Afghanistan

"We want to live as humans": Repression of women and girls in western Afghanistan

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When the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001, many Afghan women were hopeful. The Taliban-never popular in Afghanistan's cities and ultimately despised by almost all Afghans-had been especially hated and resented by Afghan women. The Taliban's collapse and a new promise of peace and legitimate governance gave hope that Afghan women and girls would soon enjoy greater rights and freedoms. Around the world, international actors promised improvements in the lives of Afghanistan's long-suffering women and girls, who had borne some of the worst abuses of the Taliban regime and the effects of twenty-three years of war.

Women in Afghanistan have long struggled to claim full rights and freedoms, and under the Taliban, their position was undoubtedly worse than at any other time in recent history. Yet, one year after the Taliban's fall, women and girls in Afghanistan still face severe restrictions and violations of their human rights, for in many areas Taliban officials have been replaced by warlords, police officers, and local officials with similar attitudes toward women. In some parts of the country, the same officials who administered the anti-women policies of the Taliban remain in their positions. This has meant the reimposition of extremely repressive social codes that typically have a devastating impact on women. Such restrictions severely undermine the most fundamental rights of women and girls in many areas of Afghanistan, including threatening their physical security.

The central Afghan government is not yet in a position to protect the human rights of women and girls, especially outside of the capital, Kabul. International actors understood that in the short term their assistance would be vital. The international community's inability to fulfill its commitments toward women in Afghanistan threatens the promise of the post-Taliban era. And many women now are disillusioned about the reconstruction and peace processes set in motion by the Taliban's fall and the Bonn Agreement of December 2001.1

An area of special concern for women's rights is the province of Herat in the west of Afghanistan, which has a liberal literary and cultural tradition and a history of educating girls. But under the rule of the local governor, Ismail Khan, women's and girls' freedom of expression, association, movement, and rights to equality, work, education, and bodily integrity steadily deteriorated throughout 2002.2 While conditions are undoubtedly better than under the Taliban-girls and women have better access to education and are not beaten by authorities in the streets-many Taliban-era restrictions remain in place. As this report demonstrates, virtually every aspect of women and girls' lives is still policed in Herat.

For women and girls in Herat, every decision of every day presents dangers or challenges from Ismail Khan's government: where they can go, how they can get there, whom they can go with, and how they can dress. A Herati woman has little access to the public sphere, from employment to civic organizations or other forums where she can participate in public debate. In order to leave her home and reach what forums are available-such as school, work (in one of the few jobs open to women), a government-controlled civic organization, or simply to go to the market-she must overcome significant hurdles in the journey, traveling in a way that she will not be harassed, arrested, and taken off to the hospital to be subjected to an abusive "chastity" examination. Once she arrives at her destination, she must conform her speech, behavior, and appearance to Ismail Khan's restrictions and edicts, which she has no way to challenge. When she returns home, she can expect no protection against violent or abusive family members-indeed, as in most parts of the country, fleeing from her home may result in her arrest and prosecution. Nor does she have any way to contest male family members' decisions about whom she will marry or whether she can attend school or work. She is effectively marginalized-politically, economically, and socially.

Many women and girls in Herat expressed to Human Rights Watch a strong desire to participate in the country's civil and political life, to be able to speak freely, both publicly and privately. They want to participate in the political discourse and have a voice in governmental decisions-especially those that affect them. As it stands, Ismail Khan is not allowing women or men to take part in most decision-making processes, but this repression is falling doubly hard on women, who face both the general political repression of Ismail Khan's regime and his particular repression of women. Very few forums are open to women in Herat, and those that are open are heavily censored by Ismail Khan. Ismail Khan and his agents-almost all men-decide what rules govern women and girls' lives.

Many rules are aimed at keeping the sexes segregated, which affects women and girls differently than men by excluding women and girls from bodies where decisions are made, from civic and cultural activities, from work, and from equal education. The consequences of breaking these rules are also different for women and girls than for men. Women and girls who have challenged these policies have been publicly and privately castigated by government officials and called "un-Islamic," a serious charge in a climate of returning fundamentalism. They have also been prohibited from speaking publicly or to journalists about women's rights, and fired from their jobs or threatened with being fired. Women's participation in the reconstruction effort is severely constrained, leaving little hope for their broader political participation in the future.

