Tears beneath the veil

Article published on Sept. 26, 2005
Article published on Sept. 26, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The overthrow of the Taliban did not put an end to religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan. The equality between men and women proclaimed in the new Constitution has not yet had an impact on the private realm.

The world under a burka is suffocating. A small mesh restricts the vision, condemning the wearer to tripping over, at best, or even being run over by a car. The heat of summer induces fainting and there is almost no air left to breathe. However, the cruelest thing is that, for most women, the burka is the only way to feel safe on the streets. Three and a half years after the fall of the Taliban regime, arranged marriages of underage girls, public executions and cases of young women sacrificing themselves to put an end to the violence they suffer are common in Afghanistan. Yakin Ertürk, special correspondent of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights and Violence Against Women, last month denounced the case of an 8 year-old girl, now under protection, whose mother had sold her for marriage at the tender age of 6 and who had been a victim of abuse inflicted not only by her husband but also by the rest of the men in the family.

Amnesty International points to the cause: "The tribal codes, invoked in the name of tradition and religion, are used to justify violations of women’s basic human rights. The transgression of these rights may lead to imprisonment and murder.” The latest report of the organisation on Afghanistan stressed that “husbands, fathers and brothers establish themselves as a parallel justice structure, reinforced by the state authorities and the judicial system."

Tradition and religion

Afghanistan is an ethnic, tribal and linguistic mosaic. The Pashtuns, at over 52% of the population, are the largest of the 50 ethnic groups in the country. The Taliban were Pashtuns and many of the prohibitions and impositions they established – such as the burka – belonged to the Pashtun tribes themselves and not to Islam. An old proverb of this ethnic group is "Khazay la, ya kor, ya gor" (women either in the home or in the grave). "According to the rawaj, the code governing Pashtun society, men are considered to be the guardians of this misinterpreted honour, the weight of which actually falls only on women. Thus, women become the victims of murders which, in the name of tradition, are inflicted with impunity in many rural areas where crimes of honour are considered to be a private matter”, the Afghan reporter Samar Minallah explained to us.

Wherever you look on the map of Afghanistan, the situation of women is not changing much. Fundamentalism and intolerance were not the exclusive heritage of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s regime, though some experts believe that, until he ascended to power, the status of Afghan women varied according to their tribe, ethnic group or the region of the country where they lived. The Taliban unified moral codes under the customs of one of the poorest, most conservative and least literate areas of Afghanistan.

Flowers or thistles?

The new Afghan constitution was the first step towards a change in the legal framework. The text recognises gender equality and emphasises the prohibition of those customs and traditions violating human rights and women’s rights. It also establishes a minimum percentage of women in the Senate and government. The president of the Constitutional Committee, Nematullah Shahrani, pompously declared on the day of approval that "Afghanistan is a garden where there are many types of trees, flowers and thistles. Women are the flowers". The assembly applauded him. President Hamid Karzai asked for an "Afghanistan free of prejudice and hatred, where everybody respects each other." The reality remains very distant from these words. Afghan women’s organisations are very sceptical about the commitment of the current government to this cause. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is doubtful about the “liberal facade” of Karzai and has insinuated that this speech is designed to please the United States.

Of the 6,000 candidates in the parliamentary and provincial elections held on 18 September, 600 were women. Their current presence is largely symbolic, though the current health minister, Sohaila Sediqq, and the governor of Bamiyan, Habia Surobi, are women. They represent the face of a strategy to gradually increase involvement in fields which have been off-limits to them for years. Even so, some candidates in these elections have denounced threats and aggression on the part of fundamentalist groups and some have been denied the possibility to make public speeches, forcing them to organise political meetings at home. Threats were made good in the case of the young MTV Afghanistan presenter, Shaima Rezayee, murdered for her involvement in an “excessively liberal” programme, according to the views of the Islamic organisation, the Council of Ulemas.

For the spokesman of the EU Development Commission, Amadeu Altafaj, things must be straightened out. "Women are represented in the public administration and they have basic guaranteed rights, for example, the right to work. The problem is that the weight of all these years of a misogynistic regime cannot be overcome simply with some legal changes on paper." In the financing of projects in Afghanistan, gender equality is a priority for the European Union. According to Amadeu Altafaj, "international pressure must be maintained by making an all-out effort, starting with schools, which will take quite a few years to produce results".

Afghanistan has an illiteracy rate of 80%. Nine out of ten girls had no access to schooling under the Taliban regime. Today, many parents still refuse to allow their daughters to attend school. Nevertheless, female teachers have emerged from secrecy.