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In Afghanistan, Traditional Values Still Threaten Women's Rights

Afghan girls take a university admission test in Kunduz. Women now make up 30 percent of university students in Afghanistan
Afghan girls take a university admission test in Kunduz. Women now make up 30 percent of university students in Afghanistan
Shakila commutes two hours every day from Kabul to her work in nearby Maidan Wardak Province, where she recently found a job as a nurse.

Shakila, who has three children, acknowledges it's a long time to spend traveling between her home and work, but she doesn't mind.

“It was just by chance that I found this job," she said. "Salaries are much lower in Kabul, around $60 to $80 [a month], and it’s not enough. I have to provide for my children and I can’t work for low wages.”

Well-paid jobs that are suitable for women are scarce in Kabul, and Shakila said her monthly salary of $450 in the Shakardara Clinic is more than she had ever hoped for. The work, she says, has allowed her to rebuild her life.

Many Afghan women like Shakila have gone back to school and found work since the fall of the Taliban.

That development is seen as one of Afghanistan's recent successes. But continued instability and the persistence of conservative values mean that those hard-won successes remain under threat.

No Rights, No Freedom

Shakila remembers all too well the days when women were denied even basic freedoms. A law student at Kabul University in the early 1990s, she was forced to give up her studies when the communist government collapsed in Afghanistan.

Eventually the hard-line Taliban took over Kabul and women were left with no right to study, work, or even leave the house without a male relative to accompany them.

Shakila was engaged to marry her cousin, but her fiancé was killed in an accident on the eve of the wedding. According to Afghan tradition, Shakila was married off to her fiancé's younger brother, and moved in with her new in-laws in Afghanistan's eastern Laghman Province.

Shakila and her husband pictured shortly after their wedding
“Both me and my husband, who was much younger than I was, were trapped in an arranged marriage," Shakila says. "My husband eventually became a drug addict."

Although the married couple were deeply unhappy, official separation or divorce was simply out of question under the Taliban regime. Shakila said she had no hope, and would have found it hard to believe that her life was about to change for better.

That change came when the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001 and the new government came to power. Girls returned to school in many parts of Afghanistan, and women were once again able to work.

Shakila was among the first group of women to enroll when medical training courses for nurses were set up by a women’s nongovernmental organization in Laghman Province.

She completed the course, got a job, and moved with her children back to her parents' home in Kabul.

Rebuilding Lives

Only few years ago, it would have been unthinkable in Afghanistan for a woman to be in charge of her life.

Now there are hundreds of workshops, training classes, and education centers all over the country where women can learn new skills -- in some cases, even reading and writing.

“Women are signing up for classes in the hundreds,” said Sheela Samimi of the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella group for dozens of women’s NGOs in the country.

Thousands of women lost their husbands during the past three decades of war and insurgency in Afghanistan. Samimi says many of them are desperate to find jobs to provide for themselves and their children.

“There hasn't been any survey, and we don’t know how many widows there are in our country," Samimi said. "But obviously there are many widows who have children, and their families can’t afford to help them. And they have no jobs. Some of them are engaged in short-term jobs that last for six months.”

Numerous NGOs were set up all over the country, in many instances working together with local authorities to help women like Shakila to build new lives.

“It still is very difficult for separated or divorced women in Afghanistan to find their place in society, because in our culture, divorce is seen as a disgrace,” said Mary Akrami, the director of Safe House, a shelter for women who have fled their families because of domestic violence or arranged marriages.

At Safe House, women who have not been able to receive an education can enroll in classes to learn dressmaking, computer skills, or English while their children are going to school. They can also attend discussions about human rights and "the rights that Islam has provided for them in society,” Akrami said.

According to the Afghan Women’s Network, young women and girls make up some 30 percent of the total number of university students in Afghanistan. This year, authorities have decided to simplify university admission tests for female school graduates to encourage them to continue their education.

Targets For Militants

Afghan women are working as teachers, doctors, and journalists. They run businesses and NGOs, and take part in politics.

Many believe the return of women to public life is one of the biggest success stories of the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

However, there are still many challenges that threaten the fragile freedom of Afghan women. A lack of security and conservative traditional values are among the main problems.

Female students and working women have proven the easiest targets for militants who want to undermine the current government.

Many schoolgirls and teachers have come under attack on their way to school. The most notorious incident took place in Kandahar last November when unknown attackers sprayed acid on female students.

Women still become victims of rape by warlords and armed men, who wield power and influence in their villages.

There are still many families who marry off their teenage daughters to settle debts or disputes.

And many people in the conservative society are still suspicious of single young women who choose to work or study.

Shakila said she can afford to rent a place for herself and her children. It would give her more privacy than her current arrangement, in which she lives with her parents as well as her brother and his family.

However, renting a home is not an option for Shakila. In Afghanistan, it is not acceptable for a young, divorced, working woman with children to live far from her family.

Apart from her closest relatives, no one knows that Shakila has a job in a neighboring province. “Here, it still seems very strange to many people that a young woman commutes every day to work in another town,” Shakila says. “And it’s not safe.”
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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.