Bare faced resistance
Natasha Walter reports from Kabul on what the future holds for the women of Afghanistan

The Guardian, July 20, 2002

The students are crammed on to the benches in the cavernous lecture hall of Kabul University's science faculty. Four hundred eager faces stare down at us, and 150 of them are female. A few rows from the front sits a young woman wearing a white lace scarf tucked tightly around her rosy face. Her name is Zohal Faiz Mohammed. She shakes her head, smiling, when I ask how she feels to be back at university after five years' absence. "I can't say my feelings - you can see. For the first time we can experience the university, this atmosphere. We can all study, boys and girls together."

That evening, Zohal invites us to have supper with her and her parents. They live in what is, by Kabul's standards, a comfortable neighbourhood, but that still means a chaotic stretch of apartment blocks with blown-out windows and walls riddled with bullet holes. While Zohal prepares the meal, we sit on cushions on the floor of the pink sitting room, talking to her parents. Suddenly Zohal rushes in, worried that we are bored, and shows off one of her most precious possessions, a video of songs from Indian films. "My father and I love these," she says eagerly.

She watches the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai dancing in a Technicolor field of dreams. "Isn't she beautiful?" As she watches the video, Zohal, in jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, her thick black hair in a ponytail, looks younger than her 22 years.

She is determined to be young, determined to be happy, determined not to talk about politics - instead, we talk about her errant fiance and her plans for the future. After dinner, she, her mother and her cousin squabble over the arrangements for the photographs. "Don't fight!" Zohal says. "All right, do fight." "I'll be Rabbani and you can be Hekmatyar," says the photographer. Peals of laughter ring out. Those are the names of the men whose armies laid Kabul waste in the 1990s. "All you can do sometimes is laugh," says her mother, wiping her eyes with a corner of her scarf.

As we talk over dinner, I can't help thinking that Zohal's happiness feels like the uncomplicated optimism of any young woman at the start of her life. But Afghan women are not like other women, and when they sound optimistic, this is an act of determined bravery. On another day, when Zohal and I meet for tea, she talks about the past. Her face changes, loses its pink glow, and she fumbles with her fingers.

Her comfortable childhood came under siege in 1992, after the Soviet-backed regime fell and mujaheddin armies - armed by the west - battled for control of Kabul, street by street. "I remember every night, sitting in the corner of the room, listening to the rockets and the bombs," says Zohal in a dull tone very different from her earlier quick chatter. "And every morning we would go out and help to collect the dead bodies. There was nothing to think about. We were just waiting for our death. We had no hope for the future, not even for our lives."

Zohal's family were forced out of their home more than once when the fighting concentrated around their area. They became refugees again when they fled from the extreme oppression of the Taliban, and spent two years in Pakistan, but the destitution that faced so many Afghans there forced them back to Kabul last year. They went on the move again to the Pakistani border during the US bombing last winter. Refugees three times - from the mujaheddin, the Taliban and the Americans - Zohal's family are now starting over, trying to put their lives back together out of the fragments they have left.

But Zohal's face is set towards the future. She wants to be an engineer, studies at the university in the morning, and takes English and computing classes in the afternoon. Since today is a holiday, we visit one of Kabul's newly opened beauty salons. Marya salon sits next to a restaurant where lamb kebabs are seared over open barbecues, and beside a music stall that is stacked with colourful Indian and Iranian cassettes. But even here, in this reawakened part of Kabul, if you stop on the street for a moment, the beggars, women and children, tug at your arms and hands.

Inside the salon, the air is thick with hairspray and scent, and Fazila, the owner, a stout woman in a black dress with neatly styled auburn hair, is getting through one client after another with astonishing speed. She and her two young daughters work like an assembly line. Curlers are whipped out and in, tweezers tug at eyebrows, kohl is rubbed on to eyelids. Shaima and Suheila, two sisters, both doctors, are waiting on Fazila's couches. Both have their hair pinned up under hairnets. Tomorrow is Shaima's wedding day and they are determined to do it in high Afghan style, all glittery dresses and curled hair and hennaed hands.

