KANDAHAR: Afghan student Fauzia used to make ends meet voicing ads on a radio station in the Taleban heartland of Kandahar, but that came to an abrupt end when the Islamists swept to power in August. Their order was clear: no female voices on the air. Afghanistan’s new rulers have promised more moderate governance than their last stint in power, when women were all but barred from work and education, and prohibited from leaving the house unchaperoned.
But there is widespread mistrust in their women’s rights pledge. Most girls around the country have been barred from attending secondary school, and most women have been unable to return to work. When AFP visited Kandahar last month, only a few women were visible in the dusty shopping streets of the southern city, hastily lugging bags from store to store while wearing the head-to-toe burqa. The Taleban “posted messages on Facebook saying they did not want to hear any more music or female (voices) on air,” said Fauzia, who asked not to use her real name.
The 20-year-old medical student’s situation has become increasingly desperate after losing her income from radio ads-Fauzia and her four younger siblings are orphans, and she is struggling to put food on the table. Despite Taleban promises of a softer rule this time around, women remain depressed and unclear about their place in society, while businesses that once employed them are wary of upsetting the Islamists. Fauzia’s former boss said the radio station felt forced to stop airing ads with women’s voices. She has been handing out our resumes all over Kandahar, without any luck. “I am told to wait,” she said.
‘Bad looks from Taleban’
Since taking power, the Islamists have repeatedly said they will respect women’s rights in the confines of Islamic law, without elaborating. Women, with some exceptions, have been barred from returning to work or education, and told that they must hold off until arrangements have been made, including the segregation of men and women. So far, “we haven’t banned anything for women”, Mullah Noor Ahmad Saeed, a Taleban official in Kandahar province said. “If they don’t feel secure or don’t go back to work, it is their fault.”
But many are skeptical. “In the streets, people don’t say anything, but we noticed bad looks from the Taleban,” said Fereshteh Nazari, who has been able to return to work as the head of a girls-only primary school. Women teachers and girls, however, have been excluded from returning to secondary school. “Before we used to be happy to come to school. Now we’re under stress,” Nazari told AFP at the school. On the day AFP visited, some 700 students were present, less than a third of the 2,500 girls enrolled.
“Most parents don’t send their girls to school after the age of 10 because they don’t feel secure,” Nazari said. Zohra, a mathematics major in her 20s who asked not to use her real name, is among the students staying away, her fear compounded by rumors of a looming violent Taleban crackdown. “For me, life is more important than anything else,” she told AFP by phone.
For many women, the ability to work is crucial now more than ever as Afghanistan suffers a worsening economic crisis. It has had a severe impact even on the few women still allowed to work-Nazari and her teacher colleagues have not received their salaries since the Western-backed government collapsed in August. “Before, we had a good life. Now we might have to go and beg at the bazaar,” said the headmistress, who is in her 20s. “My husband is jobless, and we have to feed our two kids.”
‘We want freedom’
The Taleban have promised all Afghans security and peace, including women. But for Fauzia, the mere presence of the Islamists puts social pressure on women to stay away. “Except (for) groceries, we don’t go anywhere else,” she said, and even then, women “come back home very quickly”. “Even my little brother tells me to cover my face, to not see friends anymore, and not to go anywhere except classes,” Fauzia said.
It is a jarring change for many young Afghan women, who benefited from the previous government’s push for girls’ education. “We want freedom,” said a 12-year-old girl in the yard of Nazari’s school. But she added that with the Taleban now in power, girls and women will have to do “whatever they say”. “If not, we’ll face problems.” – AFP