Women Make Gains, but Still Struggle in Afghanistan

March 20, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
Much has improved for Afghan women and girls in the areas of education and community support since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, but incidents of violence and traditional practices such as forced marriages continue. Margaret Warner reports from Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Margaret Warner wraps up nearly a month of reporting in Afghanistan with this story on the fate and future of Afghan women.

MARGARET WARNER: On a misty morning in southwest Kabul, girls are playing catch-up. At this “Afghans4Tomorrow” foundation school, 15-year-olds are in first grade with 6-year-olds. It’s a legacy of the Taliban era, when girls’ education was forbidden through virtually all of Afghanistan.

LAILA SAIEDI, Director, “Afghans4Tomorrow” School (through translator): These girls are now learning, and that should help all Afghanistan, since most of the problems here the reason is uneducation.

MARGARET WARNER: In a country where the literacy rate for girls is just 11 percent, this marks an improvement, says Sima Samar of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

SIMA SAMAR, Chair, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission: Of course not everywhere in every corner, but 35 percent of the students — of the children who goes to school is girls, although we are not happy with the number still. It’s lower number. But it is something, a positive change.

MARGARET WARNER: But there’s still resistance to that change from the Taliban and the culture. The deteriorating security kept more than 600 public schools from reopening this year. And more than half of all Afghan girls get married before age 16.

Afghanistan remains a male-dominated society. On a recent religious holiday, men at a local mosque spent the day preparing and serving meals to the poor. There wasn’t a woman in sight.

Some women do walk on Kabul’s teeming streets. But in the rural areas, where three-quarters of Afghans live, women rarely venture out in public. And those that do are swathed in pale-blue head-to-toe burkas that seem to float down the streets. Behind these scenes, women say, many of them lead lives that are crushingly repressive and painful.

Hidden away down a rabbit warren of twisting dirt paths in Kabul, in a small mud-brick building, these women have come together for support. Many have been mistreated by their husbands or in-laws. But at this program, run by a private group, Women for Women International, they’re learning crafts and skills to give them some economic independence and control.

Homa Najibi, 27, is the mother of six. Her mother-in-law abused her, once pouring boiling water on her hands while Homa’s husband stood by. Now, after six months of training, she’s earning money and respect at home.

HOMA NAJIBI (through translator): I see my future better, because they have trained me to be a more professional tailor and I can make money out of it. I can also train some of my daughters, and we can start a small business.

MARGARET WARNER: But others who have fled forced marriages are still in distress. When 27-year-old Zora Alokazay was 16, her father sold her into marriage to a man from rural Ghazni province. The price: $140.

It was a life of forced farm labor. And after multiple children, she fled back to Kabul. Her husband followed her and made her pregnant again, then left.

ZORA ALOKAZAY (through translator): When I had my baby at two days old, they took that baby to my husband by force.

MARGARET WARNER: She feels powerless to act. Her husband is in his Taliban-controlled village, beyond the reach of the governments or its courts. Losing this latest child is all the more painful because of what happened before.

ZORA ALOKAZAY (through translator): I had to give birth inside the house, and I lost three of my children because they would not take me to the hospital.

MARGARET WARNER: These provincial women, after delivering premature babies at home, were fortunate to be brought to this special hospital for sick children in Kabul to try to save them. But the odds for women are getting worse in the countryside, as the Taliban extends its reach, says Roshanak Wardak, an obstetrician and member of parliament.

ROSHANAK WARDAK, Member of Parliament, Afghanistan: Those parts which are under control of Taliban, women are very much miserable. Their situation is very much miserable. I would like to say this. Our government never pay attention to those ladies.

MARGARET WARNER: And it’s not just Taliban influence that confines Afghan women.

ROSHANAK WARDAK: We have our own special culture, and also culture has a limited activity of the woman. For example, a woman cannot — she is not safe when she is alone. She needs a man. And, also, she doesn’t have enough income. She is dependent to the man.

MARGARET WARNER: Women are beginning to reach out to one another for help. On a call-in show called “Banu” on Tolo TV, Farzana Samimi fields calls from anonymous women seeking advice on everything from their husbands’ infidelity to their in-laws.

FARZANA SAMIMI, Host, “Banu,” Tolo TV (through translator): In Afghanistan, a lot of social problems women cannot share with their very close friends, because from the beginning the woman, especially in Afghanistan, they have been told not to talk about their problems with others. They don’t feel confident when they talk with someone, so they hide it.

MARGARET WARNER: At first, reaction to the program was negative. Some women lambasted her for bringing these taboo subjects to light. Samimi says working women like herself are fearful of attack.

FARZANA SAMIMI (through translator): Especially women working for the media, when we are coming to our jobs, there is a little bit of fear, but we still have to just act as brave women.

ROSHANAK WARDAK: The best way is education of both sexes.

MARGARET WARNER: Roshanak Wardak believes change will come for Afghan women only when more Afghan men become enlightened.

ROSHANAK WARDAK: If a woman is very much highly educated, but a man is not educated, it’s impossible to recognize her rights, what rights she has. But if a man is educated, man will give her rights by himself.

MARGARET WARNER: These three young students at the American University of Afghanistan aren’t waiting around: 18-year-old Angela wants to be a businesswoman; 19-year-old Shekiba wants to be a judge; and 17-year-old Shogofa plans to go into politics big time.

SHOGOFA: I am going to be the president of Afghanistan in future.

MARGARET WARNER: They dress like hip teenaged girls throughout the Muslim world, covered hair atop trendy clothes, but those are the Kabul rules.

ANGELA: When I go back, I cannot dress like this. I have to wear a long skirt, a long — like a big scarf.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you go home and you want to go out, you wear a burka?

ANGELA: I have to do that. When I am in a society that they all wear burka, I have to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Shogofa is more daring. She dresses identically at home.

SHOGOFA: I want to change the idea of people. I want to get uplift for woman that they also can be like me.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to get married?

ANGELA: I’m really afraid of this, because I’m thinking that, if I get married to someone, then my life will be changed.

SHOGOFA: At first, I don’t want to get married for a long time. And before I get married, I want to choose the educated person.

MARGARET WARNER: Brave words from a rooftop in a land of conservative cultural mores, where even in some quarters of the sprawling city of Kabul the Taliban’s more extreme vision still persists.