(WOMENSENEWS)--Until this past March, Shaima Rezayee was a co-host of Kabul's No. 1 television show "Hop," an hour-long program of foreign music videos introduced by hip young presenters.
In that spotlight, she had the kind of national recognition enjoyed by few Afghan women, which she said allowed her to set an example for women across the country.
On May 19, the 24-year old was discovered shot in her home. It didn't exactly shock the country. Only weeks after the show's premier in the fall of 2004, Rezayee and her co-host Shakeb Isaar began receiving death threats.
Aired on Afghanistan's first independent station Tolo TV, which boasts an 81 percent share of the Kabul viewing market, "Hop" has been wildly divisive. While drawing cheers from younger information-starved urbanites, conservatives in the country made dire pronouncements about the show's contaminating effects on the culture.
In March, Rezayee was sacked after the country's Supreme Court characterized the show as "un-Islamic." Although the court did not order her removal, the station managers fired her in an attempt to address the court's concerns.
Initially the murder investigation focused on vengeful conservatives, but Kabul police later said Rezayee's family may have been involved in carrying out an "honor killing" because the TV personality had not only worked with men outside her family, but had appeared on air, joking and laughing with her co-host.
The murder investigation is still open.
For many, Rezayee's death is sufficient proof that Afghan women take on grave risks when they battle social convention in a country still heavily influenced by the Taliban.
"Women hear 'we're free' and they don't really realize that things have not changed all that much," says Rona Popal, executive director of Afghan Women's Association International, based in Fremont, Calif. "They know their rights and exhibit overwhelming determination to get jobs, provide food for their families. But there's no real support, no security. And then we see a case like this and all across the country women again find themselves cowed."
But despite the grim conclusions about the dangers facing outspoken women here, many women's rights campaigners believe the impetus for change in Afghanistan--however difficult--remains with women.
"Women can not keep living like this and yet changing things is not a priority for the government," says Manizha Naderi, director of the New York-based advocacy group Women for Afghan Women. "If women do not try to cross the boundaries, Afghanistan can not move forward."
In keeping with Afghan tradition, which holds that the honor of a family resides with its women, females from a very young age come under immense pressure to seem beyond reproach for modesty in their familial and social dealings. Even in the most liberal or educated families, interaction between the sexes is carefully monitored. Justification for an honor killing depends on what the family deems inappropriate, but it often arises from a series of events that call into question whether the woman is engaging in premarital sex or adultery.
The United Nations estimates that annually there are 5,000 honor killings every year.
Numbers on honor killings are hard to come by in Afghanistan, where deaths are often unreported either because the family conceals the nature of the woman's death or because the village where they are living is remote and cut off from authorities. Further, authorities seldom investigate suspicious deaths and have little recourse when they do.
Starting with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in the late 1970s, Afghans struggled through two decades of debilitating wars that left both men and women emotionally battered and living in grinding poverty.
After the Taliban's takeover in the early 1990s women were barred from working or studying and were at the mercy of religious police who had the authority to stop people for alleged infractions and dole out punishments on the spot.
Many Afghans hoped the government of Hamid Karzai, which came to power after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that led to the downfall of the Taliban, would herald a new era for the country. So far, say observers, the government has come up short.
"All you have to do is look at basics to see how bad it is. Few infrastructure projects have gotten off the ground and even in the capital Kabul there is only sporadic electricity," says Naderi. "If you look at the people in the government, aside from Karzai himself, these are the same people who have trampled on women's rights for years."
Gender Unit, Task Force
Karzai's government created a gender unit within the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development Ministry and a multi-ministry task force to combat violence against women.
Afghanistan's constitution, ratified in January 2004, provides equal rights for men and women with 27 percent of seats in the legislature's lower house reserved for women.
In March, the former minister for women's affairs, Habiba Sarobi, became the first woman to be appointed governor of a province.
But despite such efforts, little has changed for women of Afghanistan--especially outside the capital, Amnesty International said in a report last week.
"Discriminatory practices institutionalized prior to and during the war have not dissipated and in some cases have grown stronger," the London-based human rights group said.
A significant constraint to government initiatives remains, the report said, "in the form of the failure to provide physical security to Afghans, particularly women. The climate for enabling men and women to speak out freely is inhospitable."
Armed Men Roam Countryside
Many Afghan watchers agree that the prevalence of armed individuals and militias loyal to various warlords remains the most serious threat to Afghanistan's security and development. Despite some small successes at disarming groups, tens of thousands of armed men roam Afghan provinces displaying no allegiance to federal government mandates.
"First priority has to be removing the fear," says Women for Afghan Women's Naderi. "Many Afghans still don't believe the peace will last, that fighting and militias will come back and then the men in families where women worked or studied will be punished. As long as the fear of violence remains, progress will be limited."
Beyond reigning in the rule of weaponry, women's rights proponents say education is key, not only to improving women's lives, but also to demonstrate the success of foreign aid programs to assist the development of the country as a whole.
"It's quite simple," says Popal of the Afghan Women's Association International. "You can spend a billion dollars a day but Afghanistan will fail if the people are not educated. And if that does not happen, plainly put, there isn't much of a future for any Afghan, especially the women."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.
For more information:
Afghanistan: Women Still Under Attack--a systematic failure to protect:
Empowering Afghan Women:
Afghan Women Prepare to Take Wheel:
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