A precarious time for Afghan women

Since the Taliban’s fall, women have seen fitful gains. But those with access to education and work fear the U.S. troop departure will erode their freedoms.


Since the Taliban's fall, women have seen fitful gains. But those with access to education and work fear the U.S. troop departure will erode their freedoms.

Column One

A precarious time for Afghan women

Since the Taliban's fall, women have seen fitful gains. But those with access to education and work fear the U.S. troop departure will erode their freedoms.

Photography and Video by Carolyn Cole

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Feb. 4, 2014

Ghazalan Koofi loves her mother but not the life her mother has been compelled to live.

The older woman, her face cloaked in a shawl, had an arranged marriage at age 11. She didn't go to school and spent her life raising seven children with little help from her husband.

Today, at 50, Shahgol Shah still obeys mahram, the Afghan custom that forbids women to leave home without a male relative. She wears a burka in public. "That's our tradition," Shah says.

Koofi, 26, lives a life her mother could never have imagined. She leaves home unescorted every day, working at a government ministry and attending university classes at night. She speaks fluent English and has never worn a burka. She dresses stylishly but modestly, her wavy black hair peeking from a head scarf.

She chastises sexist male colleagues and demands their respect. She insisted on a seat at a recent tribal gathering dominated by white-bearded men in turbans. She treasures her "love marriage" with Shoaib Azizi, 27, a police department employee who calls his wife "a very brave woman." He helps with housework and caring for their infant son, a radical act that some male friends consider weak and shameful.

Koofi came of age after the U.S.-led military invasion toppled the repressive Taliban government in 2001. She has benefited from 12 years of slow, fitful gains for Afghan women. But with U.S. combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the end of this year, Koofi and other Afghan women worry that their freedoms will begin to erode.

"We are entering a very dangerous period for women," Koofi says. "I'm very worried that we will return to those terrible days when the only place for a woman was in the home, doing housework and serving the men."

Koofi and her mother play with her 11-month-old son, Ahmad, inside the family's tidy concrete home on a hillside overlooking smoggy west Kabul, two generations filled with equal parts hope and fear about the future of the next one.

Across Kabul, Shukriya Matin also belongs to that vulnerable generation of women who have become adults in a world of new freedoms — and fear a future without them.

Matin was in grade school when her family fled the Taliban in 1996; she was twice beaten on the street for not properly covering her hair. For six long years, she was a low-paid child carpet weaver in Pakistan after her family fled the Taliban.

She returned to Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion and earned a high school degree and a midwife's certificate. Now, at 28, she directs a private hospital program in Kabul that provides maternal care to illiterate villagers.

Shukriya Matin, left, directs a private hospital program in Kabul that provides maternal care to village women.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Shukriya Matin, left, directs a private hospital program in Kabul that provides maternal care to village women. More photos

Inside the neat, sparsely decorated home she shares with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Sitayesh, Matin describes her sense of dread about the future.

"Only God knows what will happen to women after 2014," she says in lightly accented English as her daughter plays on the floor, watched over by her parents.

The arc of Afghanistan's recent history can be traced through the three generations of Matin's family.

Her mother, Zahra Matin, 52, was engaged at 9 and married at 13. She is illiterate; she spent her life working at home so that her children could attend school. Now she dreams of her granddaughter attending college.

The older woman dreads the departure of foreign troops and worries that the Taliban — "They are criminals," she says harshly — will quash her dreams, and the dreams of her daughter.

But she also has faith that Afghanistan will continue to allow women to break free of the past. "For myself," she says, "I'm still hoping to take literacy classes and finally become an educated woman."

Her daughter sits on the floor and cradles young Sitayesh. She plans to send the girl to school and ultimately to college, but she fears she may have to go abroad to do so.

"Some people are saying the Taliban might come back, and we'd all have to flee to Pakistan again," she says, stroking the girl's hair. "I don't want that life for my daughter."

The gains Afghan women have made since 2001 are under threat. A recent United Nations report said a landmark 2009 Afghan law on violence against women has been ignored or poorly enforced; a human rights commissioner appointed by President Hamid Karzai wants to repeal the law entirely. The report described "fears and anxiety" among Afghan women about a swift reversal of gains after 2014.

Heather Barr, a senior researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, warned in December: "Signs are everywhere that a rollback of women's rights has begun." The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported in January that violent crimes against women reached record levels last year, rising 24% over 2012.

Afghanistan is still a deeply conservative Islamic country where some village girls as young as 9 or 10 are forced to marry older men, and some women's groups estimate that at least half of all marriages violate the Afghan legal marriage age of 16. Some women and girls who flee arranged marriages are hunted down by their fathers and brothers, beaten and sometimes killed. The practice of baad, or giving away a young woman as payment to settle debts or atone for family crimes, is illegal but still prevalent in rural areas.

Traditions still require burkas in public for millions of provincial women, but also in cities such as Kabul or Jalalabad. It is not uncommon, even in Kabul, to see women packed into the backs of station wagons or the open trunk of a car.

