[News] After the Taliban, the women still suffer

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Mon Nov 8 11:37:45 EST 2004


AFTER THE TALIBAN, WOMEN STILL SUFFER
Kidnappings and wife beatings go on, three years after the liberation of
Afghans
from the Taliban regime
____________________________________________________________________

THE OBSERVER
International News
Sunday November 7, 2004
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,1345392,00.html
Declan Walsh in Kandahar

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.

'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.'

Copyright © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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