From the archives: Afghan women’s quiet revolution hangs by a thread

Times Staff Writer

Kabul, Afghanistan — EACH morning, the policewoman puts on her uniform, goes to her precinct office, sits behind a bare desk. And waits.

She is one of several officers appointed to make it easier for women to report domestic violence. Her job ought to be one of the busiest in the district. Instead, Pushtoon, who goes by one name, has one of the loneliest.

“Last week we had one woman. Before that there had not been anyone for several weeks,” she said, twisting hands left scarred by her attempt at suicide years ago in a Taliban jail. “Women are afraid to come, but we are not allowed to go to them.

“The police chiefs will not let us. They say it is unsafe for women officers,” she said.


Five years after the end of the Taliban era, there are new opportunities for women in Afghanistan, and notable efforts are underway to make their daily lives better, especially in Kabul, the capital. Improving the status of women has been a core goal of U.S. policy here, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a congressional hearing in 2005 that enshrining women’s equality in the Afghan Constitution was an important advance for the entire region.

But conversations with dozens of women suggest that each step forward has been a struggle. Afghan society remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women gaining independence and authority. The Taliban’s resurgence has reversed incremental gains, particularly in the south. If the Taliban incursions spread, more women are likely to lose ground.

Families in the south that recently began allowing their daughters to go to school and wives to enroll in vocational programs have pulled them out because of Taliban attacks.

“Women’s future depends so much on security. As much as se-curity deteriorates, women’s situation deteriorates,” said Masuda Jalal, former acting minister of women’s affairs. “At the first sign of insecurity, the head of the family protects his women and children, and the first measure they take is to keep them inside the house.”


Women who have gained ground haven’t talked of the constitutional principles of equality. Instead, they focus on the respect accorded women by the Koran, and on the importance of mothers and homes, where older women have long held positions of power.

Their goal, often unstated, is to convince fathers and brothers, husbands and sons that when a woman is empowered, the males benefit as well. They hope their daughters will at least have more choices than they had.

Women are learning to drive, some at their husbands’ urging so they can help with family errands. Small numbers have opened bank accounts. Women have become a regular presence on television talk shows, and they deliver weather reports and other news features.

According to Farsona Simimi, a popular television talk show host, “There is a quiet revolution here.” But, she added, “I do not know whether it will succeed.”

Pushing a stone uphill

THREE times in the last century, the status of women has improved, only to suffer reversals.

The first time was in the 1920s, when ruler Amanullah Khan abolished the requirement that women be completely covered in public and encouraged his wife to wear a hat without a veil. He was ousted by the mullahs.

The lot of women improved again in the 1960s, when four women were elected to parliament. One of them was the mother of Nasrine Gross, now an Afghan American lecturer in sociology at Kabul University.

A family album contains photos of her mother and several friends at a picnic 40 years ago. They wear knee-length dresses with short sleeves; a couple of them have beehive hairdos, strands blowing free in the summer breeze as they lean against a sleek car. Two men in Western clothing stand nearby.


“No one can believe these pictures were taken here,” Gross said.

In the 1970s, political turmoil stymied women’s progress. But in the next decade, ruling communists prohibited women from wearing burkas and appointed many to government posts. More than 50 were given judgeships, and many others took positions in the police and healthcare professions.

When the Taliban took power in 1996, it banned all education for women, even small girls. It removed women from almost all jobs outside the home and required them to cover their faces in public by wearing a burka. In some areas, it demanded that house windows be painted black so women could not see out and men could not see in. Women were whipped in public for the smallest infraction.

Educated Afghans and international aid workers say the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has done little besides removing the Taliban restrictions. He has only one woman in his Cabinet of 25 and none among his top advisors.

Several Afghan women said that they had encouraged Karzai to do small things, such as have his wife accompany him to public events, but that he had never done so.

In the name of Islam

RAHALA Salim was one of those who became a judge under the communists, and she recalls watching in horror as the Taliban dismantled every vestige of protection for women.

