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Windsor Star, June 29, 2009

Afghan women battle heavy odds in struggle for freedom, dignity

"Women don't have any rights," she said. "I have seen women in this society hit and pushed to marry someone older, chosen by her parents. Women get exchanged with animals."

By Craig Pearson

Rona Tareen sits among the many couches lining her Persian-carpeted office and, with the press of ink-stained thumbs, allows what some Afghans consider sacrilege: letting a young woman move away from her husband with her family to Kabul.

Tareen, a mother of six and women's affairs director for the province of Kandahar, where Canadian forces are based, oversees many family judgments in a country steeped in patriarchy.

Afghan women - particularly in the volatile south, where the Taliban was born - rarely appear in public without burkas and often show deference to the opposite sex, lowering gazes to the floor, almost shrinking when a man approaches.

Given that some hard-line Islamists believe the Koran decrees women to be subservient to men, improving conditions for women in a war-torn country with one of the world's lowest literacy levels requires more than education. It requires social engineering.

"People don't feel secure here, so of course there will be problems," says Tareen through an interpreter as she signs documents brought to her by male underlings, and administers the fate of a silent, burka-clad young woman whose family signed papers with purple thumbprints. "So without security, there are economic problems, social problems, family problems.

"Women in this society face huge problems. Women suffer a lot."

Even Tareen has a dangerous job.

According to Mrs Samimi, the most significant impact of the US-led invasion has been a rise in violent crime because the perpetrators know they have a good chance of getting away with almost any offence. The social restrictions imposed upon women have also continued, albeit largely unofficially.
...
Another case shuffled quietly into the office. Taj Niaz was 12 when she married a man in his forties. Now 20, she has spent the past five years unsuccessfully trying to divorce her physically abusive husband.
The National, Jun. 16, 2009

Tareen's predecessor, Safia Amajan, was assassinated on her way to work in September 2006. Last month, gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed Sitara Achakzai, who worked for Tareen, outside her Kandahar home.

Tareen said international forces in her country have done little to help women - or anybody - despite big promises.

Last month's honour killing case - a northern Afghanistan father who shot his 20-year-old daughter and her 21-year-old boyfriend after finding them in bed, fully clothed - is only the most recent high-profile example of the harsh justice meted out by some fundamentalist Muslims.

Most Afghans live peaceful lives, but examples abound of a dark, irrational form of fundamentalist vigilantism against women: cases of forced female circumcision and a recent spate of poison attacks on girls attending rural schools north of Kabul.

When the Taliban snatched power in 1992 they banned more than just music: they launched a campaign to rob Afghan women of basic rights. They closed all girls' schools and made women virtual prisoners by barring them from working outside the home, and from leaving their houses without a male family escort. They stripped them of legal rights by declaring that the courtroom testimony of a woman was worth half that of a man. And by forcing them to cover up from head to toe they marginalized women in Afghan society even further, forcing them to vanish entirely.

Though the Taliban lost power when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, certain men - leaders and farmers alike - still see women as second-class.

In March the Afghan government passed a law forbidding Shiite Muslim women from refusing sex with their husbands or leaving home without male permission. President Hamid Karzai scrapped the law after an international outcry, though some advocates of women's rights worry male lawmakers will only find other ways to enshrine sexism.

Malalai Joya, the outspoken women's rights activist known to her supporters as "the bravest women in Afghanistan," lives in a series of safe houses with highly armed security guards.

One 20-something female teacher and journalist, who feared giving her name, spoke to a Western reporter visiting a new rural school - paid for by Canadians.

"Women don't have any rights," she said. "I have seen women in this society hit and pushed to marry someone older, chosen by her parents. Women get exchanged with animals."

Hesitant at first, she soon spoke passionately, her words flowing like water from a dam.

"Some people say there is now democracy and human rights here, but there are no changes yet in the country," she said, noting that some leaders in Kandahar dissuade girls from attending school. "We need to send educators to homes and to teach women's rights in public.

"The most important thing is for religious leaders to inform people in the mosques about women's rights. Prophet Mohammad said women and men are equal."

Some Afghans disagree.

"Islam provides what women need, but the enemy of Islam does not let women have those rights which give honour and relaxation to women's lives," said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi. "We are not against women's rights, or women's work, or women's education. But it must be at the right time and this is not a good time for women to leave the home."

According to the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, tellingly based just across the Pakistan border in Quetta, "the 'war on terrorism' has removed the Taliban, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. It will require a very different approach indeed for those evils to be eliminated."

Some things have changed. More women now serve in government and in traditionally male-dominated jobs such as police officers. Two women are running for president in the Aug. 20 Afghan elections.

Canada has pitched in for women through various programs funded by the $2.3 billion the country will spend in Afghanistan through the Canadian International Development Agency and Foreign Affairs.

Chantal Ruel, acting director of development in Kandahar for CIDA, said that in 2001 when the U.S. toppled the Taliban government, no girls attended school and the maternal mortality rate was the second highest in the world after Sierra Leone.

For the last seven years, she said, Canada has improved health care for women and has helped to not only increase the number of boys attending school, but lift the percentage of Afghan girls attending school from zero to more than 30 per cent.

"If you compare Afghanistan today to Canada today, the status of women in Afghanistan is appalling," Ruel said. "But if you compare it to how far we've come, it's getting better."

Category: Warlords, Taliban/ISIS/Terrorism, Women, HR Violations - Views: 8775