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Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch Says Women Still Oppressed

  • Ron Synovitz

Investigators from Human Rights Watch say women in Afghanistan still face many of the same repressive policies they did under the Taliban regime. A study published this week by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization notes some progress on women's rights, but it found that harassment of women by officials in western Afghanistan has been increasing since the start of the year. And it says repression of women continues in parts of Afghanistan controlled by other regional militia commanders.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch says women in the western Afghan province of Herat face official religious restrictions similar to those imposed by the Taliban regime. The restrictions include rules that force women to wear the all-covering burqa and the continued existence of morality police who can order "chastity tests" for any woman seen alone with a man who is not a relative.

The allegations are contained in the second of a two-part study by the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that focuses on the rule of Herat's provincial governor, Ismail Khan.

Zama Coursen-Neff, a co-author of both reports, told RFE/RL that most of the world has the wrong idea about progress made during the past year on the rights of Afghan women. "One year after the fall of the Taliban, many people [outside Afghanistan] believe that the women and girls in Afghanistan have been liberated. And it's just not true. All over the country, the rights of women and girls are under attack in Afghanistan," Coursen-Neff said.

Coursen-Neff said the reality of the situation for Afghan women in the post-Taliban era is much worse than Western political and military leaders admit. "Throughout the country, the promise that the international community has made to women and girls in Afghanistan [liberation] has not yet been delivered on," Coursen-Neff said.

Coursen-Neff told RFE/RL that the abuses faced by women all over the country are often at the hands of troops and officials from factions of the former Northern Alliance who are now part of the central government.

She said Ismail Khan, the post-Taliban governor of Herat, is one of the most oppressive regional leaders in Afghanistan. And she said Ismail Khan appears to have become more extreme in his Islamic views and restrictions against women during the past year than he had been when he was governor of Herat in the early 1990s, before Taliban rule. "Women and girls in Herat [today] are facing severe restrictions in their ability simply to leave their homes. Women and girls are not allowed to drive. They'll be arrested if they drive. They can't travel with an unrelated man -- even in a taxi with an unrelated taxi driver -- because if they are caught with an unrelated man, the police can haul them off to the hospital for a test to determine if they have recently had sexual activity," Coursen-Neff said.

The Human Rights Watch investigator said injury is being added to insult because Ismail Khan's morality police -- a reconfiguration of the Taliban-era Ministry of Vice and Virtue -- is squandering precious medical resources on these "chastity tests." "Women and girls have almost no access to medical care in Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, where fewer than 1 percent of women give birth with a trained birth attendant. And in Afghanistan as a whole, the maternal mortality rate is 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 live births. And at the same time, the Herat government is using these extraordinarily scarce medical resources to perform forced exams on women," Coursen-Neff said.

Amina Afzali, a native of Herat who is also a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told "The Washington Post" that neither she nor the commission had heard any reports of women in Herat being forced to undergo the medical chastity tests described by Human Rights Watch.

But the Afghan office of another organization, the International Human Rights Law Group, told the prominent Washington newspaper that its informants in Herat had confirmed that such cases had occurred.

Human Rights Watch based its conclusions on interviews with more than 100 people in Herat during the autumn, including discussions with medical workers at the only hospital in the city. One doctor told Human Rights Watch that police bring about 10 women and girls to the Herat hospital each day for chastity tests.

Coursen-Neff praised the way Ismail Khan has allowed women and girls to return to schools that had been closed during the Taliban era, as well as the opening of schools to women and girls in other parts of the country.

But she said that while those developments appear for now to have satisfied demands by Western leaders for improvements to women's rights, it is only one aspect of a much broader picture. "Women and girls are, [in] large part, back in school in western Afghanistan. And that is incredibly important. But in fact, what many women and girls have said to me was that a woman's rights in Herat [are limited to] the right to education -- period," Coursen-Neff said.

