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Interview: 'The Lives Of Afghan Women Can And Must Be Improved'

Women march in Kabul during a protest calling for an end to violence against women in Afghanistan and around the world in February.
For her latest book, "The World Is A Carpet," Russian-born, U.S.-based journalist Anna Badkhen spent a year in a tiny village in northern Afghanistan to watch impoverished ethnic Turkmen women weave carpets that would go on to be sold for a small fortune abroad.

RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar spoke to Badkhen about her book and continued concerns about the rights and security of Afghan women after 12 years of war.

RFE/RL: "The World Is A Carpet" offers some surprising views into the private world of Afghan women. For example, in Oqa, the isolated village where you watch the lives of carpet weavers, you describe a community where women and men mix freely and the women are free to go without head scarves and breast-feed their babies in public.

Anna Badkhen:
Everybody in the village is a relative to everybody else, so there's no need to segregate. There are no outsiders in the village. And that is actually fairly typical of all small communities in Afghanistan. People are constantly in each other's face, in each other's house, in each other's backyard. Everybody's a relative, and so they're constantly communicating and seeing each other, and the segregation between genders is much less palpable.

Anna Badkhen
Anna Badkhen
RFE/RL: The situation was slightly different in Mazar-e Sharif, where you lived with a large family and often spent time alone with the women of the house.

I actually spent a lot of time with women in Mazar-e Sharif. It was a very big family, maybe 24 or 27 people, a lot of children and six or seven women. And we spent a lot of time in the kitchen. From the outside, women in Afghanistan are quite invisible. But then from the inside they're very dominant. There's a part in the book where I'm in the kitchen in Mazar-e Sharif and the women around me begin this extremely vulgar conversation that is not repeatable on the radio. And that is sort of this explosion of woman's kingdom, if you want to call it that.

RFE/RL: Where are things the best for Afghan women? Where are they the worst?

Women are better off in families that have money, and families that have money tend to be in cities. So if you go to Kabul, there are fabulously wealthy women who attend the American University in Kabul or Kabul University -- and not everyone who attends Kabul University is fabulously wealthy, but it requires a lot of effort on the part of the family to accommodate their daughter. There has to be some uncle or auntie in Kabul who would take her in, and she would have to hire a driver to drive her to and from campus every day, because walking down the street alone is probably not very safe, and also traditionally not very welcome. So you have to have money.

So everybody else -- and we're talking about probably 98 percent of the population -- lives in poverty and with little access to such niceties as higher education.

RFE/RL: The United States and NATO came into Afghanistan 12 years ago pledging, among other things, to improve the plight of Afghan women. Now, as they prepare to leave, you've argued that the United States has failed miserably in this regard.

The lives of Afghan women can and must be improved by delivering food security and health care that works, and a government that protects them and their children. In fact, none of that has been done, and war perpetuates any infrastructural collapse.

So what you have as a result is 12 years after the United States first lowered its payload on Afghan soil, the infant mortality in Afghanistan remains the highest in the world, Afghan women still die in childbirth at amazing rates. The levels of access to sanitation or clean water or appropriate diet are still abysmal. So all the conversations about how the United States is somehow improving the lives of Afghan women, I find them extremely hypocritical.

RFE/RL: The situation for women, as you describe it, is already grim. Do you expect it to get worse once the West pulls out?

Yes, I do. Because what is happening right now is that the NATO presence, to some extent, serves as a buffer between various different militias that will probably most likely get involved in a renewed and more forceful civil war after NATO withdraws, just as they were before 2001. So there will be more fighting. And, of course, fighting is never good for human rights.