|WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN AFGHANISTAN|
Although the Taliban's reign ended 18 months ago, Afghan women still face restrictions in many aspects of everyday life.
While women in Kabul are reentering public life as professionals and active members of society, and for the most part have the option to walk the streets without covering their faces, the situation outside the capital varies from province to province.
According to Human Rights Watch, local police and warlords still support religious extremists who foster an atmosphere of intimidation that forces women to stay in their homes. Such intimidation is worse in outlying areas where the central government has little impact, and often prevents girls living in these areas from attending school.
In its 2003 report, Amnesty International said that while the human rights situation has improved in many areas, armed factions still use rape and other sexual violence as methods to prevent women from pursuing involvement in politics.
"Despite the lifting of restrictions on their freedom of movement, women feared for their security and were subjected to acts of violence, rape, public harassment and intimidation," the report said.
Weeda Mansoor, a senior member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, agrees that the situation has undermined the transitional government's early efforts to free women from the Taliban's harsh restrictions.
"The only thing that has changed since the time of the Taliban is they have removed their dirty clothes and now wear a shirt and necktie," Mansoor told the Reuters News Service.
Following the Taliban's fall in December 2001, the 29-member interim government, selected by tribal leaders during a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany, included two women. Sima Samar, a doctor who ran health centers for Afghan refugees in Pakistan was elected minister for women's affairs and vice-chair of the loya jirga that elected the current president, Hamid Karzai.
Suhaila Seddiqi, a surgeon and former army general, became the minister for public health.
Women also participated in the Constitutional Drafting Commission and the Judicial Commission. Under Samar, the United Nations helped create a fund to support programs to improve the legal, economic and political rights of Afghan women and girls. In 2002, the fund's budget was $1.4 million.
In 2002, the Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA), in cooperation with the United Nations, began construction on four women's centers -- in Kandahar, Herat, Ghazni and Mazar-e-Sharif -- to "provide a range of services for women, such as literacy programs, maternal health services, psycho-social counseling and vocational skills training and will offer a space for women to come together and pave the way for partnership and capacity-building of women's groups and NGOs [non-governmental organizations," according to a U.N. press release. One of MOWA's goals is to raise the literacy rate for women, which currently sits between 13 and 22 percent.
For many Westerners, the enforced wearing of the burqa -- a traditional robe that covers the woman completely -- came to represent the repression of women's rights. During their time in power, the Taliban regime took the traditional garb -- which was worn commonly in remote provinces -- and made it law in the country's more liberal cities. Women who did not wear the burqa, with its 3-inch embroidered screen allowing partial vision, were beaten or lashed with cables.
When the Taliban left power, television broadcasts beamed images of men shaving off their beards, which religious police also enforced, and women shedding their burqas.
Aid workers report that while men continue to shave their beards, many women have resumed wearing burqas.
When a Reuters reporter asked Kabul women why they wore
burqas, many answered that they felt safer covered from head to toe in a society
emerging from more than two decades of bloodshed. Many simply wore them to comply
with their families' wishes, following a custom that has existed for centuries
in the deeply conservative country.
Some Afghan women dismiss the Western preoccupation with the burqa, saying the garment is the least of their problems. According to them, widespread cultural attitudes preventing women from participating in the workplace and government are far more pressing.
"In this situation, the burqa is not the problem," said Dr. Rahim. "The very big problem is that women must find jobs. Women must come out of the house. Women must make money. Then they can make these decisions for themselves."
According to analysts at the World Bank and elsewhere, the push for such equality has raised cultural questions that Afghan men and women are confronting together.
"Many men and women today have never been confronted with the experience of having to work together," Carol LeDuc, senior social development specialist at the Bank who has worked on Afghanistan since 1990, said. "They are uncertain how they should act: do they share offices, do they eat together, do they travel together in the same vehicle and if so, where does each sit?"
The women working to change these cultural trends continue to face hostility: Habiba Sarobi, the current women's minister, has received numerous threats, and now travels around the country with an entourage of bodyguards.
-- By Leah Clapman, Online NewsHour