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Afghanistan 10 Years On: Women See Progress, But Look For Brighter Future

  • Frud Bezhan

An Afghan woman in a burqa walks through the streets of Kabul in 2008.

An Afghan woman in a burqa walks through the streets of Kabul in 2008.

As Nafisa headed home from the local market, a dangerous but necessary venture to buy milk for her sick infant, she was stopped by the Taliban's notorious religious police.

"My grip loosened, and I dropped the container on the ground," she recalls. "I feared I was going to be killed, but all I was thinking about was that my sick child needed this milk."

For the crime of going outside unaccompanied by a male escort, Nafisa was severely punished. The two bearded policemen lashed her to the point of unconsciousness, leaving her in the middle of the road with her blood staining the ground. Her life was spared thanks to one of her neighbors, a middle-aged woman who bravely rushed to her aid and dragged her inside her home.

It's just one of the many vivid memories Nafisa has of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban regime, which ruled the country from 1996 until 2001. The Taliban was ousted from power within weeks of the U.S.-led military campaign that began 10 years ago.

Nafisa was a young mother whose first child, a baby girl, had been born into a world full of fear and suppression. Women could not work or attend schools, were virtually confined to their homes, and were forced to wear burqas that covered them head to toe.

Much has changed since then. Nafisa, 38, now works as a nurse in Faryab Province in remote northwestern Afghanistan. She has two young daughters; both attend school.

Nafisa believes the prospects for Afghan women today contrasts sharply to that of the Taliban era, and lists access to education as one of the biggest accomplishments of the last decade.

"With education, women now have hope that we will no longer be second-class citizens and can make a contribution to rebuilding our country," she says.

But she and other Afghan women say there is still a long way to go.

Still Suffering

According to UNICEF, 2.4 million girls are currently in schools and universities across the country. But the literacy rate for women at 16 percent still pales next to the 31 percent for men. Boys are twice as likely as girls to complete primary school, and there are no girls' schools in three out of every 10 educational districts.

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Lailuma, who was a schoolteacher before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, believes the inroads made in education are being compromised by the volatile security situation in the country.

"Schools will only be useful when there is no fear, [but] there are no new schools," Lailuma says, adding that in some places, girls and boys sit under the hot sun for classes.

"This is not something we desired. When our kids go to school, we, the parents, pray to God for their safe return," Lailuma says. "This kind of education is of no use. Yes, there is education, but what should I do with this kind of education? When a mother is waiting at the door not knowing whether her son will make it home safely or his dead body will arrive."

Women enter the Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif in north Afghanistan.

Women enter the Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif in north Afghanistan.

Lailuma maintains that more work must be done to protect the rights of women, who continue to suffer from unacceptable levels of violence, illiteracy, and discrimination.

"Afghans need to be educated about the rights that women have. Forced marriages, the selling of children, and physical abuse are illegal," she says. "We need to slowly change the culture, the customs, and traditions in Afghanistan, which is still a very patriarchal society."

Not 'Considered Human'

Looking back at the opportunities for progress for women in the last decade, Lailuma is disillusioned that more has not been accomplished.

The average life expectancy for women stands today at 44 years. One Afghan woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth, and two-thirds of women report domestic violence and abuse.

"There is still violence going on against women," Lailuma says. "If you listen to the radio and watch television, you know that women want freedom. But these women's ears and noses are chopped off. Their heads are forcefully shaved. They are killed silently."

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Lailuma is nostalgic about the Soviet era, when the communist Afghan government implemented radical reforms aimed at changing women's status. During this time, she says, women had political roles, economic opportunities, and social freedoms that elude them today.

"It will be freedom when a human being is considered human," Lailuma says. "The freedom women have now is nothing like what we had when we were young [during the communist era]. There was freedom. There was not such violence. Compared to that time, women face more cruelty."

During this time, it was compulsory for girls to go to school. Women had their own political groups, and campaigned for social and political reform. Women also made up the majority of students and teachers at schools and universities across the country.

Beyond 'Showpieces'

Shukria Barakzai, a prominent female member of the current Afghan parliament, admits that Afghan women are only at the beginning of a long struggle to regain the rights and freedoms they enjoyed in the past. But she is adamant that success will be achieved.

"Change comes, I can see [it]; I can feel [it]," Barakzai says. "Not the complete change that I want, but we are just at the beginning. It's like 1,000 steps. We may only be on the fourth or fifth, but it does not mean that we cannot move to the 1,000th one."

Barakzai says women's rights in Afghanistan are a complex issue that will take time to implement.

"We want the public opinion to support the women's rights issue, and also the government of Afghanistan to take the women's rights issue to be implemented...seriously, not only just [for] show," Barekzai says.

Nafisa, who struggles to forget the abuses of the past, realizes it is something she must face. And secure with her daughters by her side in their small mud home, she takes strength and looks toward their bright future.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Homayoon Shinwary in Prague, and RFE/RL Radio Free Mashaal correspondent Bashir Ahmad Gwakh in Kabul contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to