Afghanistan: the Taliban's smiling face

Le Monde Diplomatique
, March 2003

IN KABUL women hurry as they go about their business. Most look like blue ghosts in their cover-all burkas. The distinctive walk of those in high heels gives a fleeting glimpse of the embroidered hems of their trousers beneath. These women seem to dress with care. Even the daring few who brave the streets without a burka still bustle, rushing past bearded men, armed and uniformed, sitting lazily on rickety chairs in front of government offices. The men's official headgear is pushed over their foreheads to shield their watchful gaze, always on the look-out for distraction.

Young people ride by on bicycles, honking their horns and telling jokes. Men in traditional clothes walk by hand in hand, laughing and kissing as they greet each other. Merchants stand outside their shops, chatting with customers. Men in the streets of Kabul can take their time: after all, public spaces belong to them. Taiba, educated and energetic, is an Afghan woman currently working in Kabul as a midwife for the relief organisation Terre des hommes. She visits women who are forbidden to leave their homes, even when pregnant or in labour. She recently began wearing the burka again, and for a good reason: slogans on walls throughout Kabul urge women to appear in public only when completely covered. It is hard to say who is behind these messages, signed by "Afghanistan's mojahedin". Taiba does not know: it could be a neighbour, or the armed soldiers on every street corner, or the government's official security forces, made up of former anti-Soviet resistance fighters - the mojahedin.

Women who show their faces in public risk insults and threats in Afghanistan. In Kabul and across the country the limited freedoms granted to women after the fall of the Taliban are being contested anew. The government is partly responsible for this step backwards. It pays lip service to the demands of Western financiers, who forced the government to improve the status of Afghan women. But ultraconservatives inside the government have also sought to impose accepted standards of proper behaviour. Last summer the ministry of Islamic education, which replaced the Taliban's infamous ministry for the promotion of virtue and suppression of vice, began reminding women about the national official dress code, based on Islamic values. Ministry officials approach women in public who, in their eyes, are improperly dressed. They pressure them to respect the code: this means wearing head scarves and long dark coats or skirts to cover the entire body, including wrists and ankles. Make-up is forbidden.

Sometimes these moral guardians escort female "offenders" back to their homes, where they reprimand the women's husbands or relatives. Not surprisingly, women prefer to wear burkas rather than face constant harassment: at least burkas allow them to use make-up without being chastised and to wear what clothes they like underneath.

Rina Amiri, a political liaison officer with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, calls these new moral guardians "the smiling face of the Taliban". The real Taliban required women to observe Islamic values in public. But their requirements were usually enforced by physical violence. In Amiri's view, the government's actions and the recent efforts of "Afghanistan's mojahedin" mean that conservative forces are mobilising. But she does not believe these forces are working in concert: she suspects that individual groups are responsible for the dress-code changes. She stresses that Afghanistan's ideo logical battles have always focused on the behaviour and appearance of women: "Conservatives and progressives alike latch on to the issue in the same way, treating it as a symbol." Security issues are, however, paramount. Fighting between provincial tribal chiefs and non-existent central governmental authority in the regions has had a dramatic impact on Afghan women. Kabul is protected by troops from the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping mission. But outside Kabul laws are flouted and security is uncertain. Since women regularly face physical violence, they are unable to assert their most basic rights (1). Many women are raped, especially among ethnic minorities such as the Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. The dire economic situation and non-stop fighting force many families to rely on traditional dowries, marrying off - in reality, selling - their daughters, even at very young ages (2). In some regions the Taliban have been replaced by local chiefs or police officials whose attitudes towards women are just like those of their predecessors. Elsewhere Taliban-era officials are still in power. One woman from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif now works on behalf of young people. She speaks bitterly: "They may have changed their hats, but their heads are still the same."

