Born in Afghanistan but raised in the United States, like many in the worldwide Afghan Diaspora, activist Manizha Naderi is devoted to helping her homeland. She has been sizing up the problem in Kabul, the capital, and last week she sent me a copy of her report. She says that women still have few legal protections against the systematic violation of their basic human rights -- including "savage" violence. Their access to education and employment remains critically limited and ever present is the belief that women are men's property.
I'd hoped for better news. Her report brought back so many things I'd seen for myself during the last five years spent, off and on, in her country.
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Last year in Herat, as I was walking with an Afghan colleague to a meeting on women's rights, I spotted an ice cream vendor in the hot, dusty street. I rushed ahead and returned with two cones of lemony ice. I held one out to my friend. "Forgive me," she said. "I can't." She was wearing a burqa.
It was a stupid mistake. I'd been in Afghanistan a long time, in the company every day of women encased from head to toe in pleated polyester body bags. Occasionally I put one on myself, just to get the feel of being stifled in the sweaty sack, blind behind the mesh eye mask. I'd watched women trip on their burqas and fall. I'd watched women collide with cars they couldn't see. I knew a woman badly burned when her burqa caught fire. I knew another who suffered a near-fatal skull fracture when her burqa snagged in a taxi door and slammed her to the pavement as the vehicle sped away. But I'd never before noted this fact: It is not possible for a woman wearing a burqa to eat an ice cream cone.
We gave the cones away to passing children and laughed about it, but to me it was the saddest thing.
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Ever since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, George W. Bush has boasted of "liberating" Afghan women from the Taliban and the burqa. His wife, Laura, after a publicity junket to Afghanistan in 2005, appeared on Jay Leno's show to say that she hadn't seen a single woman wearing a burqa.
But these are the sorts of wildly optimistic self-delusions that have made Bush notorious. His wife, whose visit to Afghanistan lasted almost six hours, spent much of that time at the American air base and none of it in the Afghan streets where most women, to this day, go about in big blue bags.
It's true that after the fall of the Taliban lots of women in the capital went back to work in schools, hospitals and government ministries, while others found better-paying jobs with international humanitarian agencies. In 2005, thanks to a quota system imposed by the international community, women took 27 percent of the seats in the lower house of the new parliament, a greater percentage than women enjoy in most Western legislatures, including our own. Yet these hopeful developments are misleading.
The fact is that the "liberation" of Afghan women is mostly theoretical. The Afghan Constitution adopted in 2004 declares that "The Citizens of Afghanistan -- whether man or woman -- have equal Rights and Duties before the Law." But what law? The judicial system -- ultraconservative, inadequate, incompetent and notoriously corrupt -- usually bases decisions on idiosyncratic interpretations of Islamic Sharia, tribal customary codes, or simple bribery. And legal "scholars" instruct women that having "equal Rights and Duties" is not the same as being equal to men.
Post-Taliban Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, also ratified key international agreements on human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Treaty of Civil and Political Rights, and CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Like the Constitution, these essential documents provide a foundation for realizing the human rights of women.
But building on that paper foundation -- amid poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and ongoing warfare -- is something else again.
That's why, for the great majority of Afghan women, life has scarcely changed at all. That's why even an educated and informed leader like my colleague, on her way to a U.N. agency to work on women's rights, is still unable to eat an ice cream cone.
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For most Afghan women the burqa is the least of their problems.
Afghanistan is just about the poorest country in the world. Only Burkina Faso and Niger sometimes get worse ratings. After nearly three decades of warfare and another of drought, millions of Afghans are without safe water or sanitation or electricity, even in the capital city. Millions are without adequate food and nutrition. Millions have access only to the most rudimentary healthcare, or none at all.
Diseases such as TB and polio, long eradicated in most of the world, flourish here. They hit women and children hard. One in four children dies before the age of 5, mostly from preventable illnesses such as cholera and diarrhea. Half of all women of childbearing age who die do so in childbirth, giving Afghanistan one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. Average life expectancy hovers around 42 years.
Notice that we're still talking women's rights here: the fundamental economic and social rights that belong to all human beings.
There are other grim statistics. About 85 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. About 95 percent are routinely subjected to violence in the home. And the home is where most Afghan women in rural areas, and many in cities, are still customarily confined. Public space and public life belong almost exclusively to men. President Karzai heads the country while his wife, a qualified gynecologist with needed skills, stays at home.
These facts are well known. During more than five years of Western occupation, they haven't changed.
Afghan women and girls are, by custom and practice, the property of men. They may be traded and sold like any commodity. Although Afghan law sets the minimum marriageable age for girls at 16, girls as young as 8 or 9 are commonly sold into marriage. Women doctors in Kabul maternity hospitals describe terrible life-threatening "wedding night" injuries that husbands inflict on child brides. In the countryside, far from medical help, such girls die.
Under the tribal code of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group, men customarily hand over women and girls -- surplus sisters or widows, daughters or nieces -- to other men to make amends for some offense or to pay off some indebtedness, often to a drug lord.
To Pashtuns the tradeoff is a means of maintaining "justice" and social harmony, but international human rights observers define what happens to the women and girls used in such "conflict resolution" as "slavery."