"When she had her engagement ceremony," Suheila explains, "we couldn't take photographs - though we did, secretly. We couldn't even have musicians." What would the Taliban have done if you had invited musicians? Suheila draws a finger across her throat. "But I played a cassette, quietly, and I danced - I was determined to dance." She is about to tell me more when a little boy runs in. The girls at home need more curlers. Suheila springs to her feet and picks up her burka. "Don't you want to know why I still wear this?" she asks. She stands silhouetted in the bright doorway, holding the swathe of blue nylon above her face.

The western press has made so much of the idea that, as the Taliban left Kabul, the liberated women threw off their blue shrouds. But in Kabul, almost all the young women are still wearing the burka. This is not through force of tradition. There was a custom of wearing the burka among some ethnic groups in Afghanistan, but not among educated women in the cities. I asked 20 or 30 women why they were still wearing it, and all gave the same answer. Fear.

"We aren't safe yet," says Suheila succinctly. This sense of insecurity is understandable. The mujaheddin and the Taliban weren't just a few maniacs who have now disappeared, but hundreds and thousands of "willing executioners" - men who gang-raped women as part of their wars, as the mujaheddin did, or who beat women savagely for showing their faces, as the Taliban did. These men have not gone away, and although in Kabul they are kept quiet by the presence of the international security force, if that departs, many women fear that the violence will start again.

"Of course, the burka was not the worst thing about the Taliban time," Suheila emphasises. "But until we are safe, we can't take it off." Even now, reports of politically and religiously motivated violence against women continue. Human Rights Watch has documented rapes and assaults against certain ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan. Female aid workers have even been withdrawn from Mazar-i-Sharif after one was gang-raped. In Kabul a month ago, two women wearing scarves instead of burkas had acid sprayed in their faces. So, for the women of Afghanistan, the anonymity of the burka still gives them a sense of protection. Zohal, who also wears the burka when she goes out, agrees with Suheila.

"Of course we would like to take it off," she says, "but it just isn't possible yet."

Some of the women who have taken off the burka are those now moving into politics. My visit coincides with the start of the loya jirga, the gathering of a council of 1,500 delegates who are to decide the structure of the future government. Nearly 200 are women. I visit the council offices, where dozens of Afghan men circle the courtyard, talking eagerly. Out on the parched grass is a tent, and inside the stifling tent sit 15 women, newly arrived delegates from western provinces of the country.

A woman in her early 30s, also called Zohal, talks enthusiastically about what this means to her. Her two-year-old daughter, silently playing with a wilted pink rose, sits on her lap as she talks. "The doors of everything have been closed to women for so long," she says. "Now we hope that the doors are swinging open. This loya jirga is only a first step, but in the future parliament there must be equal representation for women and for men."

Mindful that even in western countries women haven't achieved such representation, I ask the other women in the tent if they feel the same. There is an eruption of noise. "Yes, they all agree," my translator says solemnly. "They say that women make up more than half of the population of Afghanistan and that they have been the first victims of war. They must now be allowed their rights."

The literacy course in Sarasia is funded by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. This extraordinary organisation has been going since 1977 and is a testament to the determined resilience of Afghan women. The thousands of RAWA members have worked underground and in exile for nearly 30 years - against the Soviet regime, the mujaheddin, the Taliban - and they are now stronger than ever. But although RAWA is beginning to operate more openly, most of its work is still anonymous and underground. Oddly, despite the west's much-touted support for a more liberal society, RAWA has never received support from any government.

But RAWA's members are still agitating for women's equality and a secular government, and they are also passionately involved in rebuilding civil society. In contrast to some of the rather chaotic government and non-governmental projects, the couple of RAWA schemes I see, in Sarasia and Kabul, are models of good organisation and sustainability. One day, I visit one of their schools in Kabul, which operates in the family home of a former radio broadcaster from Mazar-i-Sharif, who prefers to remain anonymous.