“As a judge, when I saw women coming to me crying because they had been abused, I felt responsible, I felt I had to defend their rights,” said Salim, who was removed from her post by the Taliban. Under its rule, she said, “if a man was accused of rape, it was the woman who was arrested and blamed.”

Salim knew from her legal studies that Sharia, or Islamic law, offered women some legal protection. The Koran and hadiths, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, are open to an array of interpretations. And early Islam glorifies several women, including Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, who is portrayed as an independent leader of her people.


“We have to know the real Sharia; we have to be able to point to passages in the holy Koran and say, ‘Here, read this,’ ” Salim said. “In Islamic history, men have been the boss. They want to be the boss forever. That’s why they never want women to appear in public, but that is not Islam; that is cultural tradition.”

The notion of Islam as a pillar of freedom came from Salim’s mother.

“My mother didn’t have any sons, and so my father took a second wife, and it made her extremely sad and it made her life very hard,” Salim said. “She told me, ‘Unless you can have enough education, you can never stand against men. You must learn Islam so you can struggle against them.’ ”

During the Taliban era, Salim began to teach the Koran. Once a week, 70 women would gather for classes, sometimes at her house, sometimes elsewhere so the Taliban would not become suspicious.

“l would cook something as if we were just gathering for a meal, and then we would recite the holy Koran and discuss Islamic questions and then political issues,” she recalled.

After the Taliban fled, Salim ran for parliament. But she understood that she would need the mullahs behind her, and when she was elected, she asked them whether she could address families in the mosque. Her appeal opened the door for women to enter there. In her district, women never had; they prayed at home.

“It was the first time that women saw the inside of the mosque,” she said. Then, with the mullahs’ assent, she asked the families to send their daughters to school.

Other women have reached similar conclusions: that if they are to persuade men to stand behind them, they will need mullahs as allies and Islam as a shield.

Jalal, the former women’s minister, has convened meetings of mullahs to discuss Koranic interpretations of women’s rights. A meeting last summer in Kabul drew 100 mullahs from around the country. She also has asked new “women’s councils” to work closely with local mullahs. So far, the councils are active primarily in Kabul and on its outskirts.

In Chakadera, a district at the foot of mountains about an hour north of Kabul, Maseema Sakhi acts as the local liaison to the Women’s Affairs Ministry. A tiny, graceful woman of 45, she went to college and teaches at the local grade school. But she married a village man and lives in a typical Afghan mud compound with several generations of family, where chickens and turkeys roam the yard.

She has made overtures to local mullahs, so when there are domestic problems they consider coming to her.

Recently a girl arrived in the village in tattered clothes, exhausted and battered. She had run away from her husband’s family. She said she had been badly beaten and was afraid she would be killed.

In the past, the elders and the mullah might have forced the girl to tell them where she came from and taken her back, all but condemning her to death. This time, the mullah sent for Sakhi.

“She had walked three days and three nights through the mountains without stopping. Her feet were torn,” Sakhi said. “She said she was so miserable in her home that she wished a wild animal would eat her. We took her to the women’s ministry, and now she is in a shelter and she calls me her mother.”

‘Someone should listen’

PUSHTOON, the policewoman, never thought of herself as a crusader.

Her mother died when she was an infant. Brought up by her father in Logar province, south of Kabul, she gained a rudimentary knowledge of reading.

At 13, she was married to a man many years her senior. At 15, she bore the first of her six children. The family moved to Pakistan, where her husband, who was often unemployed, took up with a younger woman.

Depressed, confused and only dimly aware of how the Taliban treated women, Pushtoon returned to Logar to claim a piece of land her father had left her when he died. She wanted to sell it to help support her family.

But the Taliban arrested her, saying she must have killed her husband since he wasn’t with her. Her only relatives were her husband’s family, and they wanted the land for themselves. The Taliban accused her of murder and took her to the women’s prison in Kabul.

Locked in a cell barely large enough for a bed, she became desperate.

“I was shouting and shouting that I was innocent, and no one was listening,” she recalled, nervously touching the braid on the cuff of her police uniform.

After six months, she shut herself in a tiny, squalid latrine, lighted a match and held it to her clothing.

