QUEENS, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Today marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. and British forces’ intervention in Afghanistan.
While a recent survey indicates that Afghan women are feeling safer, the vestiges of the Taliban regime are still strongly visible within the society, says Yalda Atif, 21, an Afghan woman studying international law at Brooklyn Community College.
"Many Afghan men consider that women have to stay home and don’t need education," Atif said. "Women still face some difficulties when they want to go to school. This is still the mentality that prevails in the Afghan male mind."
The Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, were infamous for their strict laws marginalizing women that deprived them of the rights to work, study or move freely.
Afghanistan’s constitution now stipulates that men and women have equal rights, but many independent agencies say women in the conservative country are still subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.
Atif came to New York on an academic scholarship and lives with her grandmother in Queen, N.Y.
"As a young woman in Afghanistan, when you are done with school and your education, the community will force you to get married, and I didn’t want that," said Atif.
Sixty-six percent of Afghan women said they feel safer than before the war and 72 percent believe their lives are better, according to a survey released on Monday by ActionAid.
However, 90 percent of them are worried of a return of a Taliban-style government.
Atif says her family gave her an unusual amount of encouragement to pursue her education.
"My family has been my biggest support. In the street that I was living on in Kabul, in my family, we were the only kids going to school and working outside, while the rest of children were at home. I was seeing all our neighbors standing behind their windows and looking at us," she said.
Her mother is a schoolteacher and her two older sisters, who still live in Afghanistan, are highly educated. One is a physician and the other an economist who works for the U.S embassy in Kabul.
Atif recently became a case manager for Women for Afghan Women in Queens, N.Y., after having volunteered for the organization. The advocacy group has been helping Afghan women since April 2001, seven months before the start of the war in Afghanistan.
The organization provides front-line programs and services to women in crisis in eight provinces in Afghanistan (Kabul, Kapisa, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Faryab, Sar-i-Pul, Nangarhar).
It also serves Afghan women living here in Queens. The group provides trainings and workshops about women’s rights according to the law in the United States. About 70 women each week also attend ESL (English as a Second Language) and computer classes offered by the group, said Naheed Bahram, New York’s program manager for Women for Afghan Women. The center also provides a civic education class and preparation for the driving test.
"We help women with social services, domestic violence issues and our main mission is the empowerment of women," Bahram said.
In 2010, Women for Afghan Women served 387 women, among them 37 cases of domestic violence.
"Domestic violence is a huge problem in the Afghan community, but it’s hard to get the word out. Women do not usually come and talk about it," Bahram said.
In Afghanistan a woman who speaks out and seeks help is often seen as bringing shame on her family and that reticence to report abuse persists here.
Steps to Reconstruction
Atif believes that the work done by Women for Afghan Women can help reconstruct her country.
"My philosophy is by trying to build yourself, you will build another Afghan woman, and another Afghan woman will build another Afghan woman. And finally we will reach Afghanistan and that’s how the Afghan society will be changed. But if I don’t do anything, things will not change." she said.
For a few months, Atif has been working on the case of Fakhia, an Afghan woman who only wanted her first name to be used. Fakhia, 31, only speaks Farsi and can barely communicate in English. She emigrated here a year ago after marrying an Afghan-American man.
"Due to security problems and the deterioration of life in Afghanistan, I got married to an American citizen and I was happy to come here in the USA, to live in a safer place," Fakhia said.
But Fakhia’s husband died in a car crash last February, leaving her widowed. She has no family left in New York but she still wants to stay here, not wanting to lose the freedom given to women in the United States and to have the right to "circulate freely without being accompanied by a man" she said.
Fakhia speaks well of the current Afghan government for "providing facilities to improve the daily life of women, like better access to an education and to political life." But she says security problems hinder women by providing another pretext to prevent women to go outside unaccompanied.
Atif backs that up with recollections of the many times her university education was disrupted by safety concerns. "Most of the time, we heard news of a suicide bomber on our way to school or we sometimes had news telling that a suicide bomber will enter into the school. Then we got scared and had to leave the university."
Amid daily violence and frequent terrorist attacks in her country, Atif worries about the Taliban seizing power again. "They still have the power to come back at anytime," she said.
However, she assumes that as long as the United States has a presence in the country that won’t happen. "I trust the Americans and I know that they will not let the Taliban take over," she said.
The Afghan war is widely criticized, including by several Muslim-dominant countries. Pressure for troop withdrawal is rising. But nearly 40 percent of Afghan women think Afghanistan will become a worse place if international troops leave, according to ActionAid’s survey.
Fakhia agrees with that group. "When the Taliban were in power, women were badly treated. But now women have been gaining a little bit more freedom. If they come back, it would be worse for women because the Taliban will never tolerate such betterment for women."
When asked to focus on the destruction caused by 10-year old war, Atif said that was not the entire way to look at it.
"We should also see the positive points of the American deployment in Afghanistan," she said. "The girls now dress differently and go to school. Lots of buildings have been constructed in Kabul. I saw a lot of development in my country. When I saw Americans coming to our universities and offering us a lot of professional opportunities for women and men and providing us with computers and any kind of help they can offer, I think we should also see this positive aspect. We are all grateful for that."
Program manager Bahram agrees. "We do not want them forever in Afghanistan; we want them to leave Afghanistan but only when it will be the right time. I don’t think that Afghanistan is ready yet to stand on its own feet." she said.
While Atif loves her country, she sees her future in the United States.
"When I first came here, somebody asked me, how do I feel. I said ‘I feel like a bird flying.’ When I was walking around here, I wasn’t scared, I was totally satisfied. And now I know who I am and what I can do for myself, for my family and how I can build my personality," she said. "But in Afghanistan I was a very simple-minded girl who only knew the way from my house to school, that was all."
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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in the Middle East and North Africa.
For more information:
"10 years on: women’s stories from Afghanistan," ActionAid:
Women for Afghan Women: