On trouvera ci-dessous une revue de presse sur la situation des femmes, aujourd’hui en Afghanistan. D’abord, un article, du jour, dans le New York Times (en anglais), qui rapporte dans le détail un fait divers quasiment banal : deux sœurs qui se suicident. On comprend que c’est moins banal qu’il n’y parait quand on sait que ce drame de la vie familiale s’est produit à Mazar-i-Sharif, une ville plutôt « libérale » dans le sombre paysage afghan. Et le détail est d’autant plus signifiant que l’hôpital de la ville déclare enregistrer trois ou quatre cas de suicide par jour, alors qu’il n’en comptait qu’un ou deux par mois il y a dix ans…
Ces dernières années, on avait enregistré une précédente vague de suicides féminins, par auto-immolation, qui avait pris la forme d’une véritable épidémie, surtout dans la région d’Hérat, où la férule d’Ismaïl Khan faisait subir aux femmes un exact équivalent de l’ordre Taliban. Qu’un phénomène comparable se produise aujourd’hui au contraire dans la partie la plus « éclairée » du pays, semble un indicateur d’un niveau de désespoir aigu.
Mais la situation nouvelle est en même temps contrastée, puisqu’on peut célébrer cette semaine un festival du film féminin, à Hérat justement, et en réaction à l’état calamiteux des droits des femmes dans cette région. De même, le mois dernier, pouvait se tenir un défilé de mode à Kaboul.
Chacun de ces actes sont de véritables actes de résistance, et pour se faire une assez bonne idée de l’état d’esprit qui peut régner chez les femmes afghanes en lutte aujourd’hui, on trouvera pour conclure un long et excellent article tiré de The Nation, simple récit de voyage d’une féministe américaine rendant compte en détail des réflexions en cours chez ses camarades afghanes.
En tout état de cause, apparait une première critique, manifeste, de l’intervention internationale, ce que les afghans appellent « the great mistake » – la grande erreur, qu’auront commise les américains en installant au pouvoir dès le départ un régime dont les bases politiques et philosophiques sont très semblables à celles des Taliban.
Les militantes féministes afghanes reprochent aussi aux occidentaux de n’avoir rien fait pour installer des institutions dans divers domaines comme la santé, l’éducation ou la justice, qui auraient assuré de plus sensibles évolutions de la réalité concrète des droits des femmes.
Au bout de plus de dix ans d’intervention fort coûteuse, on peut dire en effet que le gâchis est total. Il faudrait d’urgence installer dans ce pays en ruines une industrie pharmaceutique produisant de la morphine pour les hôpitaux qui en manquent cruellement sur les trois-quarts de la planète, ainsi que l’ICOS le suggère depuis des années. Une telle industrie écoulerait l’abondant pavot que produisent les paysans afghans, les libérant de la tutelle des trafiquants.
Cette solution ferait certainement de la peine aux amis des services pakistanais et à leurs correspondants des services occidentaux – surtout français et américains –, bien sûr... Mais elle aurait l’avantage d’assainir ces États aussi. En Afghanistan, les retombées seraient incalculables. D’abord, en dotant le pays d’une industrie légale avec des débouchés assurés. Ensuite en mettant un terme à la gangstérisation du pays et à la corruption intégrale de son État. Enfin et surtout, en coupant le nerf de la guerre des Taliban.
Au passage, l’assèchement du marché noir afghan provoquerait certainement une baisse du marché mondial de l’héroïne. Et voilà qui ne serait pas non plus un mince avantage à l’heure où la surproduction organisée par les Taliban a suscité une baisse spectaculaire des prix de cette substance qui, du coup, frappe la jeunesse d’une nouvelle épidémie d’héroïnomanie, dans bon nombre de régions du globe.
Au lieu de faire cette chose relativement simple et vertueuse en tous points, les occidentaux se félicitent de partir en laissant formellement au pouvoir les Taliban qu’ils ont tant prétendu combattre. La diplomatie française est particulièrement fière d’avoir réussi cet été cette réintégration de ceux qui prônent non seulement l’application la plus monstrueuse de la Sharia – en vertu d’interprétations particulièrement fantaisistes qui proposent pire qu’une caricature de la loi islamique –, mais un véritable sexocide, tel qu’il avait lieu en Afghanistan avant leur renversement par les troupes massoudistes en 2001.
Dans ce sinistre paysage, on perçoit néanmoins comment de Tunisie en Iran, et d’Egypte en Afghanistan, l’islamisme est déjà sur la pente descendante de sa courbe, destiné à finir, comme d’autres ismes qui l’ont précédé, dans les poubelles de l’histoire.