“The flames licked over the material and burned my hair and was burning my face and burned my hands,” she said. “I burned myself to die there. That would have been better than a life in prison. I knew no one in Kabul. No one came to visit me. I had two daughters and four boys and they were in Pakistan and I missed them.”

But she didn’t die. And a few days later the Taliban released her. She still has scars on her hands and a dark, pitted mark on her forehead from the flames. She covers it with the ornamental red makeup that some Afghan women daub above their brows.

And she has a cause.

She cited the case of a woman who sought her help: “Her husband didn’t have a job. He was home all the time and he beat her every day. He broke two of her teeth, and he put a pillow over her mouth when he hit her so she wouldn’t shout and so the neighbors would not hear.”

Such women are often afraid that if they complain, their husbands will kill them and they will bring dishonor to their families, Pushtoon said.

“I am doing this job now,” Pushtoon said, “because when a woman says she is innocent, someone should listen.”

‘Happy Morning’

FARSONA Simimi has taken a different road, becoming a popular television talk show host on the Tolo network, one of Afghanistan’s new private stations.

She uses the nonthreatening idiom of shows such as “Bride” and “Happy Morning” to help women think about asserting their rights and to help men understand the problems women face. She often alternates taboo topics with ones that even the most conservative men would not oppose.

“Today I had two subjects on the family program: how to teach a child and how to get dark spots out of a shirt,” she said with a smile.

Dressed modestly in a high-necked white blouse and an ankle-length white skirt, only her veil suggests her independent views: It perches so far back on her head that it looks in danger of slipping off, and it shows a swath of her slightly hennaed hair.

“When I first was on TV, my family was afraid for me,” she said. “People said to my husband, ‘How can you let her do that?’ ”

A year ago, one of Simimi’s female colleagues was slain. Many people think it was because someone in her family considered her too modern. She wore blouses and tight jeans and went to clubs at night, said colleagues at Tolo.

It has taken almost three years, but Simimi has found that her audience is beginning to trust her. Women telephone her at the station and send her e-mails, and when she attends weddings or other large gatherings, they seek her out to ask questions or tell her their stories.

Her greatest regret is that television cannot yet show the cracked ribs and the burns and the other abuses women suffer.

“But we can talk about some of these things. One of our main topics on the family program is men beating their wives…. And we talk about arranged marriage from many perspectives, [such as] the father picks a person and doesn’t talk about it or discuss it with the woman.”

When she looks at her own family, she sees the problem writ small. Her young son recently told her as she was leaving for work, “Mama, you must wear a bigger scarf.”

“Now, where did he get that idea? He is only 8, but he spends time with his father, with his grandfather — they must say some of these things,” she said.

“It will take a long, long time for things to change. We must wait for this generation to grow up, and then maybe in two more generations we will see some changes.”

The sewing circle

OUTSIDE Kabul, where villages sit lonely in the mountain desert, women’s prospects are far bleaker. In Chakadera, Sakhi’s village, formation of a sewing circle was seen as a major advance. It allowed women to meet and share their stories. But the conversations often turn to domestic violence.

Chakadera was on the front line when the Taliban took over, and its women were forbidden even to go to the village market. They married first cousins because those were the only people they could meet. Now the women gather in a school room to sew, to laugh a little, cry, and support those among them most battered by their men.

But no one knows how long the sewing group will last. In early autumn, a nearby school was burned. If there is another attack, the women might not be allowed to go out, or their daughters to go to school.

For now, Sakhi said, “everybody can come here to sew and weave and forget her sorrows for two or three hours each week.”

One of the women, Malalai, 29, managed a smile even though she expressed little affection for her husband, who forbids her even to buy clothes for their children without his permission. Married at 15, she was a mother of three boys and two girls before she was 24. She wants a different life for her girls.

“I want them to get an education, to work, and only then to get married,” she said.

What will happen if the Taliban returns?

She brushed her hand over several spools of thread sitting before her on the floor, knocking each one over as if they represented the sewing circle, the dreams for her daughters, the possibility of a different future.

“Gone,” she said. All gone.

Rubin recently was on assignment in Afghanistan.