanistan is still a deeply con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic coun­try where some vil­lage girls as young as nine or 10 are forced to marry older men, and some women’s groups es­ti­mate that at least half of all mar­riages vi­o­late the Afghan le­gal mar­riage age of 16. Some women and girls who flee ar­ranged mar­riages are hunted down by their fa­thers and broth­ers, beaten and some­times killed. The prac­tice of baad, or giv­ing away a young woman as pay­ment to set­tle debts or atone for fam­ily crimes, is il­le­gal but still preva­lent in ru­ral ar­eas.

Tra­di­tions still re­quire burqas in pub­lic for mil­lions of provin­cial women, but also in cities such as Kabul or Jalal­abad. It is not un­com­mon, even in Kabul, to see women packed into the backs of sta­tion wag­ons or the open trunk of a car.

There are undis­puted gains: Women now have the right to vote and some serve in par­lia­ment, the army and the na­tional po­lice force.

There are 150 fe­male judges. Yet the per­cent­age of women in the govern­ment work­force has ac­tu­ally de­creased by 4% since 2004.

Un­der the Tal­iban govern­ment, the only ed­u­ca­tion for girls was in clan­des­tine home schools.

To­day, three mil­lion girls at­tend school, but that’s still only 40% of all school-age girls. Be­cause of fam­ily or eco­nomic pres­sures forc­ing girls to work or marry, the dropout rate for girls re­mains much higher than for boys.

Tal­iban ex­trem­ists in re­mote districts still throw acid in the faces of school­girls, burn down girls’ schools and at­tack fe­male polio vac­ci­na­tion work­ers. In the last six months, four Afghan po­lice­women have been as­sas­si­nated. Prom­i­nent fe­male politi­cians are rou­tinely threat­ened or slain by in­sur­gents.

Last year, the act­ing head of women’s af­fairs in east­ern Afghanistan was killed by a bomb placed in her car. A few months later, her re­place­ment was shot to death on her way to work.

Step­ping up: Shukriya Matin (left), 28, was able to fin­ish school af­ter re­turn­ing to afghanistan, and now man­ages sev­eral ru­ral health clin­ics that pro­vide care for women and chil­dren. — Pho­tos MCT

Kahkashan Koofi (left) look­ing at pic­tures on the phone of her sis­ter Ora­nous as they take a taxi with their mother Shah­gol Shah to the mar­ket in down­town Kabul.

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