C’est pour conclure sur cette note optimiste que nous avons ajouté en fin de cette revue de presse, une photo des troupes turques qui sont intervenues avec l’Otan au « royaume de l’insolence » – or, ces soldats turcs sont des femmes, qu’on voit assister à une conférence sur la question des femmes en Afghanistan… Comme quoi tout peut arriver – et une aura ainsi même vu des militaires acceptables. D’Istanbul à Kaboul, pourra-t-on dire que la boucle est bouclée, et qu’il ne reste plus qu’à tourner la page de ce tiers de siècle que nous aurons traversé hantés par la tentation obscurantiste ?
2 Afghan Sisters, Swept Up in a Suicide Wave
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — On the surface, the Gul sisters seemed to have it all : they were young, beautiful, educated and well off, testing the bounds of conservative Afghan traditions with fitted jeans, makeup and cellphones.
But Nabila Gul, 17, a bright and spunky high school student, pushed it too far. She fell in love.
Her older sister, Fareba, 25, alarmed at the potential shame and consequences of Nabila’s pursuit of a young man outside of family channels, tried to intervene. Their argument that November day ended in grief : side-by-side coffins, both girls dead within hours of each other after consuming rat poison stolen from their father’s grain closet.
Interviews with family members and government and hospital officials here reveal a tragedy of miscalculation : Under pressure from her older sister to halt communication with the boy, Nabila tried to eat just enough poison to scare her family but not kill herself. But she misjudged. Overwhelmed by guilt and grief, Fareba followed by taking her own life on the doorstep of the city’s most holy shrine.
The sisters’ deaths shattered their family and have struck a chilling chord for the residents of Mazar-i-Sharif, a city increasingly marked by the despair of its young women. For many, the deaths have come to symbolize a larger crisis : an intensifying wave of suicide attempts.
Although the government says it does not collect data on these cases, the city’s main hospital says it has been overwhelmed, with three or four such patients coming in every day, up from about one or two a month a decade ago.
The number of attempts has grown with such speed that the head of investigations for the police, Col. Salahudin Sultan, says he can no longer follow up on them.
“We don’t have the time or resources to investigate these,” he explained. “We would hardly get anything else done.”
As for the questions of why, and why here, there seem to be as many theories as there are cases. Most explanations focus on Mazar’s status in Afghanistan as an affluent cross-cultural hub, relatively more liberal and exposed to European influences. While Afghan girls here regularly are exposed to the social norms of the West through television serials and the Web, the fact is that they live in Afghanistan’s conservative and male-dominated society. The clash is cruel, and can be heartbreaking.
“Most of the girls don’t die, but they all take poison or at least threaten to kill themselves,” said Dr. Khowaja Noor Mohammad, the head of internal medicine at Mazar-i-Sharif Regional Hospital. “This is their cry for help.”
The doctor who tried to save the Gul sisters, Dr. Khaled, produced a patient ledger for the past two months. As he pored through the list, he uttered the names of several young women who had attempted suicide : Fatima, Mariam, Zulfiya, Zar Gul, Basbibi.
“There are probably 200 cases in here of attempted suicide,” said Dr. Khaled, who goes by a single name, waving the ledger in the air. “In the last 12 hours, we had three.”
Perhaps no case is more emblematic, or more discussed, than the deaths of the Gul sisters.
The two came from an educated, progressive family. Mohammed Gul, their father, is a prosecutor. Nabila was on the cusp of graduating from high school, and planned to attend college in the city. Fareba was already attending college and hoped to follow her father’s footsteps into the legal profession. The young women were determinedly modern, and would not have seemed out of place in many Western cities.
Nabila was impetuous, with a quick temper and a strong sense of self. She often challenged what Fareba told her, rejecting the deference held for elders in Afghan society. Fareba, a softhearted woman who often wept after small arguments, confided to a close friend that she felt Nabila did not respect her.
Their last fight, the morning of Nov. 26, involved a boy Nabila said she was in love with. Fareba thought the relationship was inappropriate, and urged her sister against it. Nabila refused, and the two began shouting.
Their mother heard the fight, and ran in to break it up, slapping Nabila twice across her face for talking back to her older sister, according to people close to the family.
An hour later, Nabila’s mother discovered her on the floor of her room, white foam dripping from the corners of her mouth.
At the hospital, doctors tried desperately to cleanse the rat poison from her system as family members surrounded the bed, begging Nabila to recover.
The mother shot an angry glance at Fareba and said : “If Nabila dies, it will be your fault,” according to a doctor in the room at the time.
Mohammed Gul sat quietly, holding his daughter’s hand. She went in and out of consciousness. She said that she had not meant to take so much poison, and that she regretted it now.
At 2:30 p.m., Nabila died. On the way home from the hospital, her father suffered a heart attack, and was admitted as a patient.
At the house, people began to gather. The Guls’ eldest son, Abdul Wahid, played host to the mourners who crowded into the pale green parlor of the house. But he was worried about Fareba, the sister he was closest to. She was not answering calls or texts.