Women and girls enjoy little freedom of movement in Herat. Unlike under the Taliban, women and girls can leave their homes during the day without being accompanied by a close male relative (mahram). However, they may not walk or ride in a car alone with a man who is not a close relative, even a taxi driver. A police task force now patrols Herat city, arresting men and women who are seen together and suspected of being unrelated or unmarried. Men are taken to jail; women and girls are taken to a hospital to undergo forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse. When they leave their homes, women and older girls must wear a burqa or chadori, which impedes their ability to walk and see; if they go without it, they may be harassed and threatened by the police as well as private individuals. Unlike in neighboring Iran, women are not permitted to drive cars, and they do not ride bicycles. (Even if these acts were permitted, they would be impossible wearing a burqa.) A public transportation system hardly exists, and where it does it is inadequate, leaving women and girls with few ways to get to school, work, or the market, or to seek medical care.

The Herat government discriminates against women in the right to work. Few jobs are open to women and those that are come with significant limitations from the government. Ismail Khan has pressured women not to work with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or for the United Nations, although these agencies need women to administer many of their emergency aid and reconstruction programs. Women are also prohibited entirely from riding in cars with foreign men or from meeting alone with them. At least one Herati woman has been arrested and detained for her contact with foreign men during the course of her work with an international organization. At the same time, almost no women have been invited to work in the Herat government. Ismail Khan has urged women instead to work at home or as girls' teachers. Government officials harass and threaten those who step outside of these narrow boundaries.

Ismail Khan's Disregard for Human Rights

Ismail Khan has responded to criticism of his human rights record-generally and about women's rights in particular-by denying any violations and claiming that Afghans have different human rights "values."3 In public speeches and interviews with media, Ismail Khan often points to humanitarian and development needs, criticizing those who complain about human rights as indifferent to concerns about Afghans' day-to-day survival, whether they are safe from crime and have enough food.4 But there is no reason why development and reconstruction cannot be carried out at the same time that basic human rights are protected and respected. This is the responsibility of Ismail Khan and every other leader, in Afghanistan or any other country.

Moreover, as Afghan women and NGO officials rightly point out, development and reconstruction cannot properly proceed without adequate participation of women-especially in staffing local government, NGOs, and U.N. offices. Humanitarian and development assistance programs depend on women to determine what aid is needed, to ensure that it reaches women and children, and to administer programs that target women-for instance, programs for mothers and widows. But Ismail Khan has made it clear that he opposes women working for NGOs and the U.N., and he has made no meaningful efforts to promote female participation in government (or, for that matter, any independent participation).

Ismail Khan engages in recurrent double-talk about women-lauding the fact that women can go to school while telling them they should not use their education by working for foreign organizations or participating in the public debate about their rights. Women cannot take advantage of reconstruction, development, or education unless they are free to make choices about their employment and participation in civil society. In Ismail Khan's Herat, this is impossible.

Effect on Refugee Repatriation

Extensive discrimination against women and girls may have discouraged some refugees from returning home. Many women in Herat who had recently returned from Iran and Pakistan told Human Rights Watch of the basic freedoms they gave up when they returned, including driving, discussing politics in the university, playing sports and music, and going without burqa or chadori. Some women told Human Rights Watch that they decided to return from Iran at least in part based on information that restrictions on women in Herat had eased. For example, a seamstress in Herat who returned around April 2002 told Human Rights Watch: "I heard that the situation for women in Herat had completely changed and women could go outside and work. When I heard this I decided that it was better for me to [leave Iran and] come to my country and so my child could study."5 But women continue to face broad restrictions on where they can work in Herat.

In October 2002, Shah Mohammad, who was returning to Herat from Iran with his wife and two young daughters, told a journalist, "We came here hoping things will change. These ideas of forcing women to wear burqas, for example, are nonsense. We are good Muslims and Islam exists in our hearts."6 His wife, Taiba, added, "Showing an open face is fine. If we have to wear these things we'll just go back to Iran."7

Women and Girls' Rights in Afghanistan Generally

Ismail Khan's abuses of women and girls' rights are particularly severe. According to a U.N. official working with women's groups throughout the country, "Herat is the worst province for women in Afghanistan."8 And although the situation in Herat city is bad, conditions in rural areas of the province are likely worse.

U.N. and NGO officials report that while the situation in Herat is particularly bad, it is not unique, and that restrictions on women and girls are again increasing all over Afghanistan. Over the last twelve months, Human Rights Watch has itself documented serious human rights abuses against women and girls by warlords all over Afghanistan.