There are undisputed gains: Women now have the right to vote and some serve in parliament, the army and the national police force. There are 150 female judges. Yet the percentage of women in the government workforce has actually decreased by 4% since 2004.

Under the Taliban government, the only education for girls was in clandestine home schools. Today, 3 million girls attend school, but that's still only 40% of all school-age girls. Because of family or economic pressures forcing girls to work or marry, the dropout rate for girls remains much higher than for boys.

Taliban extremists in remote districts still throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, burn down girls' schools and attack female polio vaccination workers. In the last six months, four Afghan policewomen have been assassinated. Prominent female politicians are routinely threatened or slain by insurgents.

Last year, the acting head of women's affairs in eastern Afghanistan was killed by a bomb placed in her car. A few months later, her replacement was shot to death on her way to work.

"The situation for women is very fragile," says Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken member of parliament who taught at an underground home school for girls during the Taliban era. The lawmaker, who is Koofi's aunt, has been trailed by gunmen and threatened with death by the Taliban. Yet she intends to run for president in 2018.

In her spacious Kabul home, where two feminist books she has written are on display, she says, "Our gains could easily be reversed, and we'd have to start from scratch for the simple right to work outside the home or go to school."

Shukriya Matin's father, police Col. Ismail Matin, 58, promises his daughter that he'd die before he'd allow the Taliban to return.

"We're ready to shed our blood to defend the life we have now," the colonel says, dressed in a gray wool police uniform.

He spent his life savings to free his oldest son, Nayeem Matin, from Taliban custody (for not growing a beard) and send him to Australia on a rickety refugee boat. The son, now 31, is a warehouse manager in Melbourne who visits Kabul often because his Afghan-born wife, Hosnia, 26, is homesick.

Nayeem Matin, still clean-shaven, has seen remarkable advances for women since he fled Afghanistan 14 years ago. Still, he's not ready to bring his wife back to a country where he fears a Taliban resurgence or civil war after foreign troops leave.

His sister says she never imagined, when she was weaving carpets in Pakistan, that she would one day be an educated woman who operates an ultrasound machine. But Afghan custom still requires her to cook, do housework and care for her daughter after a long day's work in rural clinics.

"Even if you're a professor, a woman must do her job at home — cooking and cleaning," she says. "If my husband asks me for money, I say, 'I'll give you money when you help at home.'"

She glances at her father, who is grinning. "This is a joke, of course," she says.

Ghazalan Koofi has just returned from a day's work at the Economy Ministry and is preparing for night literature classes at a local university. She is still smarting from her daily confrontations with male colleagues. They tell her that women don't belong in the workforce and should stay home. They make crude sexual comments about other women.

"It hurts me a lot to hear this," she says.

It is all the more painful because the men are young and well-educated. Koofi is the only woman on a six-member team that evaluates nongovernmental programs, some designed to expand women's rights.

"But I'm not surprised," she says. "This is Afghanistan. It's still a traditional country."

Most Afghan women don't push hard enough for their rights, she says. She often asks women who have worked for years in low-level government jobs why they don't apply for management positions.

"They say they aren't capable," Koofi says. "I tell them they need to become capable. They need to believe in their own abilities."

Her sister Oranous, 16, says Afghan women still have a long way to go. She points to her own marginalized life: She wears trendy jeans but follows Afghan custom and covers her hair. She attends high school, but the classes are girls-only. She will not be required to enter an arranged marriage, but she and her sisters must follow tradition and marry in order of age.

"Girls in Afghanistan still cannot live the life they want," Oranous says in English.

Ghazalan's husband, Azizi, is concerned that the end of the U.S. combat mission will allow the Taliban to regain power.

Ghazalan Koofi was the only woman hired out of 150 applicants to work on a Ministry of Economics team. Her computer and English skills and job experience helped her land the position.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Ghazalan Koofi was the only woman hired out of 150 applicants to work on a Ministry of Economics team. Her computer and English skills and job experience helped her land the position. More photos

"If we go back to the way it was under the Taliban," he says, "women will suffer the most."

Azizi is a short, slender man with a quiet demeanor. But he becomes agitated when discussing the Taliban claims that educating women is "against Islam."

"Our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, says you should give freedom to women and they should be educated," he says. "That's what our prophet says, and that's what I believe."

It is not anti-Islamic for a man to help with housework and child care, he says. His father, a police commander, did it, and he'll teach his son the same respect for equality.

"We can never go back to the days when a woman could only be a homemaker and nothing more," he says.

His mother-in-law, Shahgol Shah, says her own husband is "a traditional man" and has never helped with housework or child care. But he did recently relent and allow her to take literacy classes and to teach a class in sewing for women.

She peers from beneath her head scarf and smiles. "Life is changing," she says. "My daughter has a much better life than I had, a more modern life. And I still dream that life for my granddaughter will be even better."

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