At 4 p.m., his phone rang. It was Fareba. Her voice hoarse and slow, she said she was at the Hazrat Ali shrine, a stunning mosque of cerulean tile in a sea of white marble. Stuck at the house with the visitors, Abdul Wahid asked his uncle, Malim Faiz Mohammad, to get her.
When he arrived at the mosque, Mr. Mohammad spotted a crowd near the entrance to the shrine. He found his niece lying on the cold marble in the center of the crowd. Strands of foam leaked from a corner of her mouth.
He rushed her to the hospital. Doctors put Fareba in a room down the hall from her father, who was still recovering. Neither knew the other was there.
No one else knew of Fareba’s whereabouts, either. With the family preoccupied preparing Nabila’s body for burial, the uncle said, he decided then to keep the matter to himself, not wanting to upend an already fragile household.
The doctors worked on Fareba for more than an hour. Her uncle stood by silently as they performed the same procedure that had failed to revive her sister hours earlier. At 5:30 in the evening, the doctors pronounced Fareba dead.
“Dying this way just doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Mohammad said in an interview. “I wish they would have died in an accident.”
He took Fareba’s body back to the house, but hid it in a separate room off the side of the compound where no one would see it. He still could not bring himself to tell them the bad news.
The truth came out the next day.
Early the next morning, Mohammed Gul woke in the hospital. He sat for a while in the sun-washed room, gathering his belongings, still unable to grasp Nabila’s death. He needed to talk to Fareba about what had happened, he thought.
Back home, he was escorted to the courtyard, where coffins sat side by side.
“Why are there two coffins ?” he asked his brother. “Who is in the second one ?”
The sisters are buried together in a nondescript graveyard a few miles from the family home, their graves marked with two wooden poles and a mound of stones. A band of Tajik children roams the cemetery, turning the muddy slopes into a playground.
Mohammed Gul rarely eats, and suffers continued bouts of sickness. His wife, devastated, rarely leaves their cold, concrete house. Reminders of the loss spring from everyday rituals like sitting down at the kitchen table, with two chairs now empty.
The parents seek comfort in small ways. At night, Mr. Gul and his wife sleep in the girls’ room, he on Fareba’s bed, his wife on Nabila’s. They have given away the sisters’ belongings, as is customary, except for a pair of dresses. On bad days, the parents clutch the clothing to their faces.
Afghanistan : un festival de cinéma consacré aux femmes
Les Afghanes sont à l’honneur. Jeudi, s’est ouvert à Hérat (ouest du pays) la première édition du Festival international de cinéma consacré aux femmes. A l’initiative de cet événement : la Fondation Armanshahr, la Roya Film House et une quarantaine d’associations. Le choix du lieu n’est pas anodin, puisque « Hérat a récemment été le théâtre de graves violations contre les femmes ». « Y organiser [ce] festival de cinéma est un message porteur d’espoirs forts », a affirmé Guissou Jahangiri, directrice exécutive de la Fondation Armanshahr, à la FIDH (Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme).
Promotion de la paix et de la tolérance
Iran, Inde, Bangladesh, Canada, Chine … Près de trente longs-métrages de vingt nationalités différentes seront présentés jusqu’à samedi. Il y aura, de plus, « des débats sur les femmes afghanes, leurs défis et leurs problèmes au sein de la société et en dehors de celle-ci », a déclaré Roya Sadat, directrice du festival, selon Libération. L’objectif sous-jacent est de montrer que les femmes de ce pays « ne sont pas seulement des victimes, mais aussi des actrices qui contribuent à la promotion de la paix et de la tolérance en Afghanistan », souligne Souhayr Belhassen, présidente de la FIDH. Une manière de promouvoir à la fois l’égalité et la place des Afghanes dans le septième art.
L’Afghanistan organise son premier festival du film de la femme
7 mars 2013
Le premier festival international du film de la femme, une nouveauté pour l’Afghanistan, s’est ouvert jeudi à Herat, la principale ville de l’ouest du pays, à la veille de la journée mondiale de la femme. Trente films venant de vingt pays, dont l’Afghanistan, l’Iran, l’Inde, le Canada, la Corée du Sud, la Chine ou encore le Bangladesh, seront présentés à cette manifestation, qui se terminera samedi.
« Il y a des débats sur les femmes afghanes, leurs défis et leurs problème au sein de la société et en dehors de celle-ci. Ce festival doit aider à ce qu’elles se rencontrent en Afghanistan et ailleurs », explique Roya Sadat, la directrice de l’événement.