In Kabul, a reconfigured Vice and Virtue Squad (renamed "Islamic Teaching") is now operating. A team of some ninety women under the Ministry of Religious Affairs harasses women in Kabul's streets for "un-Islamic behavior," such as wearing makeup, and, in some instances, follows them home to castigate their parents or spouses. Women have reported being harassed and threatened by unidentified men for discarding particular aspects of the Taliban-mandated dress code.9 In October 2002 a woman told Human Rights Watch how she and her brother were stopped by police in Kabul, briefly detained, and accused of being lovers.10

Outside of Kabul, women and girls have faced serious threats to their physical safety, including sexual violence. In the north, three rival forces have committed abuses against Pashtun civilians, including raping entire households and girls as young as fourteen.11 In the south during the loya jirga process in May and June, local commanders threatened women candidates and allowed their troops to harass women and girls in areas under their control.12 During the loya jirga meeting itself, warlords from across the country monitored and threatened women delegates.13 Also in May and June around the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, factional rivalry between local commanders contributed to targeted attacks on women aid workers and rapes of women and children in displacement camps that had become militarized.14 The very threat of this type of violence denies them the opportunity to exercise their basic human rights and to participate fully in the rebuilding of their country.15

Even the much lauded restoration of the right to education is under attack. Schools for girls have been attacked with rockets or set on fire in at least five provinces: Kandahar, Sar-e Pol, Zabul, Logar, and Wardak. Local forces have done little to prevent these attacks.16

In some areas, troops under the control of current government officials-members of the Jamiat-e Islami party who are loyal to General Mohammed Fahim (the defense minister) or the former president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani-have been enforcing Taliban-era "moral" restrictions, for instance, forbidding families from playing music at weddings and from dancing, and in some cases arresting and beating musicians.17 As in Herat, commanders in northern Afghanistan have pressured women not to work for foreign organizations.18 This type of social repression, enforced in some places by government troops, is a source of fear for many women, both because of what is happening now and for what it may signify for the future if restrictions on women and girls continue to increase.

Lack of Attention by International Actors to Human Rights in Afghanistan

In previous reports in 2002, Human Rights Watch has criticized the United States, other nations involved in Afghanistan, and the U.N. mission for not making human rights a high enough priority in the country, especially outside of Kabul city. While recent moves by the U.S. and U.N. mission suggest a new concern with human rights and security issues, this criticism for the most part still holds.

The United States and other nations involved in Afghanistan have so far resisted repeated calls from the Afghan government, the U.N. mission, and numerous NGOs to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force for Afghanistan, outside of Kabul. The recent decision by the United States and United Kingdom (U.K.) to deploy additional troops outside of Kabul to work on security and disarmament issues, and the offer of the government of Japan to assist with monitoring of disarmament, are welcome signs. But much more needs to be done to increase human rights protections and decrease the stranglehold on power enjoyed by the warlords who rule most parts of Afghanistan.19 As of December 2002, the U.S. and coalition military forces in Afghanistan are continuing to pursue a strategy of entrusting general security and policing to local forces with terrible records on women's rights. No governments involved in Afghanistan have offered adequate resources for expanded peacekeeping or police training throughout the country, despite the fact that most Afghans and diplomatic officials admit that these steps are a necessary precursor to reconstruction efforts and protection of human rights, and that the human rights situation in most parts of the country is deplorable. There is a self-reinforcing obstructiveness about the issue: many European nations, asked about peacekeeping, condition their agreement to expanding ISAF on the U.S. setting aside its resistance to provide necessary logistical and intelligence backup; meanwhile, the U.S. claims it will offer the requisite assistance to other nations, if they would only offer troops.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has not placed sufficient emphasis on human rights monitoring and protection. Some expansions to monitoring and protection staff have been made: there are now one international and two Afghan staff devoted to human rights in each of the U.N. regional offices. However, the presence remains inadequate: UNAMA does not have the capacity to conduct large-scale investigations or deploy monitoring staff to many areas. Human Rights Watch believes that UNAMA's role in human rights monitoring, investigation, and protection must be significantly expanded.

Many Afghans, in Herat and elsewhere, expected the international community to stand up to warlords like Ismail Khan as they had stood up to the Taliban. Many are angry and disillusioned with the United States (U.S.), the United Nations (U.N.), and the international presence in Afghanistan generally.

The Afghan Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to monitor human rights conditions and investigate abuses, is not receiving sufficient political and moral support from the international community, including the U.N., to effectively investigate or monitor human rights conditions. The commission is also suffering from serious staffing problems. Commission members' fear of political violence directly affects its work (at least two members of the commission have been threatened with violence, including the commission's leader, Sima Samar). Other Commission members are not adequately trained to oversee or carry out human rights investigations. The Commission has not carried out general monitoring of human rights conditions, and has not conducted any major investigations outside of Kabul where its capacity is especially weak. International agencies and nations involved in Afghanistan have to do more to give the commission confidence.

