Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Women Struggle to Overcome Fears

Women traumatised by their experiences under the Mujahedin and the Taleban are finding it hard to adjust to their new found freedom.
By Abdul Akbar

The fundamentalist Taleban regime may be gone but the streets of Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad and other major cities remain packed with veiled women. For many, the struggle to deal with the effects of the student militia's brutal five-year reign - which saw everyday violations of women's human and ethical rights - is only just beginning.


Long before the Taleban, Afghan women faced difficulties. Traditional and conservative social relations and their poor education all posed obstacles. However, despite these constraints some, especially in urban centres such as Kabul, were used to participating actively in society.


This period of relative freedom ended with the Mujahedin rise to power in April 1992. It was then that freedoms began to be curbed and the brutality against women, which is now commonplace, started in earnest. Forced marriages, rape and other crimes were rife under the Mujahedin. And then with the arrival of the Taleban in 1996, the few opportunities for education and work that had existed disappeared.


Over five years in power, the Taleban succeeded in abolishing nearly all-female social activity. Even when walking outside the home, they had to be accompanied by a male family member. They were also ordered to paint their windows dark so they could not be seen by men passing by outside.


Women who violated the Taleban rules were manhandled, tortured and imprisoned. Execution without trial was a regular occurrence. Dr Rahima Zafar Staniczai, head of the Rabia Balkhi hospital for women, recently spoke of how the Taleban's religious police would beat her in the street any time they caught her rushing to work uncovered. "They would hit us and spit on us," she said.


Such repression created deep-seated fears, which persist even with the demise of the Taleban. The continued use of veils is just one indicator.


Soria Azimi, a Kabul university student, said, "Women returning to work after five years of being banned from the workplace still can't put aside their veils. The circumstances may have changed, but they still worry about being targeted by intolerant men."


More evidence of the psychological trauma suffered by women is provided by medical data. A World Health Organisation report published in the Journal of American Medical Association five years ago found that 97 per cent showed signs of depression and 86 per cent suffered symptoms of anxiety. A report released by Physicians for Human Rights in 2001 found that 65 per cent of those women living in Taleban-controlled areas had persistent thoughts of suicide.


Dr Abdul Ahad Awara, assistant director of a Kabul mental hospital, runs an outpatient clinic and is treating dozens of patients, many of them women, for depression on an almost daily basis.


After the collapse of the Taleban administration, the provisional authority created a ministry for women affairs and called on women to become more active in Afghan society. However, many have lost their enthusiasm for work and education, preferring to take part in activities which require less contact with men.


Some women, holding positions in the government, are of the view that to undo the negative effects of the past, the authorities must do more to ensure that women feel more secure, as their fear of being intimidated or attacked is one of the biggest factors holding them back.


The Mujahedin and the Taleban eras may be over, but for the moment many Afghan women continue to live under the dark shadow of their rule.


Abdul Akbar is a Kabul-based journalist


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