Aqeela Rezayee, actrice et réalisatrice, a dit espérer que le festival « aiderait les femmes afghanes à prendre conscience de leurs droits » et qu’il « aurait un impact positif sur elles », « comme sur ceux qui commettent des violences à leur encontre ». « Pour de nombreux Afghans, le fait que des femmes jouent dans des films est inacceptable. Le fait qu’elles aient des rôles à l’écran devrait faire évoluer positivement l’image de la femme », a-t-elle raconté.
Sediq Barmak, le réalisateur d’Osama, qui avait remporté le golden globe du meilleur film étranger en 2004, a de son côté qualifié la manifestation « d’opportunité pour rétablir la connexion » entre le peuple afghan et ses films, minée par la disparition des salles de cinéma. « Avoir un tel festival encouragera et motivera les réalisateurs afghans. Cela permettra de faire connaître les valeurs de nos films et notre travail partout dans le monde », a-t-il poursuivi.
L’Afghanistan, où plusieurs dizaines de films ont été produits dans les années 60, 70 et 80, a vu son industrie cinématographique anéantie la décennie suivante par la guerre civile et les talibans, qui, durant leur passage au pouvoir de 1996 à la fin 2001, avaient interdit télévision et films, en invoquant des raisons religieuses.
KABOUL – De jeunes afghanes ont défilé sur une passerelle improvisée dans un restaurant de Kaboul, vendredi, dans le cadre d’un rare défilé de mode en Afghanistan auquel assistaient des hommes et des femmes.
Le défilé avait été organisé par une organisation afghane qui vise à renforcer les capacités des femmes et à leur donner du pouvoir dans une société profondément conservatrice.
« La situation est de plus en plus difficile de jour en jour, mais nous ne devons pas nous décourager. Nous sommes ici pour avancer et aller de l’avant, et je pense que si les femmes se lèvent et s’imposent dans ce domaine, elles feront un bon travail », a déclaré Shahar Banoo Zeerak, la designer dont les créations étaient présentées lors du défilé.
L’idée de femmes qui défilent devant un public mixte reste taboue en Afghanistan, plus d’une décennie après le renversement du régime oppressif des talibans. Encore aujourd’hui, de nombreuses femmes n’osent pas sortir dans la rue sans porter une burqa, qui les recouvre de la tête aux pieds. Les violences contre les femmes sont toujours répandues, et certaines se sont immolées par le feu pour échapper à la violence conjugale.
Le défilé de mode de vendredi a été organisé par Young Women for Change, une organisation afghane indépendante et sans but lucratif qui vise à améliorer les conditions de vie des femmes.
La plupart des 10 mannequins étaient de jeunes femmes afghanes qui s’impliquent bénévolement dans l’organisation. Trois jeunes hommes ont aussi défilé sur la passerelle. Les mannequins ont présenté 33 créations comprenant des robes colorées à manches courtes, des jeans, des tuniques et des tenues plus traditionnelles.
L’une des mannequins, Farkhonda Taheri, âgée de 17 ans, n’avait jamais vu un défilé de mode auparavant. Elle a déclaré que son père et sa famille l’appuyaient dans sa décision de participer au défilé, mais que sa grand-mère s’y était opposée.
« Le plus grand défi pour nous, c’est qu’on ne peut pas faire ce genre de chose en Afghanistan parce que les gens n’aiment pas ça », a-t-elle expliqué après le défilé. « J’étais excitée parce que j’avais l’impression que j’allais apporter un changement. »
Elle a estimé qu’il était important que les jeunes Afghans prennent des risques pour faire avancer leur pays.
« Qui nous apportera la paix ? Nous-mêmes, les Afghans. La nouvelle génération. »
This article appeared in the March 25, 2013 edition of The Nation.
This is a personal story, and it’s hard to tell because nobody knows how it will end. I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, where I volunteered with two small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by Afghan women : widows, university students, teachers. I’ve gone back to Afghanistan to work with those women almost every year—except for part of 2010 and 2011, when I embedded with the US military instead, to learn more about its “mission” in the country. The military was so out of touch with the actual Afghanistan that I may as well have been on the moon.
I went back to Kabul again in January, eleven years after first meeting my Afghan colleagues, and more than a year since I had last seen them. I thought I would find them changed, and I did—but not as I had imagined. I was worried about their future. They’re worried too, but they’re also stronger and more determined than ever.
On my first morning back at the office, I walk into a staff meeting on “contingency planning.” Just ahead looms 2014, when the next presidential election will be held (in April), as well as the departure of most American and foreign troops by year’s end. My colleagues tell me about the results of a local poll. Of the Kabulis asked how “things” will be after 2014, 25 percent say “better,” 25 percent say “the same” and 45 percent say “worse.” (Anticipating hard times, 36,000 Afghans left the country in 2011, while an estimated 50,000 followed in 2012, most of them entering neighboring countries illegally by dangerous routes.) In addition, everyone says the government to come will be “even more conservative” than the ultraconservative government of President Hamid Karzai now in place. Although Karzai, like his “angry brothers” of the Taliban, is a Pashtun who keeps his wife at home, he has managed, with his colorful multiethnic costume and fluent English, to appear far more liberal than he is to the West. The next government, Afghans think, will drop the disguise and jettison women’s rights just as the US State Department did in 2011 (when, as an anonymous official said, it dumped those “pet rocks” from its policy rucksack).
