Television broadcasts of Afghan parliamentary sessions routinely show male and female members sitting side by side, and even show women rising to debate with their male colleagues. To the Afghan public — and to Afghan women in particular — such scenes are surreal.
In the real world, proximity between men and women is generally forbidden, and a woman who has the temerity to argue with a male, especially in public, could be putting herself in harm's way.
This disconnect captures the schizophrenic state in which Afghan women find themselves. The new constitution mandates that women, who make up 50 percent of the population, hold 27 percent of the parliamentary seats (68 out of 249 members) — a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. But in almost every other respect, the promise of a bright future for women in the “new” Afghanistan has faded.
In the “old” Afghanistan ruled by the repressive Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, girls were barred from going to school, and women were forced to cover their bodies and faces in public. Even when they were encased in the famous, blue, face-hiding burqas, however, women could not leave their homes — to work or even to shop for food — unless accompanied by a male relative. Those who violated these or other rigid rules of behavior were subject to public punishment — and even execution. Thousands of women widowed by Afghanistan's decades of war — or who had no other male relative to accompany them — became prisoners in their own homes with no way of supporting their families — vividly portrayed in the critically acclaimed 2003 movie “Osama.”
While the Taliban is no longer in charge and burqas are optional today, new laws passed to protect women are not being enforced. With the Taliban resurgent in some areas, Afghan women still live in fear. The burqa has returned to the streets, even in Kabul, and the continued savagery of a deep-rooted male-dominated culture coupled with disastrous economic conditions have combined to stifle hope and break the spirit.
Small wonder that 65 percent of Kabul's 50,000 widows, each responsible for an average of six dependents and left with no means of support, have told pollsters that they feel suicide is their only way out, reflecting their sense of helplessness even in today's society. And it's not just the widows.
Despite new laws banning forced or child marriages or the exchange of girls to settle a debt or tribal score, up to 80 percent of Afghan women face forced marriages, and 57 percent of girls are married before the legal age of 16, according to the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). “Men in my country think that women are not . . . completely human,” Afghan women's rights advocate Homa Sultani recently told CNN. Some who see no escape from chronic abuse commit suicide by setting themselves on fire: 106 cases of self-immolation by women were reported in 2006, according to UNIFEM.
“Young girls are killing themselves from frustration and because they feel there is no way out for them,” Medica Mondiale spokeswoman Ancil Adrian-Paul told the BBC. Why do they choose self-immolation? Kerosene and matches are easy to come by.
Small wonder, too, that the life expectancy of Afghan women is around 44 — some 20 years less than in Europe. Afghanistan ranks second worldwide in deaths at childbirth, according to Hangama Anwari, commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who called the human rights situation of Afghan women “disastrous.”
The face-hiding burqa is now optional in Afghanistan, but with the Taliban resurgent in some areas, many Afghan women, fearing violence, have donned them again. (AFP/Getty Images/Shah Marai)
Speaking at a conference in Rome on Afghan womens' rights in the post-Taliban era, she said, “Women do not have a place in the justice system and they are not guaranteed de facto equality of rights. The laws of divorce and the family need to be reviewed. Discrimination and abuse form part of a firmly rooted mentality, and rates of domestic violence and suicide are still high.”
President Karzai recently rebutted criticism of the lack of progress on women's rights by observing that women participate in government. But he has only one female cabinet minister, and she is responsible for women's affairs. Karzai also pointed out that 35 percent of Afghanistan's 6 million schoolchildren are girls — a major improvement from the days of the Taliban.
But scholastic attendance has been dropping because the Taliban has been burning schools — 198 in 2006 — and murdering teachers, especially women who teach girls. As of December, Taliban insurgents reportedly had killed at least 20 educators for teaching girls — dragging one male teacher from his school and beheading him. 9 According to a July 2006 Human Rights Watch report, most of the destroyed schools are in the southern provinces, where the Taliban has been most active.
Karzai — who has told Western reporters that it will take a long time for attitudes about women to change in Afghanistan — shrugs off the burnings. “Schools get burned, but not every day,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2006.
Last September the country was shocked when Taliban gunmen assassinated Safia Ama Jan, the local women's affairs director in the southern city of Kandahar and a well known, longtime champion of women's education. She was killed in broad daylight as she left for work.
So as they wait for long-held misogynist attitudes to change, many Afghan women are choosing to don the shapeless head-to-toe burqa again — just to be on the safe side in a land of hidden dangers.