When asked what she desired most for Afghanistan’s future, “Nadia,” a Kabul university student, didn’t hesitate. “First, we wish the girls who live in the provinces would have schools — not just grades one through five at most. Second, we wish that they would collect all the guns from the gunmen, so girls can go out and go to school. Third, we wish they would talk with families — girls are interested but some families won’t let them go out. Yes, people are afraid of what would happen from the gunmen if they allowed their girls to go to school. Of course they are afraid of men with guns or other groups,” she said.

“Safia,” a student in the western town of Herat, has less to fear from the gunmen who continue to roam much of Afghanistan almost two years after the ouster of the Taliban. But, at the age of 18, she despairs about her future. Punished by Herat officials for writing an article saying that women, like men, should be able “to go out, find a job in the highest posts and live in society,” Safia has stopped working as a journalist. “You are wrong. We are not the Taliban,” the official told her. She replied, “We should compare our situation with the whole world and not just the Taliban.”

The gunmen who still hold Afghan women and girls hostage are not just ordinary criminals. They are soldiers, policemen and intelligence officers of local commanders and warlords, many of whom ultimately answer to high-level Afghan officials and who rule the country outside of the capital of Kabul. Many warlords were previously in power in the early 1990s, before the Taliban seized power, and Afghans have not forgotten the abuses they committed then. As one woman in a rural area under the control of commanders loyal to political figure Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf explained: “We are afraid because we remember the past.”

In Kabul, patrolled by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) now under the command of NATO, things are somewhat better. Still, women’s representation in government ministries is severely limited, and women and men who seek to create new political parties or publicly criticize government officials have been intimidated and sometimes silenced.

Despite high hopes when the Taliban were driven from power, many Afghan women are now disappointed. Throughout Afghanistan, severe discrimination and sexual violence are still keeping Afghan women and girls marginalized — politically, economically and socially. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in November 2001 that “the recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women…. The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable.” While conditions are better than under the Taliban, the Afghan interim government and international community have yet to deliver on the promises made to Afghanistan’s long-suffering women and girls.

Gender-Based Violence

“There are lots of men with guns looting and stealing money and raping the women. This is happening everywhere, including to our neighbors,” a rural woman said in March. “We keep awake and walk around so that no intruders can come here…. Of course we are afraid. I have a young daughter, and I am a young woman.”

In many areas of the country and even in some parts of Kabul, security forces are committing violent criminal offenses — armed robbery, rape, extortion and kidnappings. [1] In Paghman district, less than an hour’s drive from Kabul, people are staying awake all night long, patrolling their property in shifts, to protect themselves from marauding soldiers and police. In eastern and southeastern provinces and parts of Kabul, men and women recount harrowing stories of soldiers breaking into their homes, holding them hostage, stealing their valuables and sometimes raping the women and girls. Women, girls and boys have been abducted outside of their homes in broad daylight. In parts of Ghazni province, soldiers have reportedly kidnapped girls on the way to school.

“Roya” was stabbed four times in her Kabul home by intruders she believes were police. When she told the men she had no more money to give them, they tore her baby from her arms and threw him to the ground. “I didn’t even let him walk fast because I was scared that he would fall down, so how could I bear to see this?” she said. Roya and her family left their home, which they own, and now rent a few rooms closer to central Kabul. She has given up her dream of driving. “Still during the night I am scared,” she says. “When I hear a noise, I see the faces of those men.”

In addition to the terrible physical and psychological harm caused by the attacks themselves, women and girls suffer severe restrictions not imposed on males. In many parts of the country, these restrictions compromise the most basic freedoms: to seek education, to seek life-saving health care and, in some cases, even to leave the walls of the family compound. If women cannot move freely within their communities and country, they cannot play their full role in the country’s political life, whether in shaping the imminent new constitution or actively participating in the planned 2004 elections. While the de jure discrimination imposed by the Taliban has ended in many places, life for too many women and girls in Afghanistan remains subject to de facto restrictions. “We couldn’t go out during the Taliban,” another woman in rural Paghman said. “Now we are free and we can go out, but we don’t.”

Girls Not in School

Neither “Farishta,” 13, nor her seven year-old sister are in school in 2003. Their brothers can go, their mother explained, but the girls’ school is several kilometers away and armed men had recently raped neighboring women. They could hear their neighbors screaming for help, Farishta said. “We were afraid. The men had guns and we do not.” Farishta and her sister cannot read; they spend their days working at home.

The return of girls to school has been one of the most lauded gains of post-Taliban Afghanistan. About 1.14 million girls are now enrolled, according to UNICEF, but millions more are not. In some areas, girls’ participation rate is as low as 3 percent.

