The battle for human rights: In the shadow of the Taliban

Afghan women still suffer widespread mistreatment, including rape, murder and forced marriage. Kim Sengupta reports from Kandahar on why religious zealotry and oppression still persist

No place has been more synonymous with oppression of women in recent history than Afghanistan under the Taliban, and nowhere was the abuse more brutal than in Kandahar, the birthplace of the country's Islamist zealotry.

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, a report published yesterday by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission presents a catalogue of continuing and widespread mistreatment of women including rape, murder and forced marriages leading to suicides.

There were 230 cases of self immolation. More than 38 per cent of the women interviewed said they were forced to marry against their will and 50 per cent said they were unhappy with their marriage because of domestic abuse. The figures are consistently higher in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan than the rest of the country. Official acquiescence to reactionary social forces and a resurgent Taliban has meant that many of the hard-won gains made towards equality are now at risk.

While voter registration nationally was 42 per cent in last year's elections, in Kandahar it barely reached 20 per cent, with figures even worse in rural areas of the region. Islamists distributed postcards at polling stations of women being beaten along with severed hands of thieves and the destroyed statue of Buddha at Bamiyan.

Today it is still impossible to find women not covered by burqas, the symbol of Taliban gender domination, on the streets of Afghanistan's second city. And many women have to hide the fact that they work from their neighbours for fear of insults, or worse. The reinvigorated Taliban burn schools and behead teachers for daring to offer education to girls. Judges steeped in decades of the most conservative form of Sharia law routinely send women and girls to prison for disobeying their father's choice in marriage, or deserting violent husbands. Rape victims end up facing charges of adultery.

To commemorate International Women's Day today, President Hamid Karzai has ordered the release of women prisoners serving short sentences in an attempt to rectify this injustice.

Despite all this stacked against them, the women of Kandahar are fighting back. Girls attend classes where they can and working-class women go to workshops behind the back of male members of the family. Increasingly, women are also turning to the same legal system used to punish them to argue forcefully that the law has been subverted and to demand their rights.

They are encouraged in this by Commander Malalai Kakar, Kandahar's most senior female police officer who leads a team of 10 female officers focusing on women's issues. Commander Kakar has led raids to free wives and daughters held captive by families, and her office has become a refuge for women being threatened and mistreated.

"I have been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives, and I admit this has happened at times. I had become angry," she said. "But what we try to do is apply the law in the right way and the constitution is supposed to protect women's rights."

Commander Kakar, 38, cooks breakfast for her husband ("I recently got him a job in a construction company" ) and six children before going to work. She was a police officer under Afghanistan's successive leftist governments before the Taliban came to power. Like other women she was confined to the house under Islamist rule, fleeing to Pakistan after hearing that they were trying to track her down. "I have been wearing the burqa at work until only eight months ago, I decided then that I must make a decision on this. I have been using the media to tell women about their rights, so I felt that I should make a gesture. I think my male colleagues were quite curious to see what I looked like. I have to say that I have not had any discrimination from them."

One girl who came to ask for her help was Rosina, 18. Her father had in effect sold her to a man in his fifties for marriage and she fled the house when he beat her for refusing to go through with the ceremony.

"I am never going back to get married to that man, never," she said, drawing her scarf across her face. "My father and brother beat me badly with sticks when I refused. They can send me to jail but I am not marrying him." The police will try to negotiate with her family. The problems start when that fails. There are no women's refuges, and Rosina may well find herself at the mercy of a spiteful male judge.

Captain Jamilla Mujahid Barzai, 35, also left the police when the Taliban came to power, but was, she said, persuaded to go back to work after they arrested her brother and beat him up. She left after witnessing the public execution of a woman in Kabul's football stadium, a judicial killing which was filmed and shown later around the world as an example of Taliban savagery.

"I knew the prisoner, her name was Zarmina and she was convicted by the court of killing her husband. I shall never, ever forget the way she died," said Capt Barzai. "They made her kneel on the ground in the stadium, in front of all those people and then a man in sunglasses came and shot her in the head.

"Zarmina had twins in prison, they were six months old. Her husband's brother came and took them away. There was nothing I could do. So I left the police. I know there are mistakes made now, but one cannot believe what went on in that time of night. I think women should join political life to stop things like that happening again."

Two of Asma Kakar's aunts have done just that and have been elected to the provincial and national assemblies. The 17-year-old student wants to be a doctor, and, unusually in a traditional Pashtun society, her parents have agreed to let her go alone to study at an university in India if she succeeds in getting admission. "I know things have improved since Taliban times but there are still lots of restrictions that I don't like," said Ms Kakar, who was attending a computer course run by the Afghan Development Association (ADA).

"Women still cannot go out much, we still have to wear the burqa when we go out. We cannot even go for a picnic. But I know I am lucky, I have got no money worries. And I can get away from here, at least for a while, if I get the right grades."

Economic problems have followed the loosening of social strictures for many women. They are now allowed to work, albeit sometimes grudgingly, but with high male unemployment they are often the main breadwinners at a time of rapidly rising prices.

Sadia Kamrani, 23, works at the Ministry of Social Works and her $150 (£86) a month is the only income for her extended family apart from the infrequent earnings of her father-in-law. "I cannot have a baby. I have a problem which needs an operation, but I have not got the money for it," she said. "My husband is unemployed and I am supporting him. But I also know he will divorce me if I do not have a baby."

Ms Kamrani's family fled to Iran at the start of the civil war and returned to Afghanistan two years ago. "They say that Iran is a conservative country, but we did not have to wear that there," she said, pointing at her brown burqa hanging from a hook on the door. "The first few weeks I had to wear the burqa I kept on falling down because I could not see where I was going, and hurt myself badly. I do not like wearing it and I do not know any woman who does, but we are forced to.

"A lot of people also don't like women going to work. So we have to take different routes, otherwise I will get problems ... Every day there is shooting. This is again something we never had to face in Iran."

Sherifa Popal, 30, a seamstress from a poor part of Kandahar, who has six children, also got involved in the election process, firstly going to courses and then training a team of 42, including 11 men, in supervising the polls.

But now she is out of work and, with an ill husband, has to be the provider for the family. "I went to school up to grade 10, but then we had the civil war and the Taliban and my education stopped. I have been involved in civic education and the elections, and I have also run sewing classes," she said. "Now all the government departments are short of money for projects and I have no work. The only money I am making is by making some clothes at home. It is not enough, Kandahar has become very expensive.

"But one cannot forget how bad things were under the Taliban. We were captives in our homes and we cannot let those times return."

One of the projects still working are sewing classes run by the ADA. Naseema Ali, an instructor, recalled the Taliban days was when her husband, Nour, had to shut down his clothes shop because the mullahs decreed that a man should not sell women's clothes, even the shapeless burqas. "The girls I am teaching will leave as tailors and have some way to support themselves."

One gets a glimpse of just how much the odds are stacked against girls like her at the cemetery of "Arab martyrs", al-Qa'ida fighters who died in the last war, in the outskirts of the city. The graveyard has become a shrine with reputed healing powers and a place of pilgrimage from Pakistan and Iran as well as all over Afghanistan and thousands congregate every week. Westerners are not welcome and for those who do come the views about infidels and women have not changed from Taliban times.

"All my friends come here, these martyrs are examples to us all. Because of the corrupt Karzai government we now have all kinds of evils," said Bari Ali Ahmed, 25. "We have alcohol, and women ... are flaunting themselves in public rather than being protected by staying at home. All this will change."

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