Source: Amanda Hodge | The Australian
Traditionally this is a time for families, but eight young adults take the opportunity to slip discreetly through the gate of a nondescript middle-class compound.
They leave their shoes at the door of the house that serves as an office for Afghanistan's nascent Young Women for Change organisation and take their place around an oblong dining table donated by international well-wishers.
The six women and two men are part of a growing network of young Afghans frustrated by the glacial pace of reform in their country and committed to building a more modern, liberal Afghanistan out of the social wreckage of 30-odd years of war.
Sitting in on their regular Friday meeting offers a tantalising glimpse into what could be; young women and men talking freely, sharing ideas over a flask of green tea. Incredibly, as each rises to leave they bid goodbye with collegiate hugs - a casual display of affection that, even in relatively tolerant Kabul, could bring dire consequences.
The group, which is building a reputation through gutsy rallies and campaigns against violence and street harassment, has recently opened a women's internet cafe with money raised mostly online. They named it after Sahar Gul, a 14-year-old Afghan girl whose abuse at the hands of her husband and his family made international headlines. She was shackled in the basement of her in-laws' home for months while her tormenters tried to force her into prostitution with a devil's toolkit: branding iron, metal rods, pliers, fists, teeth, lit cigarettes. In a perverse way, Sahar Gul's story illustrates how things are improving for Afghan women. Someone called the police, police acted on the complaint, and some of the perpetrators - if not her husband - have been jailed. The story sparked anger in Afghanistan, where the awful details of female abuse, very often at the hands of their own families, rarely come to light.
There is still a long way to go: more than half of Afghan girls lack access to education, and women, especially outside Kabul, still face harassment and horrifying levels of domestic violence. But no one can deny conditions have improved markedly since the late 2001 fall of the Taliban regime: a quarter of all parliamentary seats are now mandated for women and there are women in business, government and aid organisations. More than 2.7 million girls now go to school and female literacy is improving; life expectancy has risen - some figures suggest from 44 to 62 years. Some 85 per cent of Afghans are said to have access to basic health care. This month, Afghanistan even sends its first ever woman boxer, 19-year-old Sadaf Rahimi, to the London Olympics.
In Kabul, it is as common to see women in jeans, heels and headscarves as it is to see the ubiquitous blue burka that became the symbol of Taliban oppression. Talk to young, educated Kabulis and most speak of the Taliban era as though it happened in another lifetime, far removed from their increasingly modern lives. This new generation of Afghan urbanites - though vastly outnumbered by provincial, conservative Afghanistan - expects certain rights and freedoms and are pushing boldly for more.
At the Young Women for Change meeting, however, it is not a young woman but a shaggy-haired hipster named Zafar Salehi who is chairing proceedings. The commerce student is a self-described male feminist in a country where the very word is widely considered un-Islamic. He is one of 12 "male advocates" who have joined YWC since two young Afghan women, studying in the US and alarmed by signs of a growing conservative front at home, formed the Kabul-based group during their 2011 summer break.
Zafar, who is engaged to a Pakistan-based professional soccer player, admits working for women's rights as an Afghan male has its problems. "I get a lot of criticism. In a male-dominated society where women are not allowed to defend their rights, why would a man want to stand up for them?" he says. "I have classmates who make fun of me. I can understand that because I know their mindset and this is what we have to change. Men don't want this change because they're the rulers. People say that by doing this I am working against Islam but Islam clearly says men and women are equal."
Young Women for Change's first activity in July last year was a rare march against harassment of women in Afghanistan - a scourge that affects women in burkas just as much as it does those who embrace emerging street fashions. They have run an anti-harassment poster campaign, awareness sessions in schools, food and clothes drops for internal refugees, and more activities are planned. It's enormously inspiring and the activists - students, professionals, new parents, even a member of the national women's cycling squad - brim with youthful optimism.
Yet Afghan women at all levels of society fear their hard-earned gains are slipping from their grasp and that Western nations, having helped lift millions of women out of the poverty and isolation to which they were condemned under the Taliban, are once again preparing to abandon them. Coalition forces - the majority from the US, with smaller contributions from countries such as Australia - are focused on the logistical challenge of withdrawing 130,000 troops from a war for which their electorates have no appetite. The political rhetoric has long shifted from the export of democratic ideals to a utilitarian focus on a negotiated peace that achieves a narrower goal; not the elimination of terrorism but its containment within the region.