Cultural barriers are only one reason why. For many girls (and boys) there is no school nearby. When schools are far away, girls are disproportionately affected because parents are less likely to allow them to walk long distances, especially in dangerous areas. As a farmer explained in March: “Those who do want to send the girls to school face all sorts of problems from the armed men. If a family does want to send girls to school, they have to keep in mind that the girls might be dishonored. Why? Because there are armed men who have no fear of God or fear of other people. They rob, they enter into houses, they loot and they touch women.” Outside of Kabul, many families say that they value education but are unable to send their older girls to school, even where one is available, for fear they will be attacked or kidnapped. Many of these same families have sent their girls to school in Iran or Pakistan, where they were refugees during the civil war of the 1990s.

In some parts of Afghanistan, access to education is further impeded by attacks on schools, often by groups opposed to the Kabul-based government. From August 2002 to June 2003, in at least nine provinces, there were more than 30 such attacks in which educational materials, tents and buildings were burned or bombed. [2] School attacks often coincide with the anonymous distribution of threatening leaflets in mosques or high-traffic areas, warning parents not to send girls to school or threatening Afghans working with the government, with foreigners or with “infidels.” Many schools have reopened after being attacked, and many teachers and girls bravely say that they will continue despite threats. Others, however, say they have been deterred.

Extreme Discrimination in Herat

Even where the threat of sexual violence looms less large, women are still being intentionally marginalized. In the western province of Herat, the local governor, Ismail Khan, provides women and girls with relative physical security but little else, restricting their access to work, civil society and transportation, and policing their dress and speech. [3] While girls and women have better access to education and are not beaten by authorities in the street as they were under the Taliban, Ismail Khan’s government is policing virtually every aspect of their lives.

For women and girls in Herat, every decision of every day presents dangers or challenges. Unlike under the Taliban, they can now leave their homes during the day without being accompanied by a close male relative (mahram). However, they still may not walk or ride in a car alone with a man who is not a close relative, even a taxi driver. A police task force patrols the city, arresting men and women who are seen together and are suspected of being unrelated or unmarried. Men are taken to jail; women and girls are taken to a hospital to undergo forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse.

Women and older girls must wear a burqa or chadori; if they go without it, they may be harassed and threatened by the police as well as private individuals. Unlike in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, women are not permitted to drive cars and have been arrested for trying. They do not ride bicycles. (Even if these acts were permitted, they would be impossible wearing a burqa.) A public transportation system hardly exists, and where it does it is inadequate, leaving women and girls with few ways to get to school, work or the market, or to seek medical care.

Once a Herat woman arrives at her destination, she must conform her speech, behavior and appearance to Ismail Khan’s restrictions and edicts, which she has no way to challenge. If she is a teacher, for example, she must not let any hair escape from her headscarf, shake hands with a man or criticize the government. If she works for a foreign organization, she must not ride in cars with foreign men or be seen talking too loudly and laughing with them — at least one woman has been arrested and detained for similar reasons.

Students and professors at Herat University report that they fear discussing anything political. Women students, who are completely segregated from the men, have been castigated for wearing high-heeled shoes that make noise when they walk and for telling journalists that they want co-educational classes. Girls cannot study music or play sports.

At home, a woman or girl can expect no protection from violent or abusive family members — as in most parts of the country, fleeing from domestic violence or a forced marriage may result in her arrest and prosecution. She lacks any official means of contesting male family members’ decisions about whom she will marry or whether she can attend school or work.

Few jobs are open to women in Herat, and Ismail Khan has pressured women not to work with international NGOs or for the United Nations, although these agencies need women to administer many of their emergency aid and reconstruction programs. At the same time, almost no women have been invited to work in the Herat government. Denying women and girls the opportunity to use their studies in effect makes a mockery of the right to education. According to one Herati: “These things, these attitudes, mean that for the few women who have an education at the university — it is useless.”

Many rules are aimed at keeping the sexes segregated, which affects women and girls differently than men by excluding women and girls from bodies where decisions are made, from civic and cultural activities, from work, and from equal education. The consequences of breaking these rules are also different for women than for men.

Price of Speaking Out

“Women should be participating in policy, social and cultural things and throughout the community and the government,” said “Mena,” a Herat university student. “But women are just sitting there and listening. They should be able to create things that they want and give their ideas to others. Their ideas are important. Men and women’s ideas are equal. Men should be respectful of women’s ideas. But I don’t know anyone who speaks her ideas freely now,” she explained.