We sit together, talking, in the long shadow cast by these dire predictions. In the last few years, as President Obama looked for a way to end the war, some American-led women’s organizations in Afghanistan turned hawkish. They argued that American forces are needed to protect Afghan women and the gains they’ve made during the last decade. I was on the other side of that argument, convinced by work in multiple conflict zones that war is not good for women. There was no evidence that the everyday problems of women in Afghanistan—poverty, religious tyranny, child marriage, sexual assault, enslavement, domestic abuse, confinement, death by childbirth—could be solved by armies. But there was no evidence either that these political, social and economic problems—involving questions of power, equality and human rights—could or would be fairly addressed by a government of men who thought much like their Taliban brothers. The much-publicized “gains” of women here owe more to the work of NGOs than to the Afghan government, while Karzai himself had done little to advance, and much to impede, women’s progress.
With 2014 on the horizon, I wanted to learn from my colleagues—these smart, trustworthy old friends—what they believe they have gained in the last decade, and what they now stand to lose—or keep.
* * *
I find my questions already under discussion in this meeting on contingency planning. The heater isn’t working—electricity is still intermittent at best—but we huddle around the table in our coats and shawls, wrapping our hands around cups of hot green tea. My friends are talking about the foundation of their work to end violence against women. Highly trained (and funded) over the years by their European parent organization, this Afghan NGO—which I agreed not to identify because of safety concerns—specializes in psychosocial counseling and legal representation for female survivors of violence, plus public advocacy for women’s rights. From a staff of two in Kabul, when I joined in 2002, the organization has grown to employ about ninety people and to provide services in three major cities. A few years ago, it became an independent national NGO, run entirely by Afghan women. The women seated around the table easily made that transition, but now, as the ground shifts beneath them, they’re looking for a place to stand.
“All these men !” one of the lawyers says. “They have all been put in charge of something. They have public offices, political parties, big money, private militias, secret alliances, bodyguards, passports, houses in Dubai, even their own TV channels. They control everything. And look at us ! We do so much work, but we’re not in charge of anything.”
Another asks, “Why didn’t America build some lasting structures for women into the government at the beginning ?” It’s a rhetorical question, but even so, it’s painful to be reminded of the monumental international blunder that Afghans call “The Great Mistake” : the Bush administration’s decision to replace the Taliban regime with a like-minded government of America’s old fundamentalist pals. Much of the essential work these women do might have been institutionalized from the start in the Ministry of Health or Education or Justice—but not in a government that has no place for women. Afghanistan’s newly “liberated” women were consigned to a separate Ministry for Women’s Affairs, the only ministry with merely advisory powers and, for many years, no telephone.
It’s not that there weren’t any women prepared to take on positions of responsibility. Women who remained in Kabul throughout the civil war and the Taliban regime knew very hard times ; but before that, under communist rule in the 1980s, Kabul had been an island of safety in the midst of the Soviet war. Women, wearing Western clothes, had studied and worked—they were the majority of doctors, teachers and civil servants—and sent their children to school, just as they had during the long reign of the late king. Being “liberated women” was not a foreign concept to them. Nor was it foreign to men in their moderate and progressive families. For much of the past century, Afghan kings and presidents have denounced burqas and extremists alike, only to have this long, slow modernization reversed by Washington functionaries ignorant of history.
President Karzai has managed to maintain a near-perfect, decade-long record of excluding women from government. He holds the extraordinary undemocratic power to appoint all provincial and district governors and mayors in the country ; since 2001, he has named one female governor, one female mayor and, just last month, for the very first time, a woman to head one of Afghanistan’s 398 districts. His cabinet usually includes a token woman (the minister for women’s affairs) ; sometimes two or even, at the moment, three. The international community prescribed quotas that did put women in the Afghan Parliament, but in numbers too small – 27 percent of the lower house, 17 percent of the upper – to save them from intimidation or to override presidential decrees. Many are silenced by threats, and others vote as they are told by the warlords who sponsored their election, leaving a courageous group of activists to put their lives on the line by speaking up for women’s rights. Years ago parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai, the mother of three girls, famously responded to the death threats by saying, “I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing.”
It is possible that American policy-makers simply failed to notice the remarkable absence of women in the Afghan government, since cabinets and Congresses in Washington are also prefabricated collections of men in suits. But the unavoidable result of this disgraceful record is that, as the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan, it will also be leaving Afghan women on their own again, much as George W. Bush did after he “freed” them – with only a flimsy, and perilous, attachment to public life.
