AFGHANISTAN: Taliban Peace Deal Threat to Women's Future

Thursday, December 1, 2011
BBC News
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The Taliban came once for Fawzia Koofi, and she knows they could come again. This prominent member of parliament - and mother of two - survived a hail of bullets last year.

"It was the Taliban. They kept shooting at my car for half an hour," she said. "But luckily I survived that. For me the threats are more, because I don't like to keep silent".

Lately there was a new threat. Fawzia was warned that the much-feared insurgents of the Haqqani network planned to assassinate her.

"Our intelligence service wrote to me saying please strengthen your security measures and be careful. I don't know what that means," she said, with a laugh. "How can I be careful if they want to assassinate me?"

This articulate and tireless campaigner refuses to be intimidated. She shuttles from parliament to public meetings, under armed guard, championing reform and women's rights.

But over lemon tea, in her Kabul home, she spoke about her new fear - that Afghan women could soon be abandoned by the international community, which promised them so much 10 years ago.

"They seem to kind of turn their face to the women's issues, and say we just want to say goodbye and leave Afghanistan," she said, "and that could put us even more at risk because we have been outspoken about what we want.

"If they leave without giving us an assurance for our own security, the women's rights activists will be the first victims," Fawzia said.

Clock turned back

Another outspoken activist, Wazhma Frogh, of the Afghan Women's Network, already jokes with friends about the risk of being hanged if the Taliban return.

"There are times when we laugh among women's groups and say 'Okay, the first day you might be hanging around this square or you might be killed,'" she said. "We joke about it on a daily basis, because we are that scared".

That's a lot to be scared about, and a lot at stake.

In the decade since the Taliban government was ousted from power, there has been tangible progress for Afghan women and girls - though much less than many had hoped.

Women now account for almost 30% of Afghan MPs. Equal rights are enshrined in the constitution. The number of girls in school has climbed to 2.5 million.

But in some areas handed to Afghan control, the clock is already being turned back, according to Wazhma Frogh.

One women's organisation had to close training projects in five districts, she said, because communities were fearful, knowing that foreign troops would be pulling out.

Feisty and fearless as she is, Wazhma is haunted by flashbacks from Taliban times - from the era when women could be beaten because their feet were visible.

"The nightmare that I have is the memories of when I lived under the Taliban," she said. "That's what we went through and that's what might come back."

Storm cloud

In her textile factory on the edge of Kabul, Hassina Sher Jan shares those concerns. "I'm in counter-insurgency," said the stylish entrepreneur with a smile, gesturing to the rows of men and women sewing, cutting and pressing side by side.

Women make up half the workforce at the Boumi Design Company, producing cushions, curtains and tea cosies, and fashioning new future for themselves and their country.

Nadia sits in the back row, head bent over her sewing machine. Under the Taliban, she and her seven sisters had to stay at home, embroidering burqas.

Zarghona, who wears a patterned yellow headscarf and lipstick, said she was providing for her two younger brothers.

"I'm proud to work like a man to support my family," she said. "I was very sad in the Taliban times because I couldn't work outside."

But the possibility of reconciliation with insurgents hangs over this business, like a storm cloud. The Taliban would want to shape the future, as they did the past, Hassina warned.

"None of the Taliban have come forward to saw I am a moderate, and I believe differently," she said.

"Of course all the achievements that we have had so far are going to be lost. We have been fooling ourselves with thinking that there are moderate Taliban, and the situation will be different. They are not saying that. We are making that up," Hassina said.

Stoned for adultery
The death of a 25-year old woman called Siddqa is testament to that.

An amateur recording, which emerged in January, captured her last moments. She was slaughtered, without mercy, in a Taliban-controlled area of Northern Afghanistan.

The grainy footage shows her standing waist deep in a hole, shrouded in a blue burqa, as local men bayed for blood.

Siddqa had eloped, and been found guilty of adultery.

The Taliban stoned her - for two minutes - then shot her dead.
In areas under Taliban control women are still voiceless and defenceless, 10 years on.

Fawzia Koofi wants her daughters to grow up in a different Afghanistan. She has spent the past decade working for that.

After a long day of speeches, and political meetings, Fawzia sits at the dining room table, helping her eldest daughter prepare for a computer exam.

Sharhazad, 13, wants to be an aerospace engineer but she and her younger sister are afraid for themselves and their mother. They want a future outside their homeland.

"My daughters seem to be worrying more these days," said Fawzia. "They are asking me questions like 'why are we living in Afghanistan?'. It makes me feel sad. They would prefer to be poorer abroad, with safety and stability."