Herat, Afghanistan I came to this city of clean, tree-lined streets, near the Iranian border, to write about Afghan women.
The subjugation of women under the Taliban, who forbade them to work, attend school or leave home without a male relative, once galvanized Americans’ emotions. The freeing of women was a big achievement of the Taliban’s ouster. But that issue is receiving little attention as the debate heats up over what our Afghan strategy should be.
So I traveled to Suraya Pakzad’s shelter for abused women in Herat as a reminder of the gains women have made, and the terrible price they will pay if the international community turns its back on Afghanistan.
Even today, cultural pressures compel most women in Herat to wear the tentlike blue burqua, with a mesh strip over the eyes, or an enveloping black-and-white-print chador that leaves the face free. Afghan women do work and attend school, although the Taliban are attacking girls’ schools in the south and east of the country. The progress of Afghan women is real, but reversible.
So Pakzad, a dynamic, educated mother of six, has sought to solidify those gains — and to break new ground — as the executive director of the Voice of Women Organization (http://vwo.org.af/). The group assists women in prison and works through community groups and religious leaders to convince men in this conservative society that violence against women violates the precepts of the Quran.
Nothing better illustrates the gains women have made since the Taliban fell, however, than the shelter Pakzad runs for women abused by husbands or family members. The shelter is one of only a handful in the country; Pakzad is opening a second in a neighboring district with the help of U.S. aid.
Under the Taliban, abused women were trapped. Even after the Taliban’s fall, they had nowhere to go in Herat before Pakzad’s shelter opened in 2006. “These girls would have been on the street (as prostitutes) or been killed,” says Pakzad. Other options were equally dreadful: “They could keep silent and suffer, or commit suicide, probably by self-immolation, or wind up in jail.”
The shelter sits in a large, rented, two-story stone house within a walled compound with guards at the gate to deny access to angry relatives or those who consider it an abomination. The women and girls live three to a room and have access to doctors, lawyers, and social workers.
The residents gather in a central common room, seated on cushions around the walls, to greet Pakzad and a visitor. Some are blank-eyed; several are towing small children. Their stories reflect the recent tragic history of Afghanistan.
One typical story: 18-year-old Mariam, twisting a shiny blue head scarf, was an Afghan refugee in Iran (where millions of Afghans fled during the Taliban years). Her heroin-addicted father forced her to sell drugs until she and her sister were arrested, deported, and sent to an Afghan orphanage. They worked and lived alone — impossible in Taliban years, rare now — until her father found them and made false accusations to the police that led to the jailing of her sister. The shelter will keep Mariam until her sister leaves prison, then will help them start their lives again.
Another story: Sad-eyed, lovely 15-year-old Nasima is an orphan who was forced by officials to marry a fellow orphan and found the relationship intolerable. She ran away, then was jailed for six months. The shelter took her in and will provide legal aid for a divorce. Next, they will try to find a way for her to finish her education and remarry. The shelter has helped several young occupants find — and vet — acceptable marriage partners.
Pakzad and her staff pay a price for their work: There are telephone threats, along with slurs against them for their perceived violations of cultural norms. But I have seen how Pakzad’s work is changing those norms. I watched her give a speech in a local mosque — unheard of for a woman — on her work to ensure delivery of clean water for poor women and children in the community. She was awarded the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2008.
When I ask what policy she hopes President Obama will follow, she is firm: Any increase in foreign troops must be accompanied by an increase in economic development. “Security gets worse because there is no change in the life of the people,” she says.
She hopes women will be a central focus of U.S. economic policy in Afghanistan, with a fund for women’s empowerment that directs money specifically to the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is woefully underfunded by the government (this year’s budget is $8 million).
Most of all, she hopes Americans won’t forget the women of Afghanistan. “The United States came to rescue Afghan women from a terrible situation,” says Pakzad, “but the situation hasn’t been changed as much as we expected. If they left now, with no guarantee of women’s rights, the situation would go back to that of the Taliban years.”
So when you think of Afghanistan, remember the women, most still wearing the burqua but fighting for new roles in society. Do we want to see all those gains stripped away?