Sitting next to Zohal is Bibi Kur, a woman with a look of the younger Doris Lessing. She comes from Herat. "There, our leaders did not want a single woman to go to the loya jirga," she says scornfully. "But people from Kabul came and insisted, so they said there could be one woman from each province, one out of eight delegates." Is she scared to be a delegate when the warlords are so against women's involvement? "I am afraid," she says. "I know these men. But I've survived 23 years of war. I have been injured.

My husband has been injured. Now I am happy that I am here and that I can defend women's rights."

It is easy to be delighted by the energy and determination of these women who are moving back into politics. But in the weeks that follow, as the loya jirga progresses, the idealistic women are sidelined. The power is still held by men who control the guns and the money, former mujaheddin who gained their influence through bloody fighting and terrorising civilians; men such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan and Burhanuddin Rabbani, all of whom retain power over areas of Afghanistan and who pack the loya jirga with their supporters. Although we in the west see such men as useful allies, the women I spoke to have not forgotten their crimes. Indeed, on the first day of the loya jirga, some female delegates, among them Tajwah Kakur, confront Rabbani. "Why did your armies kill and rape so many women?" Kakur asks. "Why are there so many widows in our country?" He is silent.

I spend an afternoon talking to Kakur at her office in the women's ministry, set up last year by the interim administration. Kakur, the deputy women's minister, sits still as a monument behind her glass-topped desk, her silver hair piled up under a grey voile scarf. She is unusual among the new women in Afghan politics, because she was even tolerated by - and herself accepted - the Taliban regime, and ran a boys' school in Kabul during their rule. Even so, she says her dreams have now come true: "I am so happy looking at women going back to work and school. I think, is this a dream? Or is it real life?"

But for all her optimistic talk, Kakur is angry about the current situation and the men who are moving back into power. "All Afghan women know who I am talking about. These men kidnapped and raped the women of Afghanistan. Until the guns are taken away from them, women will not have security. Yes, now we are told that these men are heroes. But who broke all the buildings and kidnapped the women? They are not heroes. They are zeroes."

But women in Afghanistan are not only struggling against the men who rule them. Many are simply struggling to survive. As we leave Kakur's office, we walk through a corridor where dozens of women with their burkas pushed back from their faces are squatting outside the offices. A female official shoos them away into a courtyard. We follow them into the blinding glare of the midday sun, and ask who they are and why they are here. As they speak, I catch a glimpse of another Afghanistan, the one where so many women, especially those whose husbands and brothers were killed in the decades of fighting, now live.

One of these women, Khandijal, is five months pregnant, although her bump hardly shows on her skeletal frame, wrapped in its blue burka. Five months ago, a US bomb killed her husband and injured her leg. "For four months I have been coming here every day to beg for work," she says. "There is no work for us." Khandijal has five daughters, all younger than 12. "Every day I go back home and my children cry out, 'Where is the money, where is the food?' I have nothing for them. My children are starving and nobody here will do anything for me."

"Life for me was better under the Taliban," Hanifa, a tiny, skinny woman, says defiantly. Her husband was killed three years ago, and she has seven children. "The UN gave the widows in Kabul a card to take to a centre to get food free. We got five naan bread a day. So our children ate lunch and dinner. Now we have nothing. At first, when the Americans came, I was happy. I thought, our lives will get better. But there is nothing for us. The Americans never asked about us."

"Will you help us?" all the women ask, one by one. "Will you help to find us work?" When we explain that we don't work for the UN or an aid organisation, they look puzzled. I go on asking questions, which they answer eagerly, perhaps hoping that we will give them something in return. We have all seen and read tales of such desperation a thousand times, but looking at desperation is very different from having desperation look back at you, hungrily.