Inside Afghanistan the wind is behind conservative forces who once again occupy key positions in the presidential palace, cabinet, parliament, the judiciary, and the High Peace Council. While Western leaders quote upbeat statistics, the situation for women - in health, employment and justice - remains tenuous.
FOR all the aid money that has poured into the country in the past decade it is still a perilous burden to be born female in Afghanistan. It is a lesson Sahar Gul has learnt well. When we meet at a Kabul women's shelter where she now lives, Sahar pulls back a loose head scarf to reveal ears cauliflowered, like a boxer's, from months of beatings. With barely a hint of coyness she tugs her sequinned black tunic up to her neck. Her pre-pubescent body is a dark patchwork of old burns, bites and other wounds, where pliers were used to rend chunks of flesh from her torso. Sahar Gul's is the face all Western nations pulling out of Afghanistan might take a good look at and ask: can we live with this?
Her plastic bangles click together as she inspects her colour-stained fingernails; they have finally grown back after being pulled out one by one by her mother-in-law. The bite marks came courtesy of her husband's father. His depraved, late-night forays to the freezing basement where she was shackled for five months ended only with her dramatic police rescue in late December. Like a typical teenage girl, it is her hair that seems to cause most anguish. It is coarse, sparse and growing back haphazardly after being pulled out in clumps by her husband's mother.
The 14-year-old, whose widowed mother remarried and left her in the neglectful custody of an uncle and then a stepbrother, was sold in 2010 for $5000 to an already married man three times her age in the northeast province of Baghlan. Almost 11 years after the fall of the Taliban, bride-selling in Afghanistan remains common and most daughters are married off well before they turn 16 - notwithstanding a law that prohibits it. Many of them end up trapped in similar scenarios, or worse.
The details of this girl's ordeal have circled the globe since the BBC obtained wrenching footage of Sahar - bruised, broken and semi-conscious - being wheeled into hospital. In the video, her face is filthy and swollen, both legs are bandaged and she struggles to hold up her head as she obediently answers the curt questions of a woman off-screen. "My father-in-law beat me, my husband, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law and, yes, my mother-in-law," she says in faltering Dari. "How did they beat you?" the woman asks. "With pliers," she replies.
More than six months on, Sahar is safe and recovering well from her injuries. Daily physiotherapy is restoring mobility to a young body and Sahar wants to go to school - she was pulled out in fourth grade - and hopes eventually to attend university and become a doctor, or the "head of an office". But, more than anything, she wants to undo her forced union and never to be married again. "I am afraid of getting in the same situation," she says through a translator. "I want to be well, I want to go to school but I'm also afraid that maybe my mother-in-law or father-in-law will take me back." They paid good money for her so under Afghan custom, if not law, she belongs to them.
Women for Afghan Women, the organisation that runs shelters across Afghanistan and has assumed responsibility for Sahar's care and future education, says it will not let that happen. Sahar reserves a singular hatred for her husband, who has so far evaded capture even as a court in May sentenced his father, mother and sister each to 10 years' jail. "My husband has escaped but I want him to be in jail," she says. "I want my husband to be killed and I want him to suffer in the same way I did."
A CANDY pink headscarf loosely draped in the "Benazir style" is all that is visible of Fawzia Koofias she directs a pageant of largesse from the centre of a tightening circle of labourers. The 36-year-old Afghan MP exudes political cool, even as bodyguards struggle to maintain order amid the distribution of 20kg bags of flour and winter jackets. Koofiis thinking ahead. While the next elections are at least two years away, the widowed mother of two daughters knows she needs a mile-long head start to have the remotest shot at her extraordinary - some say preposterous - goal: to be the next president of Afghanistan.
As names are called, men push forward to shoulder with bent backs the heavy bags that will lend a rare buffer from hunger. At the back of the crowd, 50-year-old Fatima says she will vote for Koofiat the next election "because women are kinder". "Women have to be courageous and defend our rights," says Fatima. "I voted twice for Karzai but he didn't help us; he didn't construct roads, he didn't build toilets, clinics or schools."