Kabulis say the United States will leave behind nothing durable for ordinary Afghans. They say the Russians, by contrast, at least left behind large modern housing projects, until recently rated the best in the city. Now, with the economy contracting as businessmen and government ministers take their investments elsewhere, more Kabulis are falling into poverty, which means that more women are falling (or being pushed) into prostitution. The coveted apartments that the Soviets left to the Afghans have degraded on America’s watch into brothels : my colleagues say there are now 123 of them in the Russian-built Macroyan apartments alone, with 5,000 women working as prostitutes across the city. Women in tattered burqas, trying not to fall that far, line the center of Kabul’s busy streets, begging motorists for help. All of this means more work ahead for my colleagues in this NGO, if only they can keep the organization going.
And now here we sit in a meeting to consider the “contingencies” they may face in the next two years. A European colleague has come from the parent organization to find out how it can help. We refill our teacups to keep our hands warm while we listen to a report from Salma, head of the public affairs team, whose job it is to keep abreast of political matters. She warns that the United States wants the Taliban to make a deal with the government. A power-sharing agreement could bring a kind of stability, she says, but it’s hard to predict because no one yet knows who “the government” will be (though Karzai, who is not eligible to run again, is rumored to have already struck a deal with his rivals). Worse, any such power-sharing arrangement is certain to involve more hard-core Taliban, which means women will be “at risk.” A second possibility, she adds calmly, is civil war, and in that case this organization will close. (In passing she remarks, “It would be wise to have a personal plan.”) A third possibility : the Taliban will again take over the government. “There is speculation,” she says, “that the Taliban would be more moderate because they would want the Americans to leave them alone. We can’t be sure, but possibly we could continue our work very quietly.”
A psychologist says, “Even if the Taliban don’t take over completely, the next Parliament could be full of them.” A lawyer laughs grimly and says, “They’ve been there all the time.” She reels off the names of the usual suspects, and other women add more. Then they fall quiet, as if to observe a moment of silence : part of the dreaded future is already in place. At last a lawyer says, “They’ll push us out of the criminal court. They won’t let us defend those ‘bad women’ anymore.”
Another lawyer says, “Maybe so, but we can still defend them now.” Many voices murmur support. All the departments have already drawn up strategic plans for 2013. The women are impatient to get on with the work.
The meeting breaks up, and they hurry to the cars that will carry them on their rounds. The psychologists head for hospitals and community centers to listen to ordinary women recount lives steeped in the problems of poverty : anxiety, abuse, depression, sorrow, violence. The senior psychotherapist goes to a women’s shelter to counsel women who have been brutally tortured and mutilated : one with a face dissolved by acid, another whose head had been split by an ax, yet others slashed with a knife and disfigured. Some lawyers go to the women’s prison to meet their clients and prepare their defense. The new and bigger prison holds ever more women charged with the same old “moral offenses” : running away from home, being raped or forced into prostitution (all charged as “adultery”). Other lawyers accompany social workers to the “Mediation Center,” an unheated shipping container on the grounds of the Welayat, the provincial administration, where women line up to talk to them about husbands who raped them, beat them, forced them into prostitution or threw them out of the house. There is no end to the problems of such ordinary women in Afghanistan, whose “gains” consist almost entirely of the help they get from NGOs like this one and the other organizations of civil society.
* * *
Hala is one of my oldest friends in the NGO. She joined it when I did, in 2002, upon returning with her parents and brothers from exile in Iran. She was a university student, hired as a translator ; now she works on the administrative staff. She tells me, “We didn’t know anything in the beginning – and conditions were so terrible, we were always busy with emergency humanitarian work. It took us some years to realize that giving ‘help’ is not enough. To really help women, you have to change their lives. We had to learn how to enter political discussion, how to maneuver to change laws, how to talk to these very conservative people. We kept learning, and we got smart.”
But then the mood turned against women. Many think it happened in 2005, with the murder in Kabul of Shaima Rezayee, a popular Tolo TV presenter. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported a series of assassinations of prominent women in Kandahar and other provinces, starting just about that time and continuing through 2009, when the report was published. No one was ever arrested or punished, so assassination became a convenient tool – the public face of the domestic violence so many women meet at home. The dead are policewomen, actresses, journalists, provincial councilwomen, advocates for women’s rights, schoolgirls, teachers and, in some cases, even the husbands who failed to keep their wives at home.
Then, in 2009, came the Taliban-like Shia Personal Status law, passed by Parliament and all but eliminating women’s autonomy. Protest in the international press brought about a recall of the so-called “Marital Rape Law,” whereupon President Karzai enacted it by decree. “We worked so hard against it,” Hala says. “It took away women’s freedom. Women’s rights were broken. Women were made second-class. It was so clear : we had no more illusions after that.”
