Hiding No More

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on March 15, 2005

(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – If there is any sign things are changing for Afghan women, women’s rights advocate Roshan Sirran need only look at the maid who cleans her Kabul office. She is illiterate, but comes in to work after listening to the radio wanting to discuss the day’s current events. That desire, Ms. Sirran says, is part of a larger movement of Afghan women to be “like women around the world.”

Ms. Sirran has watched the highs and lows in women’s freedoms in Afghanistan for decades. In 1980, she became deputy mayor of Kabul for eight years. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, she and millions of other women were forced to stay home and wear the head-to-toe covering, the burqa. Even when she was mayor, she said, she was still battling cultural mores limiting women.

Ms. Sirran is no longer in government but has been at the center of Afghanistan’s transformation to a multiparty democracy. She served as a representative on the loya jirga, Afghanistan’s traditional national assembly, from 2002 to 2003. Last October she was an observer during the country’s presidential elections. Now–with the final leg of the country’s transformation, parliamentary elections, scheduled for next month–the former mayor is on an urgent quest to help women enter politics as she once did. National law requires that women must hold 68 of 249 seats in the parliament. Ms. Sirran has a small window of time to find and train such women, and she knows she has little to work with.

Today Afghan women’s literacy is only 14 percent: 15 years ago, however, it was even lower. “The attitude has changed so much since then,” Ms. Sirran told WORLD. “Men in moderate families stay home and take care of their children while sending their women to literacy courses.”

Several mountainous obstacles remain, however, which is why Ms. Sirran and six other Afghan women visited the United States in March. Their delegation, sponsored by the poverty-fighting group ActionAid International, hit Washington to raise awareness of some of their biggest challenges. Increasing health care and education for women, particularly in insecure rural areas, is at the top of the list. So is changing mindsets that give little say to women in local affairs.

Creating security for women who want to participate, however, is a formidable challenge. In the rural areas, local armed leaders do not want “independent women” coming to power, fearing that they will not represent their interests. “It’s very difficult to say if they’re Taliban or not,” Ms. Sirran said. “There are also men who have suffered in the last 20 years, and they’re afraid women will challenge them.”

Many Afghan women are still trying to find their bearings after the U.S. war ousted the Taliban in 2001. Their lives have not always been marked by restrictions: In the 1960s then-King Zahir Shah introduced modernizing reforms that propelled women into professional and political roles. As in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution, women were relatively free, with some even sporting miniskirts in the street. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year and subsequent mujahedeen resistance led to a gradual erosion of such liberties. When the Taliban seized power in 1996, they introduced even more oppressive rules and punishments, plunging women’s prospects to their nadir.

Today some successes are sprouting: The country now has a minister for women’s affairs. More than one-third of the students attending school are girls, the highest proportion in Afghanistan’s history. And women already educated are returning to the workplace.

With the paltry literacy rate, one U.S. reconstruction focus is rejuvenating the education system. Women’s literacy programs are helping to train female teachers in Kabul and cultivate literacy in 200 rural villages. Nine public libraries in eight provinces have embarked on a literacy campaign. The United States has also enrolled 170,000 students–almost three-quarters of whom are girls–in accelerated learning courses throughout Afghanistan. Another initiative involved refurbishing and maintaining the National Women’s Dormitory, which will allow 1,100 mostly rural women to attend one of four higher-learning institutions in Kabul.

Improvements have come in health care as well, but the Afghan delegation that visited Washington said development has not been as swift in villages and outlying districts. Women frequently emphasize the need for rural clinics. Among the difficulties is finding qualified female doctors and nurses to treat women; many are not allowed to seek treatment from male doctors. And the need is biting: Afghanistan has the second-highest maternal mortality rate (women dying from childbirth or pregnancy-related illness) in the world.

The delegation also complained about women’s nonprofit groups receiving little U.S. funding. None of the groups they represented had received any, and they said of the 17 percent in aid homegrown Afghan groups had received, little more than 4 percent went to women’s organizations. Part of the problem is that local groups lack the resources to implement large programs or account for their work. With more help, however, women’s civil society groups are well-placed to make a cultural impact.

Even with turning back the Taliban clock, conditions remain painfully backward. Women in Kabul may move around relatively freely, but many in rural areas must still don a burqa or have family members accompany them outdoors. Domestic violence and forced marriages are rampant. “Women who are runaways are charged with kidnapping,” said Mary Akrami, who runs a Kabul shelter for women. “Nearly every woman in jail is there for this crime.”

Another horror is the widespread system of protecting family honor, which often results in women forced into marriages or exchanged after a loss. “If there’s a fight between two men and one dies, the victim’s family is entitled to retribution–usually a woman,” said Nelofar Qadiri, of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation in Afghanistan. One such recent case involved a 6-year-old girl given as compensation. “We cannot trace her,” she said.

The United States may measure progress in schools and clinics built, textbooks handed out and percentages of women voting, but Afghan women see changing long-standing cultural attitudes as even more important. “Afghanistan is a lot different from other countries,” said Ms. Akrami, one of the delegates visiting Washington. “On one side we had two wars. On the other side, traditionally, we have problems. It’s not easy to do things in two, three, or five years all over Afghanistan. It takes time, and [the world] should not forget Afghanistan again.”

One example is a women’s cooperative Ms. Akrami’s organization, the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, began in Parvan Province, north of Kabul. The cooperative provides local women with micro-credit to earn income for their families, through such ventures as keeping cows or carpet weaving. Persuading the local men to allow the project took more than a year. And when the cooperative’s center first opened, they wanted strict segregation, not allowing men to go inside. Now the men appreciate the work their women are doing, Ms. Akrami said, and about 80 women run the cooperative by themselves.

With all the problems, these are still hopeful days. Ms. Sirran remembers what life was like under the Taliban. She secretly conducted literacy courses for women in her home, scribbling with chalk on a wall so she could easily rub off writing if the Taliban turned up. Her students came to her house in threes and fours, at different times of the day, and brought sewing kits or knitting needles to make it look like they were honing their domestic skills.

During those years, on International Women’s Day in March, she and other women would huddle around a radio listening to their counterparts celebrating around the world. “We used to cry when we heard other women say, ‘We are with the women of Afghanistan,'” Ms. Sirran said. Afghan women have come far since then, but they have much farther go.

Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine.  Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.