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Afghanistan's women left yearning for more

'We are like birds who have left the cage, but with our wings still clipped,' says one Kabul student, as women enjoy a much better life than under the Taliban but still face age-old constraints.

August 15, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — One is the face of despair; the other, of hope.

Zeinab, 22, believed that only death could provide an escape from her husband's merciless beatings. So she set herself on fire, leaving one-third of her body covered with oozing, blistering burns. She faces a lifetime of disfigurement and, unless she returns to her abusive husband, the likely loss of her two children.

Twelve-year-old Nazira's classroom is a sweltering tent, and her desk is a plastic mat on the ground. But her teachers say she is one of their brightest pupils, encouraged by a mother and father who want her to get as much education as she can. Her eyes sparkle when she describes her ambition: to become a doctor.

Nearly eight years after the fall of the Taliban movement, Afghan women live on the cusp of triumph and tragedy. Life is immeasurably better than it was under Taliban rule, when they were forbidden to leave their homes without a male relative, beaten for infractions such as laughing aloud, deprived of schooling and employment, shrouded and faceless in public.

But dozens of girls and women, interviewed over several months in homes and mosques, in parks and in prison, in street markets and classrooms, described a nagging sense that the gains have not been all they had hoped for. That after all this time, all this effort expended, life should be different. Better.

"It's a kind of freedom, yes," said a university student named Zarifa, who like some of the other women did not want her full name published. "We are like birds who have left the cage, but with our wings still clipped."

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The thwarted dreams of many Afghan women mirror a palpable sense of disillusionment in a country still battered and broken despite billions of dollars in international aid, and Afghanistan's place at the center of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's biggest and most sustained military campaign.

Many Afghans, of both sexes, describe the heady optimism that prevailed after the Taliban government was dislodged in 2001, only to be replaced by growing trepidation over the last three years as the insurgency reinvigorated itself, violence surged, corruption flourished and rebuilding proved agonizingly slow.

Although the U.S.-led invasion was spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks, the belief that Afghan women would be liberated from a reign of medieval cruelty provided a strong moral underpinning for the war effort.

"I think the West was naive, in some ways," said Manizha Naderi, a women's rights activist. "There was this notion that when the Taliban were gone, we would all be able to throw off our burkas and celebrate. But it hasn't been like that."

That, she and others said, can be attributed to deeply rooted cultural traditions that predate Taliban rule and persist in its aftermath, abetted by poverty, illiteracy and the growing insecurity of day-to-day life.

"The more security deteriorates, the more women become vulnerable," said Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "I dislike that word -- 'vulnerable.' But that is the reality."

For many Afghan women, this feeling of disenfranchisement is heightened, not eased, by the national elections scheduled for Thursday.

There are just two female presidential candidates, in a field of nearly 40. Record numbers of women are seeking seats in provincial assemblies, but intimidation is commonplace and some have gotten death threats simply for daring to show their faces on campaign posters.

And almost no one believes that the elections will bring about any dramatic change in women's lot.

President Hamid Karzai, expected to emerge as the victor even if the race is forced to a runoff, has repeatedly yielded to conservative religious elements to win political support. He caused an outcry this year by signing a controversial law that in its original reading condoned marital rape. He has since pledged to review it.

"There's been no strong debate over women's rights in this election; it's just not a priority," Samar said. "None of the major candidates speaks very boldly on the subject. It has faded into the background."

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When she poured gasoline on herself and struck a match, Zeinab felt as if it was the only decision she had ever made for herself.

Born to a poor Pashtun family in the west of Afghanistan, Zeinab never learned to read or write. She married at 16, at her family's behest.

As her husband's abuse steadily worsened, she had no idea it was possible to seek help. She learned that only later, when doctors and nurses fought to save her life at the country's only dedicated burn center, at Herat Regional Hospital.

"It's as if," Zeinab gestured with a bandaged hand, groping for words, "as if I didn't know that there was a world outside my house. Even what I have learned in these last three months, from my time in the hospital, it's more than I knew before in my entire life."

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