Thursday, 24 January 2013
'We may win or lose but we must fight'
They face unimaginable discrimination and danger on a daily basis, but the women of Afghanistan are battling back - and have some truly remarkable stories to tell
Written by Matt WarrenIt is not your usual trip to the local women’s centre. But then our journey will take us along one of the world’s most dangerous roads – and through the labyrinthine heart of a town where killings are an all too familiar part of life.
I am going to meet a group of Afghan women, each bravely playing a role in the struggle to make their nation a more equal society. Their refuge – a concrete block without power or water – in the agricultural town of Gereshk, offers a vital lifeline for 700 women, many of them widows. In a region where violence is commonplace, few have a voice, and even fewer have a public profile.
We travel in a convoy of three armoured Toyota 4x4s, racing along Afghanistan’s hazardous Highway 1, before turning into the knot of dusty streets and alleyways in the centre of Gereshk. In places, the traffic is choked to a standstill and suicide attacks and IE Ds are a constant threat. When we arrive at the com-pound, our bodyguards secure the perimeter before even allowing us out of the vehicle. And yet we are only visitors here; in a week or two, I will be safely back home in Britain. The women I am about to meet, meanwhile, face such threats on a daily basis – without the protection of guards, guns or even the most basic civil rights. Their plight has been brought into vivid focus by an inspiring 15-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousufzai, a name that comes up frequently in conversation with Afghan women.
Malala wrote a BBC blog about life under the Taliban in neighbouring Pakistan’s Swat Valley and courageously campaigned for women’s rights – before being shot by a Taliban gunman last October.
Malala has since recovered in a British hospital and there are now calls for her to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But the challenges faced by many of the region’s women remain almost unimaginable.
Gereshk may be surrounded by the Helmand desert, but this is the Afghan winter and the room I am ushered into is bitterly cold. The curtains are drawn and I can see my breath when I talk.
The hospitality, however, is warm. I am seated on a large sofa and handed a cup of hot, black tea and a bowl of toffees. Ten women have come to talk to me and they all greet me with a broad smile. In rural areas, where women rarely even leave the home, little has changed in generations. But these women, from the region’s larger towns, are part of a vocal, more liberated minority.
Golalia is the head of women’s affairs in Gereshk and runs this centre. She is a widow with three children and, at the very centre of the group, is clearly the local matriarch.
‘Just this morning, my son asked me not to come to this meeting because he had heard someone was going to kill me,’ she tells me. ‘But I said, “No, I am going. I am a fighter”. If you are going to play the game, you can win, or you can lose. But I am going to play it.
‘I am one of the main targets for the insurgents, and we do carry these things on our shoulders. But I will continue. We tend not to plan for the future, we just take each day as it comes. I have a lot of fear in my heart for my children – when they are out, I count every second until they come home.’
For all of these women, many of whom are mothers, security is a constant worry, and anyone who speaks out is particularly at risk. (The day after this meeting, the district governor is targeted by an IED, costing one of his advisors a leg.)
‘One day I was going to a nearby town and there were two suspicious men in the back of the bus,’ says Bibi, a member of the Provincial Community Council. ‘They were linked to the insurgency and they recognised me as a member of the council. I had to get off at a checkpoint and ask a policeman to drive me the rest of the way because I was afraid they were going to kill me. The insurgents know everything that is going on; they have spies everywhere.
‘When my husband was ill, my son and my nephew went to the hospital to take him some food. On the way, they were both killed by an IED. I now have two bodyguards,’ she adds. ‘But neither has a gun.’
The subject matter is harrowing, the women speak about their lives with courage and good humour. When I ask how many of them are widows, for example, Nargis, headmistress of the local girls’ school, can’t resist a joke.
‘I’m not married – which is about the same thing,’ she laughs. ‘As a headmistress, I do have 1,300 children, though. It’s enough.’
They also believe that things have improved since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. But as British forces begin to withdraw ahead of their final exit in 2014, there remains real concern about the future.
‘It is Afghan against Afghan,’ says Suraya, a police officer. ‘I can’t see any solution – when the international forces leave, it will be back to civil war.’ Apart from anything else, Afghanistan is awash with guns.
‘When a man has a gun, he has power, he can do anything at any time,’ says Bibi. ‘He can go and kill. He can take your land, your money. A gun is about pride, but women don’t have that choice. If I saw my son with a gun, I’d tell him to drop it and pick up a pen instead.’
‘With a gun, you can knock on someone’s door and demand to marry their daughter,’ adds Suraya.
‘I want to live to see the day when there are no guns in Afghanistan,’ says Golalia. ‘If I survive to see that day, then I will die happily. At the moment, you even see guns in the hands of children.’
For headmistress, Nargis, however, the argument is more nuanced. ‘I don’t agree. The guns are not going to disappear from Afghanistan. We need good leadership, some-one at the top who can control the country, who can run it in the right way. ‘A gun can be used badly, or it can be used well, to defend your country. It all comes down to the individual, and the people leading them.’
