Eishkasheim, Afghanistan – “In Waduj, they don’t want their girls to go to school. The Taliban say that the boys can go to school but not girls. They say that Muslims should not let their girls go to school.”
I look at the young woman telling me this and sigh.
Here I am, yet again, being told of how girls cannot go to school.
I am sitting in a tiny English school in the small village of Ishkasheim in Afghanistan and talking to a group of young women. All of them are at the school to study English.
I nod and feel a familiar sense of frustration, but I am not surprised.
The frustration comes from years of travel in various parts of the world where I have heard the same story over and over again, where girls are denied the same rights as boys to go to school, or the same rights to do just about anything. I have heard it throughout the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia. And I have heard it over and over again.
As a woman, I feel the enormous frustration of this. The unfairness of it, and not just because girls cannot go to school but because of the long reaching effects that this has.
I feel it because of the fact that this will result in these girls not having equal opportunities to gain a good job and to earn a decent income, making them vulnerable to the abuse of men. I am frustrated because of the fact that it sends a message that boys have more value than girls and the fact that such attitudes always lead to violence and sexual harassment.
The situation in Afghanistan
After having spent 16 years in different parts of the world, I can say for certain that this seems to be a global problem, and Afghanistan is no exception. Consistently recognized as being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, Afghanistan has been recognized as a country where violence against women and girls is a serious problem.
So I had come to Afghanistan to try and find out more. To speak to women and men and to find out what they thought about the situation of women’s rights in their country.
I wasn’t able to travel far, only to the small villages of Eishkasheim and Shugnan on the border with Tajikistan due to security threats from the Taliban. The town is quiet, and up until now, I was told, the Taliban had not been able to infiltrate it. I felt a sense of relief from those living in the town. The nearest Taliban stronghold, I was told, was just 30 minutes away.
Despite the precarious security situation, the region was beautiful. Enormous snow-capped mountains surrounded us and big green fields lay at the base of the mountains. Goat herders and donkeys moved through the fields each day and the village was clearly agrarian based. A sparkling blue river marked the border with neighboring Tajikistan. The scenery was spectacular.
Yet there was a very strong sense of conservatism in the village, a sense of hostility, and I did not feel particularly safe.
The village was centered around a small market in the middle of the town. The market was made up of old containers, filled with various wares. All the sellers were male, most of whom had long beards and were dressed in traditional Afghan clothing.
The few women that I did see walking through the streets wore long blue burqas. Nothing was visible, not even their eyes which were covered with blue mesh.
Meeting the women in the blue burqas
According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, women and girls in Afghanistan face domestic violence, sexual harassment, and forced marriages. The perpetrators are often family members and a culturally-sanctioned social system where shame is used against women who try to escape abusive situations, so most women are not able to escape.
Patriarchal cultural norms and customs, as well as the extreme interpretations of Islam, have been used to justify the subjugation of women. This has led to the perpetuation of cycles of violence against Afghan women.
The situation for women and girls was particularly bad during the Taliban era. Violence against women was officially sanctioned and women were banned from going to school, working, from leaving home without a male family member and from choosing their own clothing.
So as I sat with these young women in their classroom, in this small rural village, I wondered about how they saw the situation for women in their country.
“What do you think are the biggest problems for women in Afghanistan?” I asked them.
They were all silent for a moment, which I found particularly meaningful. A lack of willingness to speak up about your problems, I have discovered in my travels around the world, typically means you fear retaliation for doing so.
However, one of the girls eventually spoke up. Beginning with a praise to God, she said that one of the biggest problems for women and girls in Afghanistan was not being allowed access to education.
“There are still some people who say that women should stay in the house and should not work,” explained one of the young women. “They say that men can work in an office but a woman cannot. They say that this is because of Islam and because of this, a woman should cover her face.”
A right to an education
Throughout the country, there are women who have not been allowed to go to school, simply because they are girls. In the areas that are still dominated by the Taliban, girls are completely banned from going to school.
All of the girls in the room nodded their heads, seemingly in agreement that this was one of the very serious problems facing women and girls in Afghanistan.
“Who agrees that this is right, that girls shouldn’t be able to go to school?” I asked them.
The all shook their heads. Girls should be able to go to school.
Though according to the girls, the lack of education wasn’t the only problem for women and girls in the country.
Women’s movement and dress is strictly controlled in the country. In Eishkasheim, all of the women were completely covered in the blue burqa. In Shugnan, the rules were slightly more relaxed, and as it was explained to me, women were not expected to wear the burqa, were free to move around and go to school, in contrast to the situation for many women and girls in other parts of the country.
In areas held by the Taliban, women are expected to wear the full burqa and can face death for not adhering to these rules.
At the school, all of the women in the room agreed that they didn’t like the strict rules and did not want to wear a burqa, yet almost all of the women in the room were wearing one.
“Why are you wearing the burqa if you don’t want to?” I asked.
“Because my husband wants me to wear it,” replied one woman.
Burqas don’t prevent sexual harassment
Sexual harassment and violence is another serious issue in Afghanistan.
One of the women in the market explained, “It mostly happened when we walk in the market, but we have to stay silent when it happens. It’s a problem for women to walk alone.”
In the nearby village of Shugnan, a female teacher at one of the local English schools agreed to sit down with me and talk about how she saw the situation of women and girls in her country. The situation, she said, was very difficult.
“There are many difficulties for women in Afghanistan. Many can’t study. It’s really hard for women in Afghanistan. Men are allowed to do everything, but women are not.”
“I think that it’s related to Islam,” she said. “What the mullahs say is always related to Islam. So for example, they say that it is forbidden for women to go out and study. They say that women can’t wear short clothes. They say that this is what Islam says, but it doesn’t say this.”
Some efforts have been made to improve the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan.
On March 4, a revised penal code was adopted by presidential decree. It incorporated all the provisions of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law while strengthening the definition of rape. However, a number of conservative members of Parliament opposed the EVAW law. As a result, President Ghani ordered the Ministry of Justice to remove the EVAW chapter from the new penal code.
The Afghan government promised to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, calling for women’s equal participation in issues surrounding peace and security, but has been delayed.
For now, the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan remains precarious. Until considerable efforts are made to shift attitudes that severely limit women’s freedom, girls’ rights to go to school, and men’s rights to abuse women, then Afghanistan will remain one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman.
“Afghanistan is not a good place for women,” said the female teacher in Shugnan.