If you listen to the talk of the amount of money that has been promised to Afghanistan, it is easy to feel complacent about the way the international community is stepping in to reconstruct the country. Certainly, for many people life has improved - despite what Hanifa says, for instance, the UN World Food Programme tells me that it is now reaching about three times as many destitute people as it could under the Taliban regime. But although more aid is coming in now, far more has been promised than is reaching the country, as donors hold back in case the fragile peace collapses. And what has arrived - around $800m in the first half of the year - is not enough to stop the immediate suffering of millions of ordinary people. Afghan women are thought to have the highest maternal mortality rates of women in any country, at around 1,700 per 100,000; life expectancy is about 46 years, and around 50% of children are stunted through malnutrition - yet donor fatigue is already a real danger. Dr Lynn Amowitz of Harvard Medical School, who is leading a new maternal mortality survey in Afghanistan, said recently, "Afghanistan is falling off people's radar screen and funding is becoming harder to find."

One of the women standing with the widows is younger than they are, and her face still has the sleekness of a girl who eats every day. Akala is only 19.

"I started school again last month," she says. "But every afternoon I come here and ask for work. There are 10 of us brothers and sisters, and my father is too old to work. For us, life is becoming worse day by day." Has she seen anything get better? "Yes, of course, we are free to go outside," she says quickly, "and now I can go to school. But what can I say about my future? Unless I find work, I will have to leave school. I can't pay for paper and pencils. And I can't go to school if my brothers and sisters are starving."

As we drive away from the government buildings, clouds of dust rise from the roads and even the men walking on the streets pull scarves over their faces to protect their eyes and mouths. This is the regular Kabul dust-storm that rises up every afternoon. One returning Afghan told me that in his childhood, before the wars, they never used to have this weather, these clouds of dust blocking out the sunlight and surrounding the mountains with what looks like drifting smoke. He was probably right, since this drought started only a few years ago, but his statement sounded metaphorical - as if the very earth had begun to choke on its burden of misery.

The idea that Afghanistan was destroyed by war was only an image to me until I actually saw Kabul, with the rubble and ruins stretching for mile after mile into the bleak mountains, like a film set designer's vision of a city after a nuclear war. I had to keep reminding myself that Kabul was not always a dystopian city - that once, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was cosmopolitan, with women walking down the streets in miniskirts, crowded jazz clubs and colourful parks. It's also important to remember that Afghan women were not always victims. In the 80s, 40% of doctors and 50% of university students in Kabul were women - and though such liberation did not extend throughout Afghanistan, many urban, educated women lived lives of relative freedom.

But one thing that astounded me was that even those women who have lived all their lives in the most traditional sections of society can still speak a language of resistance. One day, for instance, I visited Sarasia, a bleak little village west of Kabul. Women here live close to the edge; even the village well, after three years of drought, is no longer working, so the women and children traipse across the fields to the neighbouring village every day to collect water. In one of the stark white houses, a literacy class is in progress. The women in this class couldn't be further from the educated elite. Soraya, for instance, is a widow of 50 and has been illiterate all her life. "If you are illiterate, it is as if you are blind," she says. Her eldest son doesn't want her to learn to read, but she has finally won his permission because this class is run by women for women in their own village.

In this village, all the women wear burkas; they always have. None can leave the village without the permission of the men in her family, and none of the women in the room has had any formal education. And yet, somehow, they have kept alive the idea of a different society. Aisha, a middle-aged woman whose husband is too old to work, says, "Because we are uneducated, we can't speak out and defend our rights. We don't want that for our daughters. We want them to know how to speak up in front of outsiders." Again and again, I ask if all the women they know, even in the most traditional families, feel the same. They almost get angry trying to convince me, and the hot little room seems to get hotter as they all speak at once. "Of course we want more freedom," says Soraya. "Even women who are not allowed to come to this class want that. But our husbands and brothers and fathers don't want it. The mullahs keep saying freedom is not good for us."

The literacy course in Sarasia is funded by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. This extraordinary organisation has been going since 1977 and is a testament to the determined resilience of Afghan women. The thousands of RAWA members have worked underground and in exile for nearly 30 years - against the Soviet regime, the mujaheddin, the Taliban - and they are now stronger than ever. But although RAWA is beginning to operate more openly, most of its work is still anonymous and underground. Oddly, despite the west's much-touted support for a more liberal society, RAWA has never received support from any government.

