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Licensed Harassment

Women drivers face continual insults on the road, especially outside Kabul.
By Sadeq Behnam
When Suraya returned to Afghanistan from Iran a few months ago, one of the first things she did was acquire a driving license. She dreamed of being independent and of being able to drive around her home city, Herat in the west of the country.

But the 23-year-old soon found out that going out alone in her car was impossible.

“I thought getting a license would be the problem,” she said, draped in a black Iranian-style chador and sitting behind the wheel of her car in the Takht-e-Safar park, two kilometres north of Herat. “But the real problem is harassment.”

On the very few occasions when she ventured out in the city, Suraya found herself the target of young men on motorcycles who followed her, calling her names and taunting her.

“I am a human being but I am denied my basic human rights,” she complained.

Under the Taleban, women were not allowed to drive, or even to leave the house without a male family member in attendance.

After the Taleban regime was toppled, in 2001, Herat was headed by former mujahedin commander Ismail Khan, who ruled the region with an iron hand. He too decreed that no woman could get a license or drive a car. The few who tried were stopped on the road, and their male relatives were summoned by the police and warned not to let it happen again.

When Ismail Khan was removed as governor in 2004, the atmosphere in Herat eased somewhat, and women flocked to driving classes.

According to Assadullah Afzali, head of the licence issuing office at Herat’s traffic department, there are currently 25 women waiting to get licences. Like their male counterparts, they have to sign up for lessons - two weeks of theory and one of practice - from the department’s driving instructors.

“So far 165 women have done driving courses with Herat traffic department, of whom only 75 have succeeded in getting licenses,” he said.

But this year, said Afzali, the number of women applying for driver’s licenses has been cut in half.

“The reason for this decline is harassment of women drivers,” he said.

“When women are legally issued with driving licences by the government, no one has a right to harass them or prevent them from driving,” said Abdul Rauf, a press officer at Herat police headquarters. “The police will take legal action against those who create problems for women drivers.”

Police in Herat said that there have been 30 cases of harassment of female drivers by motorcyclists over the past six months. The offenders were all jailed for short periods - in some cases just a few hours – and then released after promising not to do it again.

In Kabul, Assadullah, the head of licensing at Afghanistan’s Central Traffic Department, confirmed that most of the problems occur outside the capital.

To date, his office has issued 350 driving licences to women across Afghanistan.

“Women drivers in Kabul don’t have any problems, but the situation is different in the regions,” he said.

Herat is a very conservative province, where few women work, female singers are rarely shown on television, and many girls and women cannot even leave their houses without their family’s permission.

“Women should do housework. They shouldn’t drive as men do. That is the man’s job,” said Noor Ahmad, a male resident of Herat city, sitting in his white Toyota Corolla.

“We fought the jihad to protect our women. If a man lets his wife drive in the city, he betrays the jihad.”

Gulsom, 19, who is taking driving lessons in Herat, has little patience with such attitudes.

“Most of the people who don’t want women to drive freely are former mujahedin,” she said. “They get young men to harass us. But I am determined to drive once I get my license.”

Some women continue to drive despite the problems. Najia, 28, carries on despite having been harassed and threatened several times.

“At the beginning, it was very difficult for me because they [motorcyclists] followed me and harassed me in every street, but now I don’t care about them,” she said. “I ask the police to take tough measures against these people.”

Maulawi Bashir Ahmad Munib, a lecturer at the Sharia law faculty of Herat University, told IWPR that according to the precepts of Islam, women have a right to drive.

“There is no problem with women driving, according to Islam, as long as they cover themselves and the security situation allows it,” he said.

But that is not much comfort to Lailuma, 21, a literature student at the university who can only dream of driving a car.

“My husband gives me a hard time about coming to university, so how is he going to let me get a driving licence?” she asked.

“Whenever I see people driving, I wish I were a man so that I could be free.”

Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali are IWPR contributors in Herat.

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