Throughout Afghanistan, women and girls like Mena express a strong desire to participate in their country’s civil and political life, to be able to speak freely, both publicly and privately, and to have a voice in government decisions — especially those that affect them. At present, warlords like Ismail Khan are not allowing ordinary women or men to take part in most decision-making processes, but this repression is falling doubly hard on women. Very few forums are open to women outside of Kabul, and those that are open are heavily censored by local rulers.

In Jalalabad, Laghman and Herat provinces, women have been targeted simply for speaking publicly or for speaking about and promoting women’s rights. In March 2003, troops in an eastern province assaulted a teacher in her home the day after she read aloud a poem about women’s rights at a ceremony commemorating International Women’s Day. The troops reportedly told her: “You are going out and teaching, and going to meetings and acting for women’s rights. You are just a teacher. If you want to go to school, go and come back home, but don’t talk to anyone about women’s rights.”

Attacks on women’s rights activists not only punish the women involved, but also have a chilling effect on all women who wish to advocate on behalf of other women or participate in public affairs. Still, another activist, who had herself been threatened repeatedly, remained defiant: “This is my duty and as long as I have blood in my body, I will not give up and stop work.”

Amidst official proclamations that restrictions on women are part of Afghan culture and values, many women and girls say they want to participate in decisions about what their values and culture comprise. “We don’t want to live like European women,” said one. “We want to live as humans. It is our right to live as human because we are humans just like men.” For instance, in addition to wanting to work, study, speak freely and participate in the decisions that affect them, many say they would like to decide for themselves whether to wear the burqa as opposed to modest clothing that places far fewer constraints on mobility. But most, especially outside of Kabul, are not free to decide. In some areas, including Paghman district outside of Kabul and Herat city, soldiers, police and other armed men are actually enforcing the wearing of the burqa. In Jalalabad and Laghman, certain government officials have threatened to beat or kill women who do not wear it.

Sexual violence, and accompanying restrictions on women and girls’ freedom of movement and access to education, make it harder for women to work. But even where they are not in direct physical danger, women face discrimination by employers, including government officials, and, especially in rural areas, a dearth of jobs even for women who could fill them. Several women in Jalalabad left their teaching positions in 2003 because the education department head, Abdul Ghani, had ordered teachers not to attend public occasions or meetings without his permission, intimidated women for speaking publicly about women’s rights, harassed teachers in school for wearing lipstick and nail polish, and threatened personally to beat teachers seen outside without a burqa.

Necessary Tasks Ahead

Improving Afghan women’s physical security is critical. “When women are afraid to go out in the street, they can’t take advantage of the theoretical freedoms that are now available to them,” says a Kabul-based gender expert. While some 5,000 troops of the new Afghan National Army have been trained, it is many years away from being able to guarantee the country’s security. At present, the military faction Shura-e Nazar is dominating the Ministry of Defense and, thus, efforts to rebuild the army. The faction’s dominance is also impeding the disarmament and demobilization of former fighters and commanders. Until the new army is functional, ISAF should be expanded outside of Kabul and regional warlords like Ismail Khan with terrible records on women’s rights must no longer be entrusted with providing security. While increasingly recognizing the need to expand ISAF, states have yet to commit the requisite troops and resources.

But guaranteeing physical security alone, without ensuring other basic human rights, will not fulfill the promises made to Afghan women. The US and the international community, as major power brokers in Afghanistan, have put too little pressure on military leaders outside of Kabul to obey President Hamid Karzai’s authority, to uphold human rights standards or to relinquish power. Karzai’s own efforts to sideline regional commanders have not been particularly effective, partially because of the lack of US support. While the warlords themselves are, of course, ultimately to blame, the United States and other foreign powers also bear responsibility for the actions of those they have propelled to power or for failing to take steps against other abusive commanders. Having ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in March, the Karzai government now faces the challenge of incorporating the convention’s protections into law, and making them available to Afghan women and girls in practice. Women and men be able must participate in all aspects of governance and society without facing violence or discrimination. If women and girls continue to be marginalized, by warlords or policy, efforts at national reconstruction will fail.


[1] Human Rights Watch, “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us”: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan (New York, July 2003).
[2] This list is based on firsthand interviews with Afghans, confirmed press accounts and data from UN agencies. However, it is incomplete: no organization in Afghanistan appears to be actively monitoring the attacks. Ibid., pp. 82-83, 96-101.
[3] See Human Rights Watch, “We Want to Live as Humans”: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan (New York, December 2002) and Human Rights Watch, All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan (New York, November 2002).

How to cite this article:

Zama Coursen-Neff "Afghan Women and Girls Still Held Hostage," Middle East Report 228 (Fall 2003).

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