Stalled progress for Afghan women's rights

Kabul, Afghanistan — Kabul, Afghanistan -- Each morning, the policewoman puts on her uniform, goes to her precinct office, sits behind a bare desk. And waits.

She is one of several officers appointed to make it easier for women to report domestic violence. Her job ought to be one of the busiest in the district. Instead, Pushtoon, who goes by one name, has one of the loneliest.


"Last week we had one woman. Before that there had not been anyone for several weeks," she said, twisting hands left scarred by her attempt at suicide years ago in a Taliban jail. "Women are afraid to come, but we are not allowed to go to them.

"The police chiefs will not let us. They say it is unsafe for women officers," she said.


Five years after the end of the Taliban era, there are new opportunities for women in Afghanistan, and notable efforts are under way to make their daily lives better, especially in Kabul, the capital. Improving the status of women has been a core goal of U.S. policy here, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a congressional hearing in 2005 that enshrining women's equality in the Afghan Constitution was an important advance for the region.

But conversations with dozens of women suggest that each step forward has been a struggle. Afghan society remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women gaining independence and authority. The Taliban's resurgence has reversed incremental gains, particularly in the south. If the Taliban incursions spread, more women are likely to lose ground.

Families in the south that recently began allowing their daughters to go to school and wives to enroll in vocational programs have pulled them out because of Taliban attacks.

Women's future depends much on security. As much as security deteriorates, women's situation deteriorates," said Masuda Jalal, former acting minister of women's affairs. "At the first sign of insecurity, the head of the family protects his women and children, and the first measure they take is to keep them inside the house."

Women who have gained ground haven't talked of the constitutional principles of equality. Instead, they focus on the respect accorded women by the Quran.

Their goal, often unstated, is to persuade fathers and brothers, husbands and sons that when a woman is empowered, the males benefit as well. They hope their daughters will at least have more choices than they had.

Women are learning to drive, some at their husbands' urging so they can help with family errands. Women have become a regular presence on television talk shows.

According to Farsona Simimi, a popular television talk show host, "There is a quiet revolution here." But, she added, "I do not know whether it will succeed."


Three times in the past century, the status of women has improved, only to suffer reversals.

The first time was in the 1920s, when ruler Amanullah Khan abolished the requirement that women be completely covered in public and encouraged his wife to wear a hat without a veil. He was ousted by the mullahs.

The lot of women improved again in the 1960s, when four women were elected to parliament. In the 1970s, political turmoil stymied women's progress. But in the next decade, ruling Communists prohibited women from wearing burkas and appointed many to government posts. More than 50 were given judgeships.

When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned all education for females, even small girls. They removed women from almost all jobs outside the home and required them to cover their faces in public by wearing a burka. Women were whipped in public for the smallest infraction.

Rahala Salim was one of the women who became a judge under the Communists, and she recalls watching in horror as the Taliban dismantled every vestige of protection for women.

"As a judge, when I saw women coming to me crying because they had been abused, I felt responsible, I felt I had to defend their rights," said Salim, who was removed from her post by the Taliban. Under their rule, she said, "if a man was accused of rape, it was the woman who was arrested and blamed."


Salim knew from her legal studies that Sharia, or Islamic law, offered women some legal protection. Early Islam glorifies several women, including Muhammad's daughter Fatima, who is portrayed as an independent leader of her people.

During the Taliban era, Salim began to teach the Quran. Once a week, 70 women would gather for classes.

After the Taliban fled, Salim ran for parliament. When she was elected, she asked them whether she could address families in the mosque. Her appeal opened the door for women to enter there. In her district, women never had; they prayed at home.

Then, with the mullahs' assent, she asked the families to send their daughters to school.

Pushtoon, the policewoman, never thought of herself as a crusader.

Her mother died when she was an infant. Brought up by her father in Logar province, south of Kabul, she gained a rudimentary knowledge of reading.


At 13, she was married to a man many years her senior. At 15, she bore the first of her six children. The family moved to Pakistan, where her husband, who was often unemployed, took up with a younger woman.

Pushtoon returned to Logar to claim a piece of land her father had left her when he died. She wanted to sell it to help support her family.

But the Taliban arrested her, saying she must have killed her husband since he wasn't with her. The Taliban accused her of murder and took her to the women's prison in Kabul.

After six months in prison, she shut herself in a tiny, squalid latrine, lit a match and held it to her clothing. "I burned myself to die there," she said.

But she didn't die. And a few days later the Taliban released her. She still has scars. And she has a cause.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.