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Quiet revolution hangs by a thread

Afghan women have struggled with each step toward equality, but the nation's instability is eroding their gains.

January 21, 2007|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Kabul, Afghanistan — EACH morning, the policewoman puts on her uniform, goes to her precinct office, sits behind a bare desk. And waits.

She is one of several officers appointed to make it easier for women to report domestic violence. Her job ought to be one of the busiest in the district. Instead, Pushtoon, who goes by one name, has one of the loneliest.

"Last week we had one woman. Before that there had not been anyone for several weeks," she said, twisting hands left scarred by her attempt at suicide years ago in a Taliban jail. "Women are afraid to come, but we are not allowed to go to them.

"The police chiefs will not let us. They say it is unsafe for women officers," she said.

Five years after the end of the Taliban era, there are new opportunities for women in Afghanistan, and notable efforts are underway to make their daily lives better, especially in Kabul, the capital. Improving the status of women has been a core goal of U.S. policy here, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a congressional hearing in 2005 that enshrining women's equality in the Afghan Constitution was an important advance for the entire region.

But conversations with dozens of women suggest that each step forward has been a struggle. Afghan society remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women gaining independence and authority. The Taliban's resurgence has reversed incremental gains, particularly in the south. If the Taliban incursions spread, more women are likely to lose ground.

Families in the south that recently began allowing their daughters to go to school and wives to enroll in vocational programs have pulled them out because of Taliban attacks.

"Women's future depends so much on security. As much as se-curity deteriorates, women's situation deteriorates," said Masuda Jalal, former acting minister of women's affairs. "At the first sign of insecurity, the head of the family protects his women and children, and the first measure they take is to keep them inside the house."

Women who have gained ground haven't talked of the constitutional principles of equality. Instead, they focus on the respect accorded women by the Koran, and on the importance of mothers and homes, where older women have long held positions of power.

Their goal, often unstated, is to convince fathers and brothers, husbands and sons that when a woman is empowered, the males benefit as well. They hope their daughters will at least have more choices than they had.

Women are learning to drive, some at their husbands' urging so they can help with family errands. Small numbers have opened bank accounts. Women have become a regular presence on television talk shows, and they deliver weather reports and other news features.

According to Farsona Simimi, a popular television talk show host, "There is a quiet revolution here." But, she added, "I do not know whether it will succeed."

Pushing a stone uphill

THREE times in the last century, the status of women has improved, only to suffer reversals.

The first time was in the 1920s, when ruler Amanullah Khan abolished the requirement that women be completely covered in public and encouraged his wife to wear a hat without a veil. He was ousted by the mullahs.

The lot of women improved again in the 1960s, when four women were elected to parliament. One of them was the mother of Nasrine Gross, now an Afghan American lecturer in sociology at Kabul University.

A family album contains photos of her mother and several friends at a picnic 40 years ago. They wear knee-length dresses with short sleeves; a couple of them have beehive hairdos, strands blowing free in the summer breeze as they lean against a sleek car. Two men in Western clothing stand nearby.

"No one can believe these pictures were taken here," Gross said.

In the 1970s, political turmoil stymied women's progress. But in the next decade, ruling communists prohibited women from wearing burkas and appointed many to government posts. More than 50 were given judgeships, and many others took positions in the police and healthcare professions.

When the Taliban took power in 1996, it banned all education for women, even small girls. It removed women from almost all jobs outside the home and required them to cover their faces in public by wearing a burka. In some areas, it demanded that house windows be painted black so women could not see out and men could not see in. Women were whipped in public for the smallest infraction.

Educated Afghans and international aid workers say the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has done little besides removing the Taliban restrictions. He has only one woman in his Cabinet of 25 and none among his top advisors.

Several Afghan women said that they had encouraged Karzai to do small things, such as have his wife accompany him to public events, but that he had never done so.

In the name of Islam

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