They were walking to school in the southern city of Kandahar, a group of teenage girls discussing a test they had coming up, when two men on a motorcycle sprayed them with a strange liquid. Within seconds a painful tingling began, and there was an unusual smell as the skin of 16-year-old Atifa Biba began to burn.
Her friend rushed over to help her, struggling to wipe the liquid away, when she too was showered with acid. She covered her face, crying out for help as they sprayed her again, trying to aim the acid into her face. The weapon was a water bottle containing battery acid; the result was at least one girl blinded and two others permanently disfigured. Their only crime was attending school.
It was not an isolated incident. For women and girls across Afghanistan, conditions are worsening — and those women who dare to publicly oppose the traditional order now live in fear for their lives.
Member of Parliament (MP) Shukria Barakzai receives regular death threats for speaking out on women’s issues. Talking at her home in central Kabul, she closed the living room door as her three young daughters played in the hall.
“You can’t imagine what it feels like as a mother to leave the house each day and not know if you will come back again,” she said, her eyes welling up as she spoke.
“But there is no choice. I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing. Should I stop my work because there is a chance I might be killed? I must go on, and if it happens it happens,” she said.
Barakzai receives frequent but cryptic warnings about planned suicide attacks on her car, but no help from the government. Officials advise her to stay at home and not go to work, but offer nothing in the way of security assistance, despite her requests. She said warlords in parliament who received similar threats were immediately provided with armored vehicles, armed guards and a safe house by the government.
Afghan women are feeling increasingly vulnerable as the security situation worsens and a growing number of Western and Afghan officials call for the Taliban to join the government.
“We are very worried that, now the government is talking with the Taliban, our rights will be compromised,” said Shinkai Karokhail, an outspoken MP for Kabul. “We must not be the sacrifice by which peace with the Taliban is made.”
Under Taliban rule, up until 2001, women were not allowed to work and were forbidden from venturing outside the home without a male escort.
Afghan women who defy traditional gender roles and speak out against the oppression of women are routinely subject to threats, intimidation and assassination. An increasingly powerful Taliban regularly attacks projects, schools and businesses run by women.
Six weeks ago, Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar was assassinated in her car on her way to work in Kandahar. She was Afghanistan’s highest-ranking female police officer and a fierce defender of women’s rights. Only 1.5m tall, she was known to have beaten men she found to be abusing their wives. Another senior female police officer was killed in the province of Herat in June.
Talking at a safe house on the outskirts of Kabul, Mullah Zubiallah Akhond, a Taliban commander from the southern province of Uruzgan, said the group’s attacks on women were always political and not based on any desire to target or punish women specifically.