Koofihas battled long odds since the day she was born, the 19th of 23 children to a man with seven wives and one daughter too many. Her first hours were spent wailing on the baking ground outside the house where she was left to die by an exhausted sixth wife. The newborn's screams eventually reignited her mother's protective instinct and she retrieved her sunburnt baby and vowed to give her the opportunities that she, an illiterate woman, never had. That story has been much told since it appeared in the first chapter of Koofi's memoirs, The Favoured Daughter. The book - a combined biography, political manifesto and life letter to her then 11- and 12-year-old daughters - was launched in London in February to a flurry of publicity. "I never thought it would become so high-profile," says Koofi. "But it helps me a lot and I hope also financially, because money is something I lack for my campaign."
Her campaign plan is to highlight the needs of women and children and the failures of the Karzai government, which she once supported but says is now stacked with conservatives who would sell women down the river in the interests of peace with the Taliban. "The best way to defeat the Taliban is to provide strong, transparent government, rule of law and social services. But this government is weak and corrupt and imposes more restrictions on women," says Koofi. "If Pakistan - a country which has produced so much extremism - can have a female prime minister [Benazir Bhutto], then why not Afghanistan? I want to show the people of Afghanistan that this is something we can think of."
Koofihas the Western press on side with her story of triumph over adversity. She was the first female in her family to go to school; among the first Afghan women elected to a post-Taliban parliament; the first female deputy speaker. But with opportunity has come tremendous cost. Her politician father and one brother were murdered by the Mujaheddin. Koofi's husband was jailed by the Taliban and eventually died of the tuberculosis he contracted there. Koofi herself has survived two assassination attempts - most recently in 2010, when she was ambushed by Taliban gunmen while travelling with her daughters.
Though Koofi commands some high-powered support - and the guaranteed votes of 6000 cousins - her determination to contest the next election has displeased many and the death threats come daily. Men are not her only detractors. Some women, too, accuse her of pursuing personal ambitions at the expense of national unity, and say peace with the Taliban can never be delivered under a female president. Even her eldest daughter, Shaharzad, opposes her mother's presidential bid for fear her ambition is putting the family in greater danger. Still others raise last year's arrest of a brother on drug-trafficking charges - and rumours that sacks of opium were once found on a helicopter in which Koofi travelled - as evidence of corruption.
Afghanistan's nascent women's movement is a house divided on Koofi's presidential bid. Those who support it fear an uncertain, unsafe future ahead for Afghan women unless she can pull off the near-impossible.
Young Herati MP Nahid Farid suspects the women's parliamentary quota is just a means for President Karzai to maintain the chimera that he is a pro-women leader. She says there is no guarantee the next president will feel compelled to show a progressive face to the world. "If we want to bring any change to Afghanistan we need to start working with the institutions, not just show that we have 69 women in parliament," the 28-year-old says. "If we have freedom of speech at the moment it is related to the presence of the international community. If we have women's rights it's because the international community is here. If we have an active NGO sector it's because the international community pays their salaries. If we have a national army it's related to the international presence. If tomorrow the international community leaves, this will all break."
Unlike many in the YWC, whose families fled the Taliban and so have no experience of that time, Farid still rages over the "lost years" of fear and boredom under a regime that reduced women and girls to the status of cattle. "The Taliban imprisoned 50 per cent of this country for years," she says angrily. "How can we forgive them after six years of suffering, never leaving the house, given no respect, not allowed to study? We need to start a huge campaign to change the minds of families so they understand that women are also entitled to human rights. There are so many Afghan women that are active and want their rights but unfortunately sometimes the international community are happy with a kind of show. We have the most modern constitution in the region but no one implements it."
SIMA Samar is a veteran warrior of the battle for women's rights in Afghanistan. The chairwoman of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission ran underground girls' schools during the Taliban era, set up the country's first Women's Affairs Ministry after the Taliban's fall and continues to push for progress against a conservative backlash. She is an optimist in the sense that she doesn't believe the Taliban can return to power because "people have experienced their rule and will not believe their lies".
For all the corruption and injustice in Afghanistan still, the anarchic conditions that laid the foundations for the rise of the Taliban no longer exist. There is now governance, a diverse media and a population that has tasted freedom and will not easily surrender it. But she believes some gains have been overstated. "I have to say I believe the majority of women in this country are still not able to exercise their basic human rights, including access to health care and control of their reproductive systems," she says. "As a woman in this country, I think the progress made is not satisfactory at all."
