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Afghanistan: Women Still Struggling For Right To Education, Work

"At Five in the Afternoon," a movie by the young Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, brought devastating images of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women to the recent Cannes film festival, where it took the Grand Jury prize. Afghan experts agree that the film, about a Kabul woman who dreams of someday becoming president, is an accurate reflection of the country's current reality. A year and a half after the Taliban's ouster, many Afghan girls and women are still deprived of education and work opportunities. Observers say Afghanistan's conservative traditions are still presenting an obstacle to greater rights and freedoms for women.

Prague, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban administration is a thing of the past, but even so, few Afghan women dare to leave the house without covering their heads. Even working women in the capital Kabul wear a headscarf, a long-sleeved dress, and "tumbon," or long trousers, to cover nearly all of their bodies. Wearing the all-concealing burqa is still the norm for many Afghan women.

Women's rights activists say some women continue to wear the burqa based on the traditional Afghan belief that women should maintain a low profile. Others feel it is simply not safe to leave the house bare-headed.

Khadija Bahari, the head of the Establishment and Rehabilitation Center, a nongovernmental organization in Kabul that supports women's rights and constitutional reform, told RFE/RL, "There are still many people in some provinces who could not tolerate their daughters and wives going outside their homes without a burqa."

But the burqa is only one symbol of the problem. Activists are also concerned about the fate of the country's two million war widows -- women who have lost their husbands and are left to raise a family on their own. In a society that discourages an active role for women and is plagued by widespread unemployment, many Afghan war widows struggle to put food on their children's plates.

Shukriya Barakzai, the editor in chief of the Afghan magazine "Oinae zan" (Women's Mirror), told RFE/RL that many women work from home as tailors, but barely earn enough to make ends meet. Widespread illiteracy also reduces many Afghan women's chances of finding employment.

"Some women earn money by sewing. For instance, they sew blankets and sell their products in markets. Some women have been left in such a desperate situation that they have become beggars or were even forced into inappropriate work [prostitution]," Barakzai said.

The current Afghan government officially encourages gender equality and has welcomed initiatives to create job and education opportunities for women. The Transitional Administration allocated some $10 million to the Women's Affairs Ministry to expand women's role in society.

Even so, Barakzai said, there has been little evidence of change in women's lives so far. "The ministry claims that they support women. In reality, the ministry has not done anything," she said. "It does not have any clear strategy to prove that it is really working for women, and protecting women's political, social, and economic rights."

Karima Salehi, a director at the Women's Affairs Ministry, told RFE/RL the ministry has opened offices throughout Kabul, as well as in many provinces, in order to provide more opportunities for women. Their initiatives include special courses to teach women how to read and write.

"Our ministry provides job opportunities for women, especially for widows, the poor, and refugees who have returned to their homes. About 75 percent of employees in our ministry are women. We have a project that helps women to find jobs. We have established offices in 16 districts of Kabul," Salehi said.

During the current school year millions of children, including girls, returned to school. Gulsang, a teenager from Kabul, told RFE/RL that despite shortages of textbooks, blackboards, and even chairs, she is happy to be able to resume her education.

"I study in a high school. Under the Taliban administration we were not allowed to go to school. Now girls' schools are reopened and I am very happy that I can attend my lessons freely," she said..

Bahari of the Establishment and Rehabilitation Center said the situation varies from region to region. In northern and central provinces like Balkh, Jowzjan, and Bamiyan, many parents were eager to send their daughters to school.

"We had a survey in Bamiyan Province. Even in remote villages, many families want their daughters to return to school. But every province is different. In some places, such as Kandahar, people are still afraid of the Taliban and they do not allow their daughters to go to school," Bahari said.

Experts say that the role and rights of women is the most sensitive issue in Afghanistan's conservative society. Some men do not even allow female family members to leave the house alone, let alone permitting girls to attend school or women to seek employment. Some women still die during childbirth because they do not have access to professional health care.

The Women's Affairs Ministry and nongovernmental organizations dealing with women's rights say the country's deep conservatism means they have to take a careful and low-key approach to the issue.

"Under the circumstances," Bahari said, "we have to focus on very basic steps, such as providing access to healthcare and establishing training classes for women. Issues like the burqa will be solved eventually, once Afghan women begin to earn a proper income and are guaranteed security."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.