Until then, women had thought they were still protected by Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution of 2004, which states that men and women have equal rights and duties before the law. But increasingly, lawyers in court cases encountered Article 3 of the Constitution, which enshrines Sharia, or Islamic law, as the ultimate arbiter. “This was something new to us,” Hala says. “We had to learn about Sharia and how to interpret it, and that knowledge made a big change in our attitude.” Seated behind her desk, she straightens her back and seems to grow taller. “Sharia does not require that women must stay at home,” she says. “My working is not against Islam. It is those extremists who are against Islam, with all their violence and their drugs.” She laughs at her own vehemence. “That’s something I’ve gained,” she says. “I learned that I have the right to talk. I talk all the time now, and I’m good at it, too.”
Just last year, however, she had been near death. Happily married, Hala had trouble with a pregnancy ; it kept her in bed for months and ended in a botched delivery. The baby was fine, but Hala recovered slowly and imperfectly and has been told she needs surgery. Some of my former colleagues have already died from Afghanistan’s abysmal healthcare, but pregnancy is a special peril, and this NGO office seems to be full of young women pallid from difficult pregnancies. (One asks another, “Do you have pain all the time ?”) Hillary Clinton boasted of a US Agency for International Development study showing such unbelievable improvements in women’s health – for example, life expectancy zooming from forty-two years (in 2004) to sixty-two (in 2012) – that even the experts hired to work on it didn’t buy the results. But while USAID spends money on hype, forty-eight Afghan women still die every day from “reproductive health complications.” In eleven years, the maternal death rate has “improved” from the worst in the world to one of the worst, while infant mortality remains at the bottom.
The members of President Karzai’s handpicked High Peace Council are also talking all the time now, mainly about disarmament and reconciliation with the hundreds of small militias around the country. Nine members of the seventy-person council are women, belatedly added at the insistence of the international community. This is as close as Afghanistan will come to honoring the series of UN Security Council resolutions, passed since 2000, that call for women in all conflict zones to be involved at decision-making levels in every phase of peacemaking and reconstruction – to ensure that the “peace” will be both just and sustainable, not merely another temporary absence of war. (Many Afghans believe real peace is not possible until all of the war criminals, including those now sitting in the government, are brought to justice.) But the High Peace Council, designed to make a deal with the Taliban, includes twelve members of the former Taliban regime, countless sympathizers, and not a single representative of the civil society through which most of women’s gains have been realized.
Even so, one of the councilors tells me that the presence of women is effective in these meetings with minor-league Taliban. “It lets extremists see for themselves that Afghanistan includes both women and men,” she says, “and we women have our moments.” At one meeting, the Talibs reportedly ranted about reinstating strict dress codes. They stopped only after a councilwoman advised them not to demean themselves by stooping to attend to immoral women. “Let them go to hell, where they belong,” she said. “You should concern yourselves with the more important purity of men.”
One day, I accompany the NGO’s lawyers and social workers to the Mediation Center and find the walled compound of the Welayat crowded with armed men. Inside the freezing shipping container, I talk with a woman in her 20s named Masuda. Happily, she tells me that the social worker “did a miracle” for her, then impulsively bends to kiss the woman’s sleeve. Masuda was desperate when she first came to the center : her husband, along with his mother and sister, beat her almost every day because she had not produced a baby. Then a lawyer explained to Masuda, and later to her husband, what their rights and responsibilities are under both Sharia and national law. Next, through fourteen meetings with Masuda and her husband, separately and together, the social worker brought about a family reconciliation based on a contract of good (Islamic) behavior. Now, Masuda is happy and says her husband even treats her kindly. (The contract provides that no family member will ever strike her again or make her wear a burqa.) There she sits, smiling, wrapped in a dark brown shawl, with a matching scarf over her head. And beside her sits her mother, a little slip of a woman with a burqa tucked back off her face. Masuda’s mother says, “This is all because the lawyer explained to us that a woman has human rights, even under Sharia – and a man who forgets that could go to jail.” She takes her daughter’s hand. “I was blind,” she says. “I told my daughter she had no choice but to accept her punishment. Nobody told me about rights before.” Masuda adds, “Now we tell everyone.”
Given enough time, I find myself thinking, this small NGO could change the whole country—one woman, one family, at a time. But when we leave the center and head back across the compound, my usually companionable colleagues hurry ahead of me on the icy walkway, as best they can in their high-heeled boots. A gunman on the roof casts a shadow on the wall beside me, and I remember that just weeks ago, on this very spot, a female Afghan police officer shot and killed an American contractor. I realize that the rising anti-Americanism has made me a liability to my friends : they don’t want another shooter catching them arm in arm with this foreign target.
