The Telegraph, Jan.2, 2003

Why burqas still stifle Afghan women
The Taliban may be gone but the changes in Afghanistan are mostly cosmetic, writes Lucy Morgan Edwards in Kabul

Inside a small courtyard in Kabul down a steep lane brimming with sewage the whisperings of women and clatter of old Singer sewing machines can just be heard.

The sound comes from a rehabilitation centre for prostitutes where classes are held in tailoring and literacy. But a visit is a grave undertaking.

Prostitution is a word that the guide from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, all but an underground movement even in the post-Taliban era, would prefer is not mentioned for fear of incurring the wrath of the resurgent fundamentalists in Afghanistan.

There was euphoria a year ago when the fundamentalist Taliban were swept out of power by the American-backed Northern Alliance.

The world rejoiced that Afghan women no longer had to wear the tent-like burqa and could return to school. But it seems that the promise of those early days has been only partially fulfilled and the changes are mostly cosmetic.

The fight for women's rights in Kabul is still an underground movement and nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than over the issue of shelters for women, and not only for prostitutes.

Many are vulnerable simply through being unmarried, abandoned or abused by a husband, and hence unable to fit in with the accepted family strictures of Islamic society.

That RAWA is still forced to operate its refuges secretly and cannot provide overnight shelters for women within Afghanistan indicates that it continues to meet needs that are either unrecognised or dismissed in Afghanistan's still highly conservative society.

"If women need overnight shelters we take them to Pakistan," said one member of RAWA, which has fought incognito for women's rights in the past two decades.

It also backs up a report by the American group Human Rights Watch which gave warning last month of resurgent Taliban-style oppression of women.

The 52-page study said girls' schools were being destroyed by gunmen, women were being forced to have medical examinations for chastity and girls were being made to wear the burqa.

Part of the problem relates to the re-emergence of a religious faction in Afghanistan's post-Taliban establishment. Many of them, as former mujahideen leaders, are threatened by the idea of empowering women.

A member of the Afghan diaspora, having returned to Kabul as an adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said: "We'll face more of a conflict now due to the development of fundamentalism over the past 20 years and its revival in the past six months."

The struggle over conservatism was highlighted by the reinstatement last August of the religious police, known under the Taliban as the Ministry for the Prevention of vice and Promotion of Virtue and now named the Department of Islamic Instruction.

A ban on women singing on television followed and in Herat recently the former warlord Ismail Khan told women working in United Nations offices that they could not shake the hands of foreign men and must continue to wear the burqa.

The battle for women's rights was undermined in June when the former women's minister, Sima Samar, known for her progressive attitude, was sacked after some leaders said she was a blasphemer and did not believe in Islamic sharia law.

Earlier Mrs Samar told The Telegraph: "Even Karzai is scared to push women's issues too strongly because he is concerned that other leaders will not tolerate such progress.

"The only way for things to move on is if donors make aid money conditional on women's rights being incorporated."

Referring to criticism by a fellow minister that she was trying to westernise the women of Afghanistan she added: "I am not asking for abortion, just equality."

The new deputy minister of women's affairs, Tajwar Kakar, sounded more terse and headmistressy when asked why her ministry had not so far done anything to provide women's shelters.

"In Afghanistan our culture is different. Every problem they [women] have they can face as they can discuss it with the family. All the family support the women".


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