Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Day for Women to Shine
The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul buzzed with excitement earlier this month as more than 500 men and women, some of the latter stylishly dressed and even a few without the once-obligatory headscarf, marked International Women’s Day.
The highlight of the March 8 event, sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, and the ministry of women’s affairs, and funded by the Afghan government along with France, South Korea and Japan, was a rare appearance by Dr Zeenat Karzai, accompanying her husband President Hamed Karzai, who was the keynote speaker.
The president congratulated women all over the world and offered special praise for those in his own country.
“During the past three years women have played key social and political roles,” he said. “They took part in the constitutional Loya Jirga, they voted in record numbers in the presidential elections, they serve as ministers. Girls are returning to school. This is the reality.”
After the March 8 event, women were invited to the Ariana Cinema in the city centre to watch a film – an event that Najiba Sharif, deputy minister of women’s affairs, had been chosen deliberately.
“For the past 25 years, women have not had access to the cinema,” she said. “This may persuade them that it is time to go back to the movies.”
Sharif added that Afghan women have gained a lot of ground since the fall of the Taleban.
“Our women have been through a terrible time; they were covered by the burqa, and the sun was never allowed to touch their faces,” she said. “Now, with the help of God and the international community, we have come out of this phase and we are grateful.”
Afghanistan’s women have never had an easy time. Constrained by cultural traditions that treat them as little more than household chattels, they have been under the control of men for centuries.
But under the Taleban their situation became a lot worse, especially in urban areas, as they were barred from education and jobs, driven back into the home, and forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa on the rare occasions that they were allowed to venture outside.
Since the fall of the Taleban in late 2001, much has changed for the better. As foreign aid and international agencies poured into the country, urban women have thrown off their burqas in large numbers and rejoined the work force.
According to Sharif, there are 35,000 women now employed in the country’s 30 ministries. Three hold key positions. And Habiba Sorabi recently became the first woman to hold the post of governor after she was appointed head of Bamian province by the president.
Torpaikai Nawabi, deputy director of the Afghan Women's Union, said much more progress needs to be made.
“The presence of three women in the cabinet is not enough to guarantee women their rights,” she said. “Over the past three years, all we have gained is the right to leave the house. There has been no serious attention given to women’s role in society.”
Shukria Barakzai, editor of Aina–ye-Zan, a monthly women’s magazine, is also critical of what she sees as the government’s lack of commitment to improving the status of women. “We do not see as many women in the government as we should,” she said. “There is gender discrimination, and women are always given the lowest positions.”
But Barakzai conceded there was much to be thankful for, “Nobody could have predicted three years ago that women would now be working in key positions in the government and in foreign organisations.”
Barakzai told IWPR how the media had played a key role in reshaping women’s lives, adding, “I am very happy that we have women anchors in radio and television all over Afghanistan, even in the most conservative areas.”
Women still face an uphill battle to have their rights accepted.
Fazal Hadi Shinwari, head of the supreme court, and well-known for his conservative views, was recently quoted in the Kabul daily Cheragh as saying, “The freedoms that women in the West have been given under the name of women’s rights should not be imposed on us.” Women in Afghanistan must behave in accordance with the strictures of Islam, he added.
But many Muslim women do not see a conflict between their rights and their religion. Youth Minister Amena Afzali said, “We are impatient to win our rights, the rights that are guaranteed to us by Islam. But in this country, even giving birth to a girl is considered a kind of shame. That is not Islam.”
While the status of women has undeniably improved in the capital and in regional centres, change in the countryside has been slower to come.
“In Paktia, we do not even think that there is a new regime in power,” said Zarmina, 29, who had come from the southern province for medical treatment in the capital. “Everything is the same as during the Taleban.”
Nor is she about to take up the standard for women’s rights in her Pashtun-dominated region. "We are satisfied with the current situation, because we are used to it,” she said. “There is no tradition of women working [outside the home].”
Sayed Bibi Nuristani, head of women’s affairs in eastern Nuristan province, told IWPR that life for women there was a miserable round of farm chores and housework, and no relief was in sight.
"There has been no change in the position of women in Nuristan,” she said. “In large part this is due to the religious prejudice that rules the people.”
Suhaila Muhseni is a staff writer for IWPR in Kabul. Leiluma Sadid, a freelance reporter in Kabul, also contributed to this report.
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