Afghanistan is heading to the polls for national elections — but out of 41 presidential candidates, only two are women. Progress has been slow since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Perhaps to appease conservatives ahead of the election, President Hamid Karzai recently enacted a law allowing men to deny their wives food if the women refuse to comply with sexual demands.
One autumn morning not long after dawn, Shaista Hakim stood outside on her Kabul balcony, her head bare, sleep still in her eyes as she hung laundry. She quietly hummed to herself. Her husband and two young children lay peacefully asleep inside. Suddenly, on the street below, a gray car shrieked to a halt. The driver, wearing a turban, glared up at her with an expression so venomous it frightened her back inside.
Peeking through the window, she watched him push himself from his car. A moment later, she heard him pounding at her door. “I took off my glasses, put on a scarf and opened the door,” she recalled. “I was very scared.”
“Don’t ever go outside again without a burqa, or you will be arrested,” the man warned, his voice shaking with anger. He turned on heel and strode away.
The date: September 27, 1996, nearly thirteen years ago. Overnight, the Taliban had taken charge of Kabul, and the shift in the capital city was dramatic. To Mrs. Hakim, it felt as abrupt — and within a week, she and her young family abandoned their jobs and their apartment, fleeing the Taliban shadow and heading to Pakistan.
Mrs. Hakim returned to Kabul only after the post-9/11 fall of the Taliban, and I met her during a visit to Afghanistan last November. She now works as the director of a center that treats female drug addicts. Her job is not easy, nor is it often cheerful — she and her team brave Kabul’s most desperate and crime-ridden neighborhoods daily to reach out to women hooked on opium or heroin. Nevertheless, she considers it a gift that, for the moment at least, her government permits her to do the work she loves.
But Mrs. Hakim has become wary as Afghanistan goes again to the polls and calls have intensified in the last few months — from the U.S. to Europe to Afghanistan itself –- for the Afghan government to engage in dialogue with once-shunned moderate Taliban factions. She fears the change to a more conservative regime could happen overnight again –- that one morning on her balcony, she might look around to find her world unrecognizable.
President Hamid Karzai, long considered to hold geographically limited power (more like the “mayor of Kabul” than head of the country) has at times in recent months appeared to lose control even of Kabul. Observers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have suggested his government’s survival may depend on opening talks with the Taliban.
Kathleen Rafiq, an American who began visiting Kabul after the fall of the Taliban and has lived there for the last four years doing humanitarian work, agrees. The Karzai government has repeatedly faced charges of ineffectiveness and corruption, and additionally, the Taliban has effectively taken control of much of the south of the country. “There is no way to solve the current political problems without bringing in the Taliban somehow,” Ms. Rafiq says, echoing a view widely held in Afghanistan itself.
But many Afghan women fear even the most moderate Taliban representatives will find it difficult to agree to a partnership with the Afghan government unless they win agreement for the country to follow a conservative interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. This will by definition lead to renewed repression of women. Political expediency, these women say, may cost them their tenuous rights to walk outside without a burqa and male accompaniment, to attend school, to hold a job, even to hum as they hang laundry at dawn.
It is these fears that led me to develop an idea that had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time –- some kind of online link to Afghan women so that their voices would not be silenced, as they were during the previous Taliban rule. So that they would not again become invisible. So that we could hear directly from them, without having their words filtered through the voices of their men or the media.
From this sprang the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an organization that has drawn generous volunteers from across the U.S. to reach out to women in Afghanistan. The project pairs Afghan women with authors and teachers here on a rotating basis and presents their work on a blog. And because it has become uncomfortable if not impossible for women to go into Internet cafes –- particularly in the south of the country but even in Kabul -– the AWWP is fundraising to open Afghanistan’s first-ever women’s-only Internet café.
Roya, one of the AWWP writers, wrote in a poem entitled Afghan Woman: “Who asks about my identity? I am lost on the pages of history books.” As the U.S. encourages the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban, we must make sure Afghan women do not become overlooked again.
– Masha Hamilton
For more on women in Afghanistan, view PBS Wide Angle’s “A Woman Among Warlords.”