Recommendations sections immediately following and toward the end of the report set out in more detail how the process of promoting human rights, including rights for women and girls, can be put back on track.

* * * * *

This report is based on more than 120 interviews conducted in Herat city and Kabul between September and November 2002. Names and identifying details of many of those interviewed cannot be printed here because of concerns for their security. After Human Rights Watch visited Herat in September 2002, Ismail Khan ordered his security forces to identify and interrogate people who spoke with us.20 We have also received reports that Ismail Khan's forces have threatened women whom they believe spoke with us21-an indication of the level of intimidation and repression in western Afghanistan.

In this report, the words "girl" and "boy" refer to anyone under the age of eighteen.22

Notes:

1 Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, Bonn, Germany, December 5, 2001. This agreement was signed by representatives of anti-Taliban forces and several other Afghan political parties and groups.

2 On November 5, 2002, Human Rights Watch released a fifty-one page report: "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan" describing the human rights abuses committed by the administration of Herat provincial governor, Ismail Khan. The report shows that Ismail Khan is operating an independent mini-state in which there is no political freedom, no freedom of speech, and a pattern of physical abuse and torture at the hands of local police and army forces. Human Rights Watch, "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 14, no. 7(c), November 5, 2002, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/afghan3/.

3 See "Western Afghan governor slates Human Rights Watch report," BBC Monitoring Central Asia, text of report by Iranian Radio (Mashad), November 9, 2002; "Afghan Herat governor launches campaign against immorality," BBC Monitoring Service, text of recorded speech broadcast by Herat television on November 12, 2002; "Afghan Herat governor opens mosque," BBC Monitoring South Asia, text of report on Herat television, November 15, 2002.

4 Ibid.

5 Human Rights Watch interview with W.Z., Herat, September 17, 2002. The names of persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report have been disguised with initials not derived from their real names for their security.

6 "Fatima is a 10-year-old Afghan girl on her own in the world," Reuters, October 4, 2002.

7 Ibid.

8 Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. official, Kabul, September 9, 2002.

9 See Human Rights Watch, "Taking Cover: Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan," briefing paper, May 9, 2002, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/wrd/afghan-women-2k2.htm.

10 Human Rights Watch interview with S.K.L., Kabul, October 19, 2002.

11 See Human Rights Watch, "Paying for the Taliban's Crimes: Abuses Against Ethnic Pashtuns in Northern Afghanistan," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, col. 14, no. 2(c), April 2002, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/afghan2/.

12 See Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Return of the Warlords," briefing paper, June 2002, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/afghanistan/warlords.htm

13 See Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Loya Jirga Off To Shaky Start," press release, June 13, 2002, http://hrw.org/press/2002/06/jirga061202.htm.

14 See Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Rise in Factional Fighting Threatens Fragile Peace," press release, May 7, 2002, http://hrw.org/press/2002/05/afghan0507.htm; Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Escalating Attacks on Aid Workers and Civilians," press release, June 27, 2002, http://hrw.org/press/2002/06/afghan0627.htm.

15 See Human Rights Watch, "Taking Cover."

16 Institute for War and Peace Reporting, "Afghanistan: Girls' schools hit by arson attacks," November 23, 2002. According to this report: "Most followed written threats posted in towns and villages in these regions, ordering residents not to send their girls to school. Threats were also posted in Kunar, Helmand and Laghman provinces in October." Ibid. U.N. and Afghan government officials suspect that fundamentalist groups are responsible for the threats and attacks-but not necessarily former Taliban troops. Human Rights Watch interview with I.S.K, Kabul, November 3, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. staff, Kabul, November 18, 2002.

17 One musician from Kabul told Human Rights Watch about how he was arrested by Jamiat troops in a village north of Kabul for playing music at a wedding. He and two other hired musicians were taken to a prison, soaked with water, beaten with cables, and left overnight in their cell in freezing temperatures. Human Rights Watch interview with A.S.N., Kabul, October 16, 2002.

18 Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. official, Kabul, September 30, 2002,

19 See, e.g. Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan's Bonn Agreement One Year Later: A Catalog of Missed Opportunities," briefing paper, December 5, 2002.

20 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with G.Z.K., Herat, November 22, 2002.

21 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with G.Z.K., Herat, November 23, 2002; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Herat resident, December 12, 2002.

22 Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/REX/44/25 (entered into force September 2, 1990, ratified by Afghanistan March 28, 1994), art. 1.

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