In Herat, in particular, women have only a few professional options open to them, such as teaching. In almost all other aspects of life, Coursen-Neff said the freedoms of women in western Afghanistan remain fettered. "They face restrictions on what they can say, what they can wear, how they can behave. They have to stay separate from men. They can't criticize the government or talk about women's rights. Really, the government of Ismail Khan is policing all aspects of women and girls' lives in Herat," Coursen-Neff said.

The newly released Human Rights Watch report says the situation in Herat appears to be part of a larger pattern of rights abuses against women in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch issued an equally critical report about Ismail Khan last month that described widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and torture by police and security forces under his command. "Civic forums are heavily controlled by Ismail Khan's government. Since there is no freedom of the press or freedom of speech in Herat, it is very difficult for people to talk openly about women's rights, or for women and girls to talk about what rights they'd like to have -- and to be able to define those openly. In our first report [about Ismail Khan] in November of this year, we documented cases of political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and routine torture that make people in Herat live in fear of speaking critically in any way about the government," Coursen-Neff said.

Ismail Khan has denied the allegations of rights abuses under his rule and has expressed anger about last month's Human Rights Watch report. At a massive public rally in the city last month, just days after that first report was released, Ismail Khan referred to Afghans who work for human rights groups as "spies" under foreign pay. "We believe that those who provided the allegations in the report on human rights are among us," he said. "And I can simply take that brother's hand and stand him in front of your eyes."

In the same speech, Ismail Khan urged those in attendance -- including thousands of the rank-and-file troops in his private militia -- to take Sharia law into their own hands against those they deem to be "wrongdoers." "[Some] immoral people are trying to lead our society toward immorality. There is no need to take [these people] to the police station or to the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Why don't you [yourself] prevent some of our brothers and sisters from committing actions that are against our religion, our country, and Sharia [law] in some of the shops or in other parts of the city?" Ismail Khan said.

But when asked by RFE/RL last month to respond to the Human Rights Watch allegations, a spokesman for Ismail Khan agreed only on condition that any interview not be broadcast in Dari or Pashto, Afghanistan's two main languages. RFE/RL refused to accept such preconditions.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said Ismail Khan isn't the only official to misrepresent the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Coursen-Neff said investigations by her group found the situation for women in Afghanistan today differs markedly from the image of "liberation" presented by the administration in Washington. "One of the worst examples is Ismail Khan in western Afghanistan, in Herat. But he is not unique. The rights of women and girls are under attack over all of Afghanistan. We're seeing attacks on the right to education [through bomb and rocket attacks on schools]. We're seeing women and girls being harassed by troops, by police, by those who are designed to protect them. In many parts of Afghanistan, women are in fear for their very lives," Coursen-Neff said.

As a result, Human Rights Watch has issued a series of recommendations for the United States, the United Nations, and the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. Coursen-Neff outlined those recommendations. "First is to provide security, to expand the peacekeepers outside of Kabul. Right now, security of most of Afghanistan is in the hands of those who threaten it the most, that is, the warlords like Ismail Khan. But there are also others. The second thing is to get rid of the warlords. There should be no assistance that is going to warlords like Ismail Khan. We need to have assistance going through the central government to strengthen that government. The next thing that needs to be done is to strengthen the institutions of the central government, like the national human rights commission, like the women's ministry, or building a national army," Coursen-Neff said.

Coursen-Neff concluded that the plight of all Afghans will remain difficult as long as regional militia commanders maintain control over the Afghan provinces and the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains weak. "If the warlords stay in power, then you will have those who are the worst violators of human rights continuing to abuse the rights of women and girls, but also all people who live under them. And the central government won't be strong enough on its own to do something about that. That's why the support of the international community now is so critical. And that's why the United States has such an important role to play in providing security outside of Kabul," Coursen-Neff said.

For his part, Karzai rejects any criticism that compares the situation of women today with that of the Taliban era. Karzai, who is in Oslo where officials from 22 countries have gathered for a donors conference this week, said that he would investigate charges of worsening abuses in Herat during the past year and would crack down if necessary.

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