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Afghanistan: HRW Focusing On Further Violations Of Women's Rights

The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch is calling attention, once again, to an emerging pattern of laws in the western Afghan province of Herat that restricts the rights of women.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch is calling on the United Nations and all donors to Afghan reconstruction to increase pressure on Herat Governor Ismail Khan to rescind the growing restrictions on women and girls.

The move follows the announcement of rules on female education in Herat Province that prohibit men from teaching either women or girls in private education courses. The new laws also uphold strict gender segregation in all schools.

Human Rights Watch representative John Sifton told RFE/RL that the shortage of female teachers in western Afghanistan means the restrictions will severely limit the ability of women and girls to receive an education: "A lot of women in Herat are trying to make up for lost time under the Taliban. Many of them were denied education for the last six years. Now Ismail Khan, who says he's interested in women's rights and getting women back into school, has put these restrictions [into force], which effectively block women from going to many schools. We find his commitment to the right to education very shallow."

Sifton said the increasing restrictions on women in Herat appear to be part of a larger regional pattern linked to Islamic fundamentalism.

"It's the same type of Islamic fundamentalism that you saw with the Taliban [and] that you see with Iran's Revolutionary Guard. They implement decisions about women's lives without consulting women. It happens in Pakistan. It happens in Afghanistan. And it happens in Iran. But what concerns us about Herat is that the expectations were so high about this being a good place," Sifton said.

Human Rights Watch has issued a series of reports on Ismail Khan's rule in the west since late in 2002. The reports document repression against women in ways that are chillingly similar to the rules of the Taliban era -- including forced chastity tests for women seen in public with men other than their relatives.

Ismail Khan has specifically denied those allegations and has publicly accused human rights researchers visiting Herat of being spies under foreign pay.

Sifton rejects such criticisms: "Ismail Khan is not the worst human rights abuser in Afghanistan. We do not mean to pick on him. But he is an example of something which is happening all over Afghanistan -- a problem that is going to plague the country for many years to come. The gunmen -- the people who fought the Soviets, who fought the Taliban and in some cases fought with the Taliban -- are still in charge. And until you get skilled, more legitimate representatives into power, you are going to be facing many of these problems for years to come."

Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel for the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch, concludes that although the Taliban is gone, government officials and soldiers are still sidelining, abusing, and harassing women and girls in Herat and elsewhere in Afghanistan.