Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Still no liberation for Afghan women

The Taliban's fall was supposed to bring freedom for women. But for many, life is still a misery and, for one, jail is the safest place to be

By Yola Monakhov  /  THE OBSERVER , KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Mina rests on the earth floor of a Kandahar jail. Now eight months pregnant by a man she says raped and tortured her for seven years, she is in the Afghan prison for fleeing the marital home.

She is 28 but wears the lined, sad face of an old woman. Wet eyes glimmering through her burqa, she rocks gently as she talks of her coming baby as a bleak and loathsome prospect.

"I was abducted," she says. "This man [the father of her unborn child] is not my husband. I have a family and I want to go back to them. But if my parents see I have a new baby, they may kill me."

Mina's nine-year-old son Jonahmat rests his head on her knees and then runs into the prison yard to play with other children living inside. For now, they are safe with 11 other mothers and stray siblings who have made it to safety behind metal bars and a barbed-wire fence.

When the Taliban fell from power in the capital, Kabul, the Western media celebrated the liberation of Afghan women; unveiled faces were photographed smiling proudly in a brilliant blue sea of burqas. The voice of US first lady Laura Bush blasted out on satellite TV: the women of Afghanistan had suffered, but American liberation had ended their incarceration.

The message spread slowly, however. The few women who dared to show their faces were in relatively cosmopolitan Kabul; others waited for greater reassurance. Girls went back to school, but around the provinces, especially in the conservative Pashtun south, a woman on the street remained a rare sight. The few who venture out still wear burqas or black head-to-toe garb. The sizeable Kandahar University still has only six women.

Mina's jail houses 12 women. Most are there for running away from their husbands, or for living as prostitutes because they somehow wound up without a man.

A delegation of women from the Kandahar-based Afghans for Civil Society travelled to Kabul last month to discuss the new constitution with President Hamed Karzai. Delegates from the regions are to meet in December to decide whether the country's new law will be secular or follow the Islamic sharia doctrines. Rights for women, strictly limited since 1977, remain a contentious issue.

Sarah Chayes, the American director of Afghans for Civil Society, said: "We have told the women: if you want rights, you have to take them. But the basic underpinnings of society are not on their side."

"Women are chattels. If they don't have a male family member to argue their case, they don't exist," she said.

In tribally run district courts and within families, decisions that rule women's lives are a matter of obedience, convention and saving face. For those who fall through the net, there is no mercy.

"Incarceration is what marriage means in Afghanistan. A woman is allowed out only for weddings and funerals," Chayes says.

Kandahar province's Attorney General, Haji Muhamad Issa, sneers at those who have been imprisoned for leaving their men.

"Ask these women this," he says: "There are hundreds of thousands of women who are still in their homes and happy. What is wrong with you that you ended up here?"

When the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996, Mina's deck was already stacked. At 18, she was married off to a man who gave her her son, but spent his time pursuing wine, dog fighting and young boys.

Seeing Mina as a waste of his family's resources, his father kicked her out.

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