For Afghan women, the veil prevails

Andrew Maykuth [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

A female shopkeeper pictured in Bamiyan, by Afghan standards, one of the more progressive areas. Pressure to change is coming mostly from women who were exiles in the Taliban area. (John Costello/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- In a country where most women still don't show their faces in public, the government offer seemed revolutionary: Free market stalls for women to encourage them to start their own businesses.

But there were strings attached. The seven shops proposed were located in a remote section of Bamiyan's bazaar -- far from customers, and far from anyone who might be offended by independent Afghan women.

"The deputy governor told us we should be in the far corner so that nobody bothers us, so they won't see our faces," said Fatima Hassanzada, 27, the sole female shop owner in this mountainous provincial capital in central Afghanistan.

So much for social engineering. The six other women interested gave their market stalls to male relatives. Hassanzada's cosmetics business survived because she traded her shop for a better location in the bazaar. "If I cared about my face bothering people," she said, "I wouldn't be in business."

Such are the small steps forward for women in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Five years ago, when the repressive Islamist government was ousted, women celebrated the end of restrictions that banished them from jobs, schools or even walking alone on the street without a male family member. But social change has come neither dramatically nor as easily as some expected.

Afghanistan has a new constitution that guarantees equality for women -- a rare declaration in the Islamic world. And nearly 2 million girls have returned to schools and women have returned to the workplace, including to Parliament, where a quarter of the members are women.

But women say the new freedoms are largely superficial -- that profound cultural restrictions remain. Most women still wear burkas in public, and those who don't must endure stares and hisses on the street.

"We do have rights on paper, but we don't have them in reality," said Fatima Kazimyan, Bamiyan's representative for the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

What quickly became clear after the Taliban's ouster five years ago was that Afghanistan was not going to return to the ways of the 1980s, when the Soviet-backed government diminished Islamic influences, and women discarded their veils.

Afghanistan and the Islamic world have changed a great deal in the last two decades, and conservative forces reacting against secularism have gained power. Though the Taliban governed Afghanistan for only five years, they expressed a sentiment that resonates deeply in this male-dominated society.

"Our society is very conservative and we have to pay attention to that," said Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan, the only woman to head one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. It was Sarabi's idea to give the market stalls to women.

Older women who experienced both Afghanistan's liberal reforms as well as the Taliban's response to them are mindful that any liberalization sparks a harsh reaction. Afghan's king Amanullah Shah tried to modernize the country in the 1920s and was forced to abdicate.

"If you have read the history of Amanullah Shah and also during the communist regime, you can compare how much the extremist people who lived in the rural area put too much pressure on the central government," said Sarabi, who is 49. "Even if we go a little bit forward, there will be a kind of backlash for women."

Sarabi, who was the minister of women's affairs before President Hamid Karzai appointed her governor last year, often found herself alone at formal government celebrations because, due to social pressure to conform, the other ministers did not bring their wives.

"We have many celebrations, but no minister can bring their wives," she said. "Why? They are the people who are well educated, and many of them studied in the West. But this social pressure influences their minds, their thoughts."

Shukria Barakzai, the editor of a women's newspaper who is now a member of Parliament, said that many of her male colleagues in Parliament are unvarnished sexists, freely admitting that they would support her proposals if she were a man.

"It will take at least 20 years to change," Barakzai said in an interview at her home in Kabul. "We'll need a new generation, the ones who are now teenagers, when they become decision-makers."

By Afghan standards, Bamiyan is one of the more progressive areas. Its culture is dominated by the Hazara people, who are Shiites and less influenced by the ultra-conservative Sunnis who lead the Taliban.

"The good thing about Bamiyan is that men are more willing to let women grow up," said Kazimyan, 28, the local representative for the women's affairs ministry. "In other provinces, there is a more fundamentalist culture than here."

Nevertheless, most of the pressure to change is coming from women who were exiles during the Taliban time. Even those who lived in Pakistan and Iran, no bastions of Western liberalism, experienced more freedom there than did the women who stayed in Afghanistan.

"Women who spent time in Pakistan and Iran experienced a lot more things," said Kazimyan, who married while she was living as a refugee in Iran. There, she negotiated a deal with her husband that is unusual by Afghan standards:

"I told my husband I wanted to be a community activist," she said. "If he was OK with that, then we could get married."

Hassanzada, Bamiyan's female shopkeeper, also lived in Iran with her mother, who ran a small retail business -- so running a shop in Afghanistan did not seem terribly radical to her.

Another potential source of change are the thousands of international workers who have come to Afghanistan to work on development projects. The foreign military forces may be one of the most surprising influences on Afghan culture.

Although women are not deployed as combat troops, the U.S. military does send female soldiers into the field on humanitarian and medical missions. Even though foreign men can have no contact with Afghan women, the female soldiers are welcomed into communities, where they generate goodwill and useful intelligence.

"It makes me sad to see women in burkas," said Lt. Rebecca Collins, a 10th Mountain Division maintenance officer. "I think it's sad that half the population has to be made invisible."

The U.S. military has also begun exploring opportunities to bring Afghan women into the national army, said Army Brig. Gen. Douglas A. Pritt, who heads the task force that is training the Afghan military.

Unlike Afghan men, who are deployed to units across the country, the Afghan women would work only at local bases where they would be bused in for their shifts and not stay overnight. They would be assigned to support roles -- logistics, medical or supply functions, Pritt said.

The first women would be aimed at a new military hospital that the Americans built in the city of Herat. The hospital has experienced difficulty recruiting male doctors because they can earn more as interpreters, a job unavailable to women.

"Every one of those people we can do that with, every one of those females, it changes society," Pritt said. "We see it as a huge step forward from a standpoint of the culture and the environment. We're very optimistic."


© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.





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