Given the rigid confinement of women, a surprising number try to escape. But any woman on her own outside the home is assumed to be guilty of the crime of "zina" -- engaging in sexual activity. That's why "running away" is itself a crime. One crime presupposes the other.
When she is caught, as most runaways are, she may be taken to jail for an indefinite term or returned to her husband or father or brothers who may then murder her to restore the family honor.
The same thing happens to a rape victim, force being no excuse for sexual contact -- unless she is married to the man who raped her. In that case, she can be raped as often as he likes.
In Kabul, where women and girls move about more freely, many are snatched by traffickers and sold into sexual slavery. The traffickers are seldom pursued or punished because once a girl is abducted she is as good as dead anyway, even to loving parents bound by the code of honor. The weeping mother of a kidnapped teenage girl once told me, "I pray she does not come back because my husband will have to kill her."
Many girls kill themselves. To escape beatings or sexual abuse or forced marriage. To escape prison or honor killing, if she's been seduced or raped or falsely accused. To escape life, if she's been forbidden to marry the man she would choose for herself.
Suicide also brings dishonor, so families cover it up. Only when city girls try to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire do their cases become known, for if they do not die at once, they may be taken to a hospital. In 2003, scores of cases of self-immolation were reported in the city of Herat; the following year, as many were recorded in Kabul. Although such incidents are notoriously underreported, during the past year 150 cases were noted in western Afghanistan, 197 in Herat, and at least 34 in the south.
The customary codes and traditional practices that made life unbearable for these burned girls predate the Taliban, and they remain in force today, side by side with the new constitution and international documents that speak of women's rights.
Tune in a Kabul television station and you'll see evidence that Afghan women are poised at a particularly schizophrenic moment in their history. Watching televised parliamentary sessions, you'll see women who not only sit side by side with men -- a dangerous, generally forbidden proximity -- but actually rise to argue with them. Yet who can forget poor murdered Shaima, the lively, youthful presenter of a popular TV chat show for young people? Her father and brother killed her, or so men and women say approvingly, because they found her job shameful. Mullahs and public officials issue edicts from time to time condemning women on television, or television itself.
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Many people believe the key to improving life for women, and all Afghans, is education, particularly because so many among Afghanistan's educated elite left the country during its decades of wars. So the international community invests in education projects -- building schools, printing textbooks, teaching teachers, organizing literacy classes for women -- and the Bush administration in particular boasts that 5 million children now go to school.
But that's fewer than half the kids of school age, and less than a third of the girls. The highest enrollments are in cities -- 85 percent of children in Kabul -- while, in the Pashtun south, enrollments drop below 20 percent overall and near zero for girls. More than half the students enrolled in school live in Kabul and its environs, yet even there an estimated 60,000 children are not in school, but in the streets, working as vendors, trash-pickers, beggars or thieves.
None of this is new. For a century, Afghan rulers -- from kings to communists -- have tried to unveil women and advance education. In the 1970s and 1980s, many women in the capital went about freely, without veils. They worked in offices, schools, hospitals. They went to university and became doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, engineers. They drove their own cars. They wore Western fashions and traveled abroad. But when Kabul's communists called for universal education throughout the country, provincial conservatives opposed to educating women rebelled.
Afghan women of the Kabul elite haven't yet caught up to where they were 35 years ago. But once again ultraconservatives are up in arms. This time it's the Taliban, back in force throughout the southern half of the country. Among their tactics: blowing up or burning schools (150 in 2005, 198 in 2006) and murdering teachers, especially women who teach girls. UNICEF estimates that in four southern provinces more than half the schools -- 380 out of 748 -- no longer provide any education at all. Last September the Taliban shot down the middle-aged woman who headed the provincial office for women's affairs in Kandahar. A few brave colleagues went back to the office in body armor, knowing it would not save them. Now, in the southern provinces -- more than half the country -- women and girls stay home.
I blame George W. Bush, the "liberator" who looked the other way. In 2001, the United States military claimed responsibility for these provinces, the heart of Taliban country; but diverted to adventures in the oilfields of Iraq, it failed for five years to provide the security international humanitarians needed to do the promised work of reconstruction. Afghans grew discouraged. Last summer, when the U.S. handed the job to NATO, British and Canadian "peacekeepers" walked right into war with the resurgent Taliban. By year's end, more than 4,000 Afghans were dead -- Taliban, "suspected" insurgents, and civilians. Speaking recently of dead women and children -- trapped between U.S. bombers and NATO troops on the one hand and Taliban forces backed (unofficially) by Pakistan on the other -- President Karzai began to weep.
It's winter in Afghanistan now. No time to make war. But come spring, the Taliban promise a new offensive to throw out Karzai and foreign invaders. The British commander of NATO forces has already warned: "We could actually fail here."
He also advised a British reporter that Westerners shouldn't even mention women's rights when more important things are at stake. As if security is not a woman's right. And peace.
Come spring, Afghan women could lose it all.
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This piece was adapted from an article that appears in the February issue of Marie Claire Brazil. It originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.