After the Taliban, Women Still Suffer

After the Taliban, women still suffer

Kidnappings and wife beatings go on, three years after the liberation of Afghans from the Taliban regime

Declan Walsh in KandaharSunday November 7, 2004The Observer

Eyes darting back and forth, crouching against a wall, Anar Gul has the distressed look of a chained animal. That’s because, until recently, she lived like one. Pulling back her burqa, the nervous mother told how she had been tortured for 20 days by her opium-addicted former husband in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Humiliated by their recent divorce, he lured Anar to their one-room house, bound her in rusty chains and flung her into a dark alcove. For almost three weeks she cowered in the gloom, unable to move, eating scraps from a dog bowl and enduring relentless beatings. Her former husband used the flat of a large knife, an electric cable, or his bare hands. ‘Like this,’ said Anar, gripping her ears and violently banging her head against the wall, ‘until I was unconscious.’ Her saviour arrived in a blue whirl. Alerted by neighbours, Kandahar’s chief policewoman, Malalai Kakar, burst into the high-walled compound carrying a pistol and a truncheon beneath her burqa, and found a weeping Anar half-driven to madness. She dispensed instant justice. ‘I beat the husband,’ Kakar said, ‘first in the house, then in the police station: punch, kick, slap, I was so angry. If I’d used my stick, he would have died.’ Much has changed for many Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban regime three years ago. In theory they now have the same rights as men to work and go to school. Last month’s election was vaunted as a leap forward. Women accounted for 40 per cent of voters and the first ballot was cast by a 19-year-old woman. Advertiser links New Cars – Get Low Dealer Price Quotes Rated Forbes “Best of Web” for online car buying. Get free,… The New Car Buying Guide Your free source for in-depth car reviews, price… AutoCheck – Car Buying History of trouble? Odometer fraud? Major accidents? Get the… ‘Freedom is powerful,’ boasted President George Bush afterwards. ‘Think about a society in which young girls couldn’t go to school and their mothers were whipped in the public square.’ Yet in the Pashtun tribal belt of the arch-conservative south, the reality is very different. There are few signs of the changes that have swept through the capital Kabul and other northern cities. Here, girls still don’t go to school, and their mothers are still being whipped. The United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, says 80 per cent of girls aged between seven and 12 in Kandahar province do not attend school, compared with 45 per cent of boys. The comparable figures in Kabul are 33 per cent and 14 per cent. Teachers in the province’s handful of girls’ schools say they regularly receive death threats. The election was no feminist glory either. While half the women in the north voted, only 20 per cent did so in Kandahar. In neighbouring Uruzgan province their turnout was just 2 per cent. ‘It’s not like the Taliban put a cage around women and took it with them when they left,’ said Rangina Hamidi, 27, an Afghan American who returned to run an aid project for women. ‘A lot of women led the same life before the Taliban, after them and they still do today.’ Those in rural areas are invisible, hidden inside high-walled compounds. Hamidi visited one household where six women – spanning three generations – had not stepped outside their front door for the three years. ‘The understanding is that you walk in the door on your wedding day and leave in a coffin,’ she said. These traditions remain unchallenged because of the perilous security situation. Skirmishes between Taliban and US-led forces continue in the desert and mountain ranges near Kandahar. Foreigners have fled, taking with them any modernising influences. ‘Even to talk about women’s rights can be very dangerous,’ said Nisha Varia, of Human Rights Watch. ‘The conditions are too difficult for most women, and consequences can be violent.’ The worst cases of domestic violence reach the desk of Kakar, 35, who leads investigations related to women because Afghan culture forbids one man from approaching another’s wife. On her desk lie a pile of Polaroid photographs of women who have been bludgeoned, raped or shot. ‘We don’t hear about most of them,’ she said. ‘People don’t talk about it. Sometimes I feel there are no human rights in Afghanistan.’ The police catch only a small number of the perpetrators. Even then hopes of justice are low. Those linked to warlords enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution, and anyone who is sent to prison can easily buy their freedom from corrupt jailers. ‘If you get sentenced to eight years, you can be out after eight months,’ said fellow officer Mohammed Dost. He believes that a quarter of Afghan men beat their wives. ‘Illiterate men do not know the value of a female, and if a man does not know the value of something he mistreats it.’ The policewoman, who has six children, personifies the contradictions and halting progress of Kandahari women. The Taliban forced her into exile. Then during the recent elections she guarded the city stadium where the zealots stoned and flogged ‘immoral’ women. She travels the area with her younger brother, a fellow officer, to ‘protect her honour’. Clad in her burqa she beats women accused of illicit sexual encounters. ‘That is our culture,’ she said. There is hope, however. Ten women study alongside 600 men at Kandahar University, a former male bastion. Zora Koshan, 20, a returned refugee from Pakistan, is one. Koshan, who spurns the burqa, said: ‘Many women are under the control of their husbands. They need their permission to do anything. We want an education, to be able to work and bring money to our families.’ Other women have been emboldened by circumstance. Widow Bibi Gul, 60, gathered her two daughters in a quiet room to tell their story. After her husband died, said Gul, she refused to surrender the deeds to their house, so her two youngest sons drove her into the desert and threatened to kill her. ‘They pulled me out of the car and beat me,’ she said. ‘They said they would throw me into a well.’ Gul’s daughter Aailia, 37, a nurse, showed a large bald patch on her head which she said had been made when the brothers attacked her. Aailia’s sister Anar, who suffered at the hands of her opium addict former husband spoke last, telling how she left him because he took a second wife. His torture left her partially blind, she said. Now the three women live together. Talking to a male Western reporter could provoke even more abuse, but they no longer care. Her mother nodded towards three blue burqas piled on her bed and said: ‘I want to pour oil on top and set them on fire. I hate them.’

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