Tahmeena Faryal and a member of RAWA

PASADENA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–Hours before images of jubilant Iraqis toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein made their way around the globe last month, Afghan women’s rights activist Tahmeena Faryal took the podium at California Institute of Technology’s Baxter Hall to tell an audience what has happened in Afghanistan since the cameras stopped rolling there. Her message: Although the Taliban has been driven from power, Afghan women still suffer under fundamentalist persecution–and the United States has not kept its promise of liberation.

Born in Afghanistan, Faryal grew up as a refugee in Pakistan, after her parents fled their homeland following the Soviet invasion in 1979. She now works full time for RAWA–the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan–as an advocate for the rights of Afghan women.

Since it was established in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1977, RAWA has survived because it works as an underground organization in that country. Though RAWA provides mobile health teams in eight Afghan provinces, runs handicrafts centers and works through home-based schools to provide literacy classes and human rights education, they do not take credit for these projects within the country. A spokesperson for RAWA abroad, Faryal keeps personal details and photos of her face out of press reports, due to fear for her safety.

When the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan ended the five-year rule of the Taliban in October 2001, Faryal hoped for a democratic government that would make such precautions unnecessary. Less than two months later, that hope dwindled when the United Nations convened peace talks in Bonn, Germany, with the Northern Alliance at the table. As she saw it, the international community’s decision to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s new government simply exchanged one fundamentalist regime for another.

The Northern Alliance includes a collection of Mujahadeen warlords who ousted the Soviets in 1992 and then plunged the country into a brutal four-year civil war, during which civilians, especially women, were frequent targets. “Their real place is in the Hague Court, not the government of Afghanistan,” said Faryal.

Northern Alliance members now rule as semi-autonomous warlords in many provinces, and several hold key cabinet positions in President Hamid Karzai’s administration. Mounting evidence of abuses of women’s rights in Afghanistan indicates that fundamentalism continues to hold sway in Kabul and the countryside.

The Burqa Is Back

In December 2002, President Karzai decreed that women had the right to choose whether to wear a burqa, the head-to-toe veil that came to symbolize women’s oppression under the Taliban. Despite this announcement, women inside and outside Kabul continue to wear the concealing garment, said Faryal, because “they find more safety and security” under the veil.

Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan girls have been permitted to go to school and women have been allowed to rejoin the work force. But recent events may indicate that fundamentalist restrictions on women are taking hold in Afghanistan once again.

Last summer, President Karzai demoted Dr. Sima Samar, then-minister for women’s affairs, to a less prominent position within the human rights commission after Islamic fundamentalists accused her of blasphemy for speaking out on past offenses against women committed by the Taliban and the Mujahadeen. Later in the year, the Afghan government established the Department of Islamic Teaching under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Akin to the Taliban-era Department of Vice and Virtue, the new department trains and deploys women to stop public displays of “un-Islamic” behavior among Afghan women. In January, Afghanistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari banned cable television broadcasts, declaring that the images violate Islamic morals.

Even more disheartening is the situation of women in Afghan’s warlord-ruled provinces. According to a U.N. report on women in Afghanistan released in January, there have been arson attacks on girls’ schools in several provinces. The report also indicates that forced marriages, domestic violence, kidnapping of young girls, harassment and intimidation of women continue unabated.

Arrests of Women Seen with Wrong Men

Religious police in the Western province of Herat have arrested women who appeared in public with men who were not their husbands or relatives and forced them to submit to gynecological exams to see if they had recently had intercourse, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last December. Ismail Kahn, the governor of Herat recently banned men from teaching female students. According to a U.S. State Department report released in March, a 14-year-old in Herat attempted suicide by immolation after she had been given in marriage to a 60-year-old man with grown children.

“Children deserve more, women deserve more,” said Anne Brodsky, who has traveled extensively in Pakistan and Afghanistan conducting research for her recently completed book, “With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan,” which documents the history of RAWA. “If we are not careful, Afghanistan will once again be the largest forgotten tragedy,” she added.

In April, a government-appointed committee finished the first draft of Afghanistan’s new constitution. President Karzai appointed a 34-member constitutional commission to finalize the draft and submit it to the Constitutional Loya Jirga. Only seven women serve on the commission. According to an April report from Radio Free Europe, the draft constitution establishes that in areas where no law passed by both houses of parliament and approved by the president exists, Islamic religious law will prevail. The draft constitution has not been widely distributed, nor has it been translated into English. The constitutional commission will spend a month gathering public input on the document, which they plan to finalize by August.

While the central government works toward writing the new law of the land, however, it struggles to maintain the rule of law in the provinces. An international security force maintains security in Kabul, but outside the capital the provincial governors reign over local militias and challenge the central authority. Ismail Khan in the West, Gul Agha Shirzai in the South and Abdurrashid Dostum in the north continue to defy Kabul. The United Nations credits the lawlessness in the provinces with the continued persecution of women.

“If we have a good constitution but we cannot implement it in a good way, this means the country will not go in the right direction,” said Afghan Women’s Affairs Minister Habiba Surabi in a statement to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Taliban Rule Was Not So Different

According to a January 2003 U.N. report on the situation of women in Afghanistan, “Intimidation and violence by regional and local commandos against women continue unabated. In rural areas, especially in the more conservative tribal belt, the situation of women has not changed to any great extent since the removal of the Taliban.”

President Karzai is unlikely to unseat the unruly regional governors without U.S. or international support, many experts say. The Washington Post reported in March that President Karzai broached the subject with President Bush during a February trip to Washington. But U.S. forces have strong ties to the local leaders. The U.S. played a major role in bringing Ismail Khan to power in Herat, says the article, and the governor’s militia guard the residential compounds of U.S. special forces.

Faryal said she wants to see an expansion of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and disarmament of the regional warlords before the first post-Taliban elections, which will take place next year. Until then, she says she will continue speaking out in an effort to draw the world’s attention back to Afghanistan with the hope that the cameras will return, and people will care again.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan:

United Nations–Commission on the Status of Women
“The situation of women and girls in Afghanistan”
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):

Human Rights Watch–“‘We Want to Live As Humans’: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan”
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):