Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly ambivalent on women’s rights. He stressed the importance of girls’ education in a January speech at Georgetown University, but female lawmakers and rights workers say he changes his tune on home turf. In March 2012 he appeared to back comments by the Ulema Council, a powerful group of Afghan religious scholars, which said women are worth less than men. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual report on the state of rights in the world, warned ominously that “the Afghan government’s failure to respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already-perilous state of women’s rights.” It added that growing global fatigue is “reducing political pressure on the government” to safeguard women.
Increasing anguish over security left Bobak feeling she had no choice but to quit her job.“If foreigners were staying, I’d go back to work right away,” she says.
This pervasive fear of the unknown means women are making fewer appearances on the dust-coated, rutted roads zigzagging Afghanistan’s major cities, observers say. “You hardly see women on the streets nowadays. As a woman, you feel everyone is looking at you. Even going to restaurants has become tense,” says the 37-year-old Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from Badakshan province, on Tajikistan’s southern border. The widowed mother of two daughters, Koofi campaigns for girls’ education and has launched an idealistic bid to become president next year.
She is riding on the international success of her memoir, The Favored Daughter, detailing her youth as the 19th child of a polygamous father who had seven wives. Koofi was recently forced to change the security policy at her palatial home after receiving more written and verbal threats “than usual” from the Taliban, she says. Several years ago, gunmen riddled her car with bullets when she was in it, but she survived unscathed.
“We’re more at risk, and I think as we get closer to 2014 the risk of being targeted and attacked will increase,” Koofi says.
The ubiquitous feeling of oppression returned in 2012, when the “double whammy” of the 2014 troop withdrawal and presidential election reduced the ability of politicians and activists to fight for women’s rights, says Erica Gaston of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “It is not surprising that given this shrinking political space on all progressive issues, women activists are the first to feel it.”
Last year proved exceptionally violent for women, including a wave of high-profile killings, such as the car bomb attack on Hanifa Safi, head of women’s affairs in eastern Laghman province. Months later, her successor Nadia Sediqqi was shot dead. According to the United Nations, 301 women and girls were killed last year, a 20-percent increase from 2011, with deliberate targeting by insurgents rising threefold.
In January, the head of women’s affairs in northern Balkh province, Fariba Majid, fled to Finland, where she reportedly claimed asylum. “They wanted to kill her,” the department’s caretaker Miriam Muradi whispered down a crackly phone line.
Koofi says the damaging effects of targeting high-profile women are far-reaching: “This can silence the whole women’s movement, leading sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to think twice before they allow women out of their homes.”
Educated Afghan women often evoke history when evaluating their status, capturing the tug of war between urban female emancipators and the rural conservatives. One of the first orders the illiterate bandit Habibullah Kalakani gave after deposing Amanullah in 1929 was to shut girls’ schools. In the early 1930s, after Kalakani was deposed, his successor reopened them. Afghanistan’s gender policy continued to swing like a pendulum for the rest of the 20th century. The 1950s saw the arrival of female doctors; a decade later women joined government for the first time, followed by years of mass literacy campaigns. The Soviet war of the 1980s and the civil war that began in 1992 increasingly excluded women from the public. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned women from talking to men who were not a relative or husband and ordered the windows of homes be painted so that women could not be seen inside.
At the back of a shoddily painted police station in Kabul, 47-year-old First Lt. Zakiya Mohammadi is unwavering in her assessment of the future. “Once the Americans go we’ll have to sit at home again, bored,” she told me in the office where she has intermittingly worked for decades — depending on who was running the country.
Amie Ferris-Rotman is senior correspondent for Reuters in Afghanistan.