Widespread abuse, restrictions on freedom continue almost year after fall of Taliban

The San Francisco Chronicle
, OCTOBER 14, 2002
By: Anna Badkhen

DATELINE: Imam Sahib, Afghanistan

Some said Kurga was 25 when she died; others said she was 35. One neighbour said she died of a heart attack caused by a long-standing blood-pressure problem. Everyone else said that on a hot, starry night in late September, Kurga's husband killed her out of jealousy. But in the end, none of this mattered.

Kurga's death was inevitable -- just a matter of time -- reasoned Abdul Kayum, the police chief of Imam Sahib. The whole town knew that Kurga had an affair with a Taliban soldier last year. And while Abdul Kayum conceded that it was wrong of Kurga's husband of 15 years to take justice into his own hands, the man would not be punished. Under Shariah, the strict Islamic code of law, there has to be four male witnesses to prove the husband's guilt in court, Abdul Kayum explained. There were no witnesses to Kurga's killing. And besides, if her husband hadn't killed her, the state might have: under Shariah law, adultery is a crime punishable by stoning.

Kurga's death and the police chief's indifference to it are emblematic of the largely dashed hopes the overthrow of the extremist Taliban regime had raised for women in this war-ravaged country. Repression, not freedom, is still their reality.


Of course, there have been changes since a new government took over last December. Schools for girls have reopened, re-education classes for adult women have sprung up, many women have returned to work, and some have been seen in public without the burqa -- the traditional cloak that covers a woman from head to toe.

But most women remain pale-blue silhouettes locked away in the dusty, mud-brick compounds of their husbands and fathers, housewives who live in fear under strict rules in a country that still calls itself an Islamic state.

Outside the capital, Kabul, and large, once-cosmopolitan cities like Mazar-e-Sharif, parents continue to sell their daughters to future husbands, women are not allowed to run shops, and when they go to a restaurant, they must eat separately from men. Even in Kabul, where women travel by car more than by donkey, they are more likely to squat in the trunk than to sit comfortably inside the car like men.

Widespread women’s rights violations are partly to blame for high maternal mortality rates in Afghan women, according to a study appearing in the September 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Physicians for Human Rights interviewed 4,886 women from the northwestern Afghan province of Herat. They estimated that 593 out of 100,000 Herati women die during pregnancy or childbirth. Countrywide, Afghan maternal mortality rates are the second highest in the world (Sierra Leone is highest) with 1,700 deaths out of 100,000 Afghan pregnancies compared to 12 out of 100,000 in the US.

Study Author Dr. Lynn Amowitz explained that trained professionals and medical facilities and supplies are scarce, plus many roads are inaccessible in the war-ravaged nation. In Herat, 35 physicians serve a population of 793,214. No hospitals exist in 20 of Afghanistan’s 31 provinces. Amowitz also cited the lack of women’s rights in hindering women’s access to medical care and family planning. In some cases, husbands force their wives to deliver in their own homes, because the culture considers treatment by strangers in public places “shameful.” “What appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province also speaks to the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights in Afghanistan,” Amowitz said in a statement.

In addition, the study also noted that 80 percent of the women interviewed considered sex with their husbands obligatory. Nearly half said that a husband had the right to physically abuse his wife for disobedience

Feminist Daily News Wire
September 12, 2002

"This is the life we are used to," said Nargiz, 30, an Imam Sahib native who has been living in the town of Dasht-e-Qaleh, in northern Takhar province, since 1999.


Nargiz came to Dasht-e-Qaleh after her husband, Mahbuhbullah, bought her from her parents for $12,000. Here, the former urban schoolteacher has learned not to work, to share a house with Mahbuhbullah's other wife, Najiba, to shun male strangers, and to hide her beautiful face under a burqa whenever she leaves her husband's compound.

In some ways, Nargiz had more spirit when war was raging. First interviewed by The Chronicle a year ago, when the Taliban were under U.S. attack, she related how she would often argue with her husband, and sometimes contemplated creeping into the quarters of his other wife in the middle of the night and slashing her throat.

Now, in the new, liberated Afghanistan, Nargiz speaks more timidly. "Life is good," she says, looking shyly at the carpet on the floor. "I am used to my burqa now."

For others, the burqa is worn out of fear. Human Rights Watch reported recently that the Taliban's Police for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice continues to patrol some remote districts of southern Afghanistan, beating and threatening women who show their faces in public.


In many cases, the new government is no better. Soldiers loyal to the powerful northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum are alleged to have repeatedly raped women and girls in northern Afghanistan.

"Afghan women . . . have been compelled to restrict their participation in public life to avoid being targets of violence by armed factions and by those seeking to enforce repressive Taliban-era edicts," Human Rights Watch wrote in its recent report. "Afghan women, especially outside Kabul, continue to face serious threats to their physical safety."

Afghanistan's nascent, underpaid police force has few means to protect women from violence in the streets or at home. Abdul Kayum, for example, commands a police force of 123 men and one car in a city of 400,000 people. The day Kurga died, Abdul Kayum dispatched his only car and four of his police officers to fetch Nasri, a doctor, to perform an autopsy on the woman's body -- largely a formality because, in the absence of male witnesses, an autopsy is not considered evidence in Shariah court, he noted.

Even if Abdul Kayum had more police officers under his command, it is unclear whether Kurga would have been better off.

"That woman committed a crime," Abdul Kayum said. "Her death was her punishment."

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