But RAWA's members are still agitating for women's equality and a secular government, and they are also passionately involved in rebuilding civil society. In contrast to some of the rather chaotic government and non-governmental projects, the couple of RAWA schemes I see, in Sarasia and Kabul, are models of good organisation and sustainability. One day, I visit one of their schools in Kabul, which operates in the family home of a former radio broadcaster from Mazar-i-Sharif, who prefers to remain anonymous.

On the street outside, it is the usual Kabul scene: heaps of rubbish, a blinding glare, dust-filled air. Then you push open a large blue door to a courtyard. Here, somebody is growing herbs and vegetables, and two white-and-yellow butterflies dip their wings over the thick green fronds of radish plants. Under awnings on the sides of the courtyard, one group of women is spelling out its Persian lesson and another is cutting bright cloth, learning to make shirts.

One of the teachers here is Zahmina Nyamati. She is 42, with a weather-beaten, sensible face. Twenty years ago, Zahmina was like Zohal Faiz Mohammed, an optimistic science graduate from Kabul University. She married a civil servant and had five children. But after her husband died seven years ago, she took her family to live in a refugee camp in Pakistan. She became a servant for Pakistani families all day and sewed all night, trying to earn enough money to keep her children in school. As she speaks, the tears run down her face. She doesn't try to wipe them away.

"I have good memories in my life, from my childhood, and when I was first married. But then everything was lost. I worked in houses where I was dirt, and I was allowed as a great favour to collect the food they were going to throw out to take to my children.

"When I got married, I thought at least we will live in peace. At least we will have a simple house, where we can say, 'It's my room'; at least when my children go to school, they can say, 'These are my shoes, this is my pencil.' But my children sit alone. They never play with other children. When I come home, they say, 'What have you brought us?' And I can't say anything. My life is over. But I want a better life for them. This is why I work all day and all night. I must be strong. I pray every day, 'God make me strong.' "

After her class is over, Zahmina takes me to her home. This neighbourhood is what most of Kabul looks like - a slum, where the sewers drain into the street, and the street is just packed dust. She lives in one room with her four children, one of whom is handicapped and lies on the floor, unable to walk or crawl. There is no furniture except for one bed heaped with scraps of clothes and blankets. After the Taliban fell, like hundreds of thousands of others, Zahmina returned to Kabul with the help of the UN refugee agency, which gives returning refugees $10-$30 per person. Zahmina's family also received two plastic sheets, two blankets and three bags of flour. First, they went to live in Chehl Sutoon, a ruined area where there is no running water, no roofs, no windows. Now they feel lucky to have found one room with a roof. If it wasn't for RAWA, she might soon be begging like the other women whose claw-like hands grab at you on the streets.

As we talk about the past, she asks her daughter, a fresh-faced girl of 12, to get out the photographs. Alya pulls the box from under the bed. The few family snaps show a big, happy family at birthday parties, sitting around with the children on their parents' laps, a cake and watermelon and biscuits on a table, balloons in children's hands. Alya and her brothers handle the pictures reverently, dreaming over them.

I ask Zahmina if she has any hopes for the future. She doesn't hesitate. "I hope, it is my only wish, that the international organisations that have promised to help Afghanistan will fulfil their promises, especially for women. And I have heard our politicians talk about women's rights. I hope Afghan women will achieve these. We have known such suffering for these 23 years. We just want to give our children what they need, so they can grow up to fulfil their dreams." I am struck once again, struck with an almost physical shock, by the way in which Afghan women are facing the future with such stony determination.

Alya listens to us talk. The little girl, who has grown up in a refugee camp, then moved to a ruin and then to a slum, is slender and bright-eyed in green shalwar kameez. I ask what she thinks she will do in the future. "I will be a doctor!" she says determinedly.

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