Later, in the restaurant of my small Afghan-owned hotel, I see two young women smoking a hookah and texting at top speed. Both are wearing slim, fleecy sweaters and black spandex miniskirts over lacy black tights. They’re students at Kabul University, they tell me, organizing artists concerned about human rights. I have to ask, “Do men ever give you any trouble about the way you dress ?” They laugh as if I’d said something truly funny. Then one admits, “We couldn’t be ourselves everywhere at the university, but we are in the arts faculty.” They want to stage a big art exhibition, with music and dance, to cheer up the people of Kabul, who seem to them far too serious and depressed. Their pricey European clothes and English as polished as their nails mark them as expats, recently returned, and probably possessed of European passports. Girl Power has come to Kabul, in outfits not seen in these streets since the 1970s.
There’s no question things are changing, though like everything else in Afghanistan, the changes are complex and often contradictory. For example, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs received reports between May and October 2012 of 3,500 cases of “severe violence” against women (including seventy beheadings) ; but my colleagues take these figures to mean that the women who survived these assaults have found the courage to complain. The change that counts is in the women themselves. Anyone with a TV set can observe women parliamentarians not only sitting in close (at one time shocking) proximity to their male counterparts, but also rising to wave their arms and call out their objections. The NGO’s psychologists appear on talk shows to discuss trauma and answer the questions of an anxious nation. (“Why is my son so aggressive ?” “Why can I never be sure that I locked my door ?”) Their legal experts are welcomed in girls’ schools and even mosques (normally for men only) to provide information about laws regarding marriage and women’s rights. People are hungry for the knowledge such women possess.
At the same time, other Afghans for whom knowledge is blasphemy continue to commit political murders and assassinations. In July 2012, Taliban members in a village in Parwan province put on trial a 22-year-old woman, Najiba, charged with committing adultery with a Taliban commander. Within an hour they executed her, shooting her in the back, while the villagers cried out, “God is great !” That same July, Hanifa Safi, the head of women’s affairs in Laghman Province, was killed along with her husband by a bomb placed under their car. And in December, Safi’s successor, Najia Sediqi, was shot and killed on her way to work. Also in December, Anisa, a tenth-grade student and volunteer in the polio eradication program in Kapisa, was fatally shot in the head as she walked home from school. In early January 2013, Taliban in Wardak province claimed credit for abducting, torturing, shooting and then hanging a woman who worked with an NGO that distributes sewing and carpet-making materials to women so they can work at home, an arrangement once acceptable under the Taliban government. (The overkill involved in this execution speaks for itself.)
* * *
I think of one of our counselors – someone who, working with the survivors of rape, beatings, torture and attempted murder, didn’t burn out. Instead, she says, the refusal of these women to give up on life “empowered” her ; she too learned to speak out and even ran for public office. She gave good speeches that made her husband proud, and she almost won. Then her husband started receiving letters from his ancestral village in another province, warning him to keep her at home. These were followed by threatening calls to her mobile phone. She changed the phone, the family moved across the city, and even at risk of losing his land, her husband decided not to visit the village anymore. This is a fearless woman who worked as a psychologist in a government hospital straight through the Taliban regime. (She says, “Taliban have so many psychological problems, they make lots of work for us.”) She still appears on radio and TV, a warm and comforting counselor, but she tells me, “I feel at risk now.” Like many others, she worries that her husband might eventually insist she stay at home – not because he is conservative, but because he is afraid.
I think of another colleague, who now heads what I still call “our” NGO and believes that international donors will continue to support Afghanistan’s civil society and speak up for women. “They know that change doesn’t come from this government – it comes from us,” she says. “And I have this inner feeling of ‘Go for it.’ We may lose part of our freedom ; we may have to put on conservative clothes. But whatever happens, everything will not be lost.”
I think of Dustana, who started as a translator in 2002 and now manages logistics. She told me, “These years have made me a women’s activist, and I’ve brought my husband around too. This is now my personal vision, my own mission. Even if they lock me up at home, I will find a way to work. I will be part of this movement forever. Our minds are made up.”
I meet a European friend for dinner, a woman who was a colleague in this NGO and now directs a European NGO that works on education. She shows me a photo of her new grandchild, and I think, “We are growing old in Afghanistan.” We talk of the many things Afghan women could have done by now if the United States had chosen to back moderates and progressives instead of the fundamentalists who confound it both as allies and as enemies. My friend tells me that the Afghan women leaders in her NGO have already applied for asylum in Europe. They know they’ll be on a hit list.
I say, “I have two conflicting narratives in my head. One is about these powerful, determined Afghan women who will mop the floor with the Taliban and go on working to restore the rights of women in their country. The other is about the same powerful, determined women who, whether the Taliban come to power or not, may be shut down or sent home or shot.”