Women's precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls' schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home.
For women, instability, as much as the Taliban militants themselves, is the enemy. Women are casualties of the fighting, not only in the already conservative and embattled Pashtun south and east but also in districts in the north and centre of the country where other armed groups have sprung up.
As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.
“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women's Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan province.
Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women's freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women's rights in many places.
Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban's return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.
In Baghlan province, in northern Afghanistan, the situation for women has steadily worsened over the past year. Zarifi, the Women's Ministry representative, has endured assassination attempts and demonstrations against her work. Three months ago, a female member of the provincial council was paralyzed in an attack, and a woman was stabbed to death in the daytime in the middle of the provincial capital earlier in July.
By contrast, most of Kapisa province, which lies northeast of Kabul, is peaceful. There is a mediation program in the capital to help women and girls when they face domestic violence. In the predominantly ethnically Tajik north there are large, lively schools for girls, where families even allow those who are married to complete high school.
Women's advocates are concerned that they are increasingly being shut out of political decisions. At an international conference in Kabul on July 20, which was meant to showcase the country's plans for the future, President Hamid Karzai said nothing about how women's rights might be protected in negotiations.
“A red line”
Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also pledged that she will not desert Afghan women and that any deal with the Taliban that traded peace for women's rights was “a red line,” women remain wary.
“Right now it's a big challenge for women to go to school and work, but at least according to our Constitution and laws they have the right to do so,” said Nargis Nehan (31), an Afghan women's advocate.
“If the Taliban come back, by law women will be restricted and not allowed to leave their homes,” she said, adding, “Maybe not everywhere, but in those districts where they are in power.” — New York Times News Service