As a rule, the primary concern of Afghan women (and men) is safety, a favourite topic of conversation. Women often say that under the Taliban they were able to travel across the country carrying cash, never having to worry for their personal safety. This conviction goes hand in hand with hopes that law and order will be re- established, even if the laws prove as cruel as those of the Taliban. Bandits have resumed attacks on communication routes, complicating relief work (3). Many people would prefer to see a more powerful role for the Isaf peacekeepers, although expanding Isaf is no longer mentioned. (The US was originally opposed to Isaf, which has proved very popular with residents of Kabul.) Despite this, none of the countries taking part in Isaf seems willing to provide adequate levels of personnel or funding, and it is probably too late. Local militia leaders now control the Tali ban's former regional strongholds. There are reports from the provinces of torture, clandestine prisons, arbitrary justice, persecuted minorities and internal feuds between armed groups (4). Over the past few months some warlords have consolidated their positions thanks to US money and arms, rewarding them for their support for Washington's war on terrorism (5). Human Rights Watch summed up the situation: "Security has been put in the hands of those who most threaten it" (6).

US officials now seem to understand that Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation threatens US interests and objectives. Late last year US troops faced mounting criticism as anti-US forces reorganised themselves (7). The international effort to finance and establish a national Afghan army has stalled. At this point only 3,000 soldiers have been trained and many of them have since returned to their former warlord masters (8). To make matters worse, opium production has soared since the defeat of the Taliban (9).

Washington was initially opposed to expanding Isaf on the grounds that the mission would require an expensive civilian presence in Afghanistan. The US has recently adopted a new strategy and is now focusing its efforts on providing stability and rebuilding the country. There are plans for civilian and military action centres in at least eight provincial cities. More fortresses than civilian establishments, these centres will bring together military experts, soldiers and a few civilians; they will join forces to repair roads, build schools and hospitals and dig wells. Their goals are to improve security, prevent the return of the Taliban and al-Qaida and to facilitate relief work. Still, everyone is sure that the US is trying to gain a foothold in the provinces to set up strategic military bases.

Kabul's humanitarian agencies and NGOs are worried about the US plans, with the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief (Acbar) saying that: "We are concerned that using military structures to provide assistance and reconstruction support will both prematurely deflect attention from Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation and also engage the military in a range of activities for which others are better suited" (10). In the view of the NGOs, US troops should focus on maintaining peace outside Kabul; setting up a national army; and disarming and arresting local militia leaders. The US military motivations are fundament ally different from those of the NGOs: the military carry out political and security-related objectives (gathering information for their secret services; strengthening allied local leaders; and promoting their strategic goals), while the NGOs assist those who truly need their help. Given the blurring of the divisions separating military and humanitarian activities, the local population will soon be hard pressed to tell military personnel and relief workers apart. Relief workers face a higher risk of violence in the future. Acbar also points out that a relief worker costs 10 times less than a US soldier. Xavier Crombé, a Kabul-based official with Médecins sans frontières, is concerned about the situation: "Any confusion between military and humanitarian activities threatens our work directly." His colleagues must now take more precautions than before, although the threat of violence does not apply only to relief workers. Crombé adds: "Populations that depend on military support lose their neutrality and could become targets for attacks. That is the danger."

* Judith Huber is a journalist with the Zurich-based weekly Wochenzeitung.

(1) Human Rights Watch, "Taking Cover: Women in Post- Taliban Afghanistan", 9 May 2002; "We Want to Live as Humans", 17 December 2002 ( See also Christine Delphy, "Free to die", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2002.

(2) "Report of the Secretary-General on women and girls in terri tories occupied by Afghan armed groups", UN Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 12 July 2002.

(3) UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, "Afghanistan Weekly Situation Report 6-12 December 2002", Kabul, 13 December 2002.

(4) "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace", UN Security Council, 21 October 2002.

(5) Jason Burke and Peter Beaumont, "West pays warlords to stay in line", The Observer, London, 21 July 2002; Associated Press, 16 October 2002.

(6) Human Rights Watch, "All Our Hopes Are Crushed", 5 November 2002.

(7) Dan Plesch, "Failure of the 82nd airborne", Guardian, 19 December 2002; Associated Press, 25 December 2002; Luke Harding, "Karzai's first anniversary", The Guardian, London, 23 December 2002.

(8) Sebastian Mallaby, "Wishful thinking on Afghanistan", Washington Post, 25 November 2002.

(9) Opium production increased from 185 metric tons in 2001 to 3,400 in 2002. "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2002", UN Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2002.

(10) "Acbar Policy Brief", Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, 7 December 2002.

Translated by Luke Sandford

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