Four Women in Kabul – their Struggles and Dreams
In Afghanistan, standing on one’s own feet as a woman has always been a struggle. Four very different women show that it is possible. But since the withdrawal of international troops has started, the Taliban are again becoming stronger. Will these women lose their freedom and independence?
Why Four Women and Their Stories Tell so Much About Afghanistan
Up. Down. Up. Down: In the 20th and early 21st century, the situation of Afghanistan’s women evolved like the temperature curve on a fever chart. The most recent developments in the country suggest that the 2014 start of NATO troop withdrawal marks yet another significant landmark on the horizon. Taking a closer look at four women from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and their lives during this critical time helps highlight, not only the day-to-day obstacles the women of Afghanistan face, but also the recent history of the country. There are four main reasons why:
The civil rights and liberties of women have always reflected the constant ideological shifts in the political direction of the country. The Soviets sent women to school – in the name of a skilled work force. The Taliban forced them under the burqa – in the name of purity. NATO Occupiers again encouraged their access to education – in the name of democracy. What’s next?
In both Soviet and NATO times (and earlier, under the reign of reformist kings), women in larger cities were most able to develop their independence. Reinstatement of radical Islamist law would be a dramatic change for them, and aggravate the inner conflict between self-determination and traditional roles. Women living in rural areas have not benefited from such leaps in progress and would see little change in their communities.
The plight of Afghan women have repeatedly been used to justify foreign intervention: the USA named basic rights and education for women one of their invasion's main goals after 9-11. And previously, in 1989, the Mujahideen, backed by Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia and the U.S., claimed that, under Soviet rule, women had lost their dignity and introduced compulsory Islamic clothing to re-establish it.
2008 saw women’s freedoms in Kabul reach its summit: women could freely walk the streets without a hijab. As NATO announced its 2014 withdrawal date, it seemed unlikely this would have no consequence for women and women’s issues. Since 2010 already, with the focus of world policy leaders shifting from Afghanistan, women are starting to be pushed out of public life as the Taliban and new movements like Daesh (IS) gain greater power.
The Four Protagonists
Aged 22 to 52, the four women in UNDAUNTED not only have different professional and social backgrounds, they were moulded by the different political and societal contexts they grew up in. Their lives and attitudes differ strongly depending on these influences. Only the eldest of them was born into a peaceful country. For almost 40 years, Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, shaken by war.
Baker Reza Guel (*approx. 1980) represents more than 70% of Afghan women: She is illiterate, was married at a young age by her parents and has seven children. Only her husband’s opium addiction has given her the chance to earn her own money. Reza has spent her whole life in Kabul. Here, she has lived through Soviet occupation, guerrilla war, the Taliban regime and the American bombs after 9-11.
Singer Pari Ghulami (*1993) is a star. She is on radio and TV almost daily. Wedding concerts earn her up to 5000 USD. But for conservative Afghans, pop music is a sin, and Pari lives in constant risk of attack. Returning to Kabul with her family in 2002, the relatively peaceful era of NATO occupation made her career possible. Born in Pakistan, she has never witnessed the Taliban.
Shinkai Karokhail (*1963) is among the 27% of women in the Afghan Parliament. Raised as the daughter of a tribal leader, she knows an Afghanistan without war, before her family fled the Soviets. Karokhail's fight against implenting an extreme Family Law for the Shiite minority has brought her several death threats. After a failed assault attempt in 2015, she was forced to leave the country for three months.
Saba Sahar (*1976) is used to giving orders. As a policewoman and movie producer, she has made her way in two male-dominated fields. Young Saba profited from the Soviet policy that educated women to qualify them as workers. During the civil war, she fled to Pakistan. After her return, Saba benefitted directly from the NATO presence: both the police forces and her film production company received subsidies.
Women's Rights Over Time: A Century Of Ups And Downs
It is still a widely held perception that only the NATO occupation of 2001 brought the women of Afghanistan education and democratic rights. But both under reformist Afghan kings and earlier occupants, women had been able to exercise notable degrees of individual freedom and civic rights – only to have such freedoms taken back again by the next regime in power.
After the withdrawal of NATO troops, how will the story continue? How stable are the role shifts achieved by these women in a society where the roots of patriarchy are old, strong and strict? Can they be sustained in an environment where the Taliban already regained 30% control of the country? In spring 2015, 27‐year‐old Farkhunda Malekzada was beaten to death by an angry mob in the middle of Kabul, after she dared object to a Mullah. Her murderers were not religious fundamentalists. In fact, many were young men in t-shirts and blue jeans who recorded the scene on smartphones – people with access to education and to the Internet. If this is the core of Afghanistan’s society today, women have every reason to be worried. The next years will be a struggle – as it has always been.