|Under Guard. Women
prisoners being led to court in Herat, where a
deeply conservative version of sharia,
or Islamic law, holds sway. Photo by Kamran Jebreili/AP.
It's clear what needs to be done
to combat threats to women's freedom in Afghanistan.
Despite promises by international players and pleas
from Afghan officials, the expansion of international
peacekeepers beyond Kabul remains unfulfilled. And
the accompanying violence around the country is probably
the single biggest obstacle to getting international
authorities to pay sufficient attention to women's
rights in Afghanistan.
Even if peacekeepers were deployed
to six or eight more Afghan cities, their first priority
would be quelling violence between warring factions
and protecting foreigners, including aid workers,
according to news reports. In a recent interview with
the Washington Post, the outgoing
commander of the International Security Assistance
Force, Maj. Gen. Hilmi Akin Zorlu of Turkey, noted
that while "security in Kabul improves with each passing
day," his soldiers are still focused on interrupting
potential attacks against foreigners and confiscating
heavy weapons and ammunition hidden around the city.
Such efforts would take up even more time in areas
outside of Kabul, which have been the exclusive purview
of warlords since the Taliban was ousted.
In such a violence-saturated environment,
human rights have taken a back seat, according to
a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report,
which focuses particularly on abuses to women in the
western city of Herat.
For Herati women and girls, "every
decision, every day presents dangers or challenges
from the government: where they can go, how they can
get there, whom they can go with and how they can
dress," said Zama Coursen-Neff, a counsel to Human
On January 10, new rules were issued
in Herat, banning male teachers from instructing women
and girls in private classes and calling for strict
gender segregation in all schools. Since there are
too few female teachers to meet the needs of women
and girls, the practical effect is to restrict their
access to education altogether.
Herat's problems are particularly
disconcerting because the city has long been one of
Afghanistan's most cosmopolitan. A commercial center
connecting the tribal desert mountain areas of central
Afghanistan to the more modern culture of neighboring
Iran, Herat was widely viewed as one of the more liberal
places in the country.
Now, however, the city and surrounding
province is ruled by Ismail
Khan, who while keeping the peace in his region,
is encouraging some of the country's most punitive
policies toward women, even stricter than the most
conservative Muslim practices in Iran.
If Herati women are seen in public
with a man who is not a relative they can be hauled
into the local hospital and examined for signs of
sexual intercourse. Doctors have talked anonymously
both to HRW and to journalists about the practice.
Outside the home women must wear
a burqa or chador (the latter leaves the face exposed)
and without it they face harassment from the police
and from squads of young boys whom Khan has admonished
to be on the lookout for such misbehavior.
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