There are few more painful examples of the disconnect between the Afghan government's claim to a reform agenda and the reality for Afghan women than the Elimination of Violence Against Women bill. The law, enacted by presidential decree to great fanfare in 2009, for the first time set penalties for domestic violence and rape, forced or under-aged marriage and forced prostitution. But there is little enforcement and the police, judiciary and large sections of society continue to blame and punish the victims. A Human Rights Watch report on so-called moral crimes this year found many women and girls languishing in Afghan jails had been imprisoned for running away from home (a crime that doesn't exist on the statutes) or zina, sexual intercourse outside marriage. Many jailed for zina were rape victims.
Shortly after the report's March release, The Weekend Australian Magazine visited Kabul's juvenile detention centre for girls, a spartan facility abutting the women's jail. Inside, a grey warren of corridors ends at a surprisingly bright classroom, cheered by pine benches, a half-finished carpet on a loom and a whiteboard bearing evidence of a morning English lesson. Half a dozen girls follow us in, among them a 17-year-old with a five-month-old son who says she was sentenced to 18 months' jail for demanding a divorce. Another says she was jailed for going to the zoo with a boyfriend, a third for running away from a forced marriage.
Of all the tales, Rowena's is most heart-wrenching. The 13-year-old was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by two men, then imprisoned by a judge for refusing to marry one of her assailants. "Those people who did this to me have not spent a night in jail. I don't know what crime I've committed and I don't know how long I will be in here because the first court gave me one year and the second court gave me 18 months," she says. "My father says it is because he doesn't have a big salary. I want to go back to school. I don't want to get married."
On International Women's Day this year, Karzai issued a blanket pardon for women who "ran away from their parents' house in order to marry their ideal person". That clemency did not extend to Rowena. The president was once hailed for his patronage of the EVAW bill and other progressive laws. But his commitment to improving women's lives has waned considerably as the focus of his government and his Western allies has shifted to securing peace with the Taliban.
In the same year he passed EVAW into law, Karzai supported the notorious Shiite Personal Status bill, requiring Shia women to seek permission to leave the house and granting husbands the right to withhold food should they refuse sex. In March this year he stunned Afghan women's groups by endorsing a religious decree by the Ulema Council forbidding women to work, study at university or travel with men who are not close male relatives. The Council, which many see as the scholarly arm of the Taliban, also ruled violence against women was acceptable in some circumstances. The statement, which sparked outrage among women's groups, came three weeks after the Ministry of Culture and Information demanded all women television anchors wear headscarves and less make-up. More than the Ulema decree itself, it was Karzai's support for it that heightened anxieties about women's fate in the post-2014 landscape.
Fawzia Koofi says the whole episode proved "the government does not prioritise women's issues anymore and, worse than that, they use it politically". Equally worrying, she adds, was the distinct lack of outrage from Western allies, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being the notable exception. Activists say few Western leaders, aside from Clinton, still talk convincingly of improving the lives of Afghan women, whose suffering under the medievalism of the Taliban was a key selling point in the decision to invade.
Western allies beating their retreat from Afghanistan, including Australia, reject that criticism and point to strategic partnership agreements that formalise their continued support. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has linked millions of dollars in new government development aid for Afghanistan to support from the country's leadership for human rights, including assurances on women's equality and education for girls.
US ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker told this magazine that the coalition had "made a commitment to equal rights and opportunities for Afghan women. As an American I would find it absolutely unconscionable for us to say, 'OK, you're on your own', having worked so hard to get [women] into positions where they can make a difference. The challenges are immense and they're not all from the Taliban. But you go to the American University or Kabul University; the women students there are not going to be put back in a burka." The key is to "get to the stage where the changes are irreversible". Even Crocker admits that will take years beyond 2014.
But he's right in one sense. Many Afghans will not return meekly to the oppression of the past, even though they know the odds are stacked against them. They have little faith the West will stick by them, or that their government won't barter their rights for peace. Koofi also knows the days of ducking for cover behind a foreign champion are over. As she says: "If we wait for the day when there's no opposition to women's rights, I don't think that day will come."