In many areas, however, that kind of leadership is proving elusive – and corruption is commonplace.
‘If you need anything from the authorities, the first thing they want from you is money,’ says Bibi. ‘Without money, you can’t do any kind of work. We are suffering from our own people’s hand. ‘Look at this centre. We don’t have any heating or electricity. It’s very cold. If you brought a thief in here, he’d admit anything.’
In her view, this corruption, coupled with widespread unemployment, is driving many young men into the ranks of the insurgency. ‘Unemployment is a huge problem,’ she explains. ‘Young men think, “I am uneducated, unemployed and I am being intimidated by the security forces”. They feel desperate so they go and join the insurgents, who pay them good money and give them a gun, which makes them feel powerful. And unemployment is rising day by day. We have to create jobs or more and more people will just join the insurgency.’
Women, however, can play a vital role in combating this. It’s their sons, after all, who choose to either join, or battle, the insurgents.
Not that their ambitions are limited to the home. ‘We certainly hope that one day we will have a female prime minister,’ says Golalia. ‘That is why all the women in this room are working so hard.
‘If there is going to be peace, I believe that women have to sit down alongside the men. If men work alone, they won’t succeed. Women can give good advice – they can add something.’
‘Besides,’ adds Nargis. ‘I think they say in other countries that behind every successful man is a strong woman.’
Two days later, I am 20 miles south of Gereshk, in Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Here, I meet Sharifa Nabi, 30, a member of the government’s Department of Women’s A airs, and her sister, Karima, who at 28 is the youngest member of the Provincial Council. They are bright, inspiring, modern women – but they also make clear that it is a mistake to try and apply all Western values to Afghanistan.
‘Women should certainly play an equal role in society,’ says Sharifa. ‘But sometimes people confuse equality here with equality in the West.’
I ask whether women should wear the burqa. The answer is unequivocal. ‘Yes, we should,’ says Karima. ‘It is traditional in Afghan society. But only if there is no force to do so. It should be an independent decision.’
‘This is an Islamic society, and we want equal rights as set out in sharia,’ adds Sharifa. ‘We should have access to education. We should play an equal role in the family. And we should be able to decide the future of our children.
‘A woman should also have the right to choose who she marries. I should know him first. I should love him first. ’
But while modest progress has been made towards these ends over the last decade, there is no doubt that the gains would be reversed if the Taliban returned.
‘There is no way to convince the Taliban that this should be the case,’ says Sharifa. ‘In our society, one woman cannot convince her father, her brother, that this should be the case. So how can she convince illiterate people who come from the mountains and reject these rights?’
‘Everyone is afraid of what might happen after 2014,’ adds Karima. ‘If the Taliban returns, the situation will change completely. Most people living in the cities are working for private companies, or even the international forces, and the Taliban will find out who they are. Women who have been involved in the running of Afghanistan will be hanged or beheaded.’ So does she want British forces to stay beyond 2014?
‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘Their presence is very important for Afghanistan. The Afghan Army and police only have light weapons. They do not have aircraft, or tanks. They don’t have the equipment to defeat the Taliban. The International Security Assistance Force should leave when the Afghan security forces are properly equipped.’
They are also concerned about the national elections scheduled for the same year. ‘Many people are worried that the presidential and provincial council elections, which happen at the same time, will be corrupt. We have heard that thousands of election cards have already been printed in Pakistan.’
But despite these di culties, many of the women are truly inspiring. Habiba Yarmand is a very rare thing in Afghanistan’s Helmand province – a businesswoman. In fact, she is the founder of the region’s first kindergarten.
Not that it was easy. ‘It is very di cult to set up a business as a woman. There must be a man beside her. When I was looking for a building, for example, the male property dealers would not easily speak to me. If you want to run a business, you must do so with a man.’
After finding a male partner, however, she succeeded in setting up the centre and after just 40 days, has 180 children on her books. ‘We are already planning some new centres,’ she says.
And then there’s Roma Muhammadi, the inspirational young director of Muska, a women’s radio station. From nowhere, and in a society often deeply suspicious of the female voice, she has built a lady-friendly broadcaster that now has tens of thousands of listeners.
It is a huge achievement – but no great surprise. For despite the overwhelming odds against them, it is hard not to believe that these brave women will somehow find a way to prevail. Whatever the future holds.
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Q: A recent survey has revealed the Top 10 things British women would love to do but are too scared. Have you done any of the following?
Sing in public / karaoke - 10.6%
Ask for a pay rise - 6.2%
Travel or holiday alone - 27.7%
Do a naked photo-shoot - 6.2%
Get a tattoo - 3.8%
Have a bikini wax - 4.9%
Get your hair cut very short - 10.6%
Ask someone out on a date - 3.8%
Quit your job - 19%
Have cosmetic surgery - 7.3%