A Salute To Afghanistan’s Brave Women Of Substance

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In May 2017, when I visited Kabul, the situation had begun to deteriorate and yet looked up with promise of modernization and negotiations for peace towards a democratic a future. The roads were flanked by the canopied branches of majestic Chinars, stately pines and the resplendent olive trees in their green and auburn hues, and the most beautiful roses, I had ever set my eyes on, sprouting in the lawns in a wild rush, under a deep blue sky sprayed with cotton fluff. The markets were robust with routine business – bakeries with their display of Afghani bread and cakes, dry fruits stacked inside the dry fruit shops, carpets and handicrafts exhibited in shop windows and huge malls where international brands like Zara had made in-roads. Boys as young as 6-10 years darted for every car halting with their open cylinderical tin boxes, pushing and jostling with one another. Occasional groups of young or old men squatted on the road for a casual chat, the chai-wallas with tiny tea-pots and cups of green or black tea, mostly taken without milk, busy with customers at make-shift stalls or just idly watching the rush of traffic and pedestrians which included an occasional woman. Kabul was a city you could immediately fall in love with. Almost!

The pretty picture postcard like look was broken by huge barricades and tiring security drills – grim reminders of a war that is not yet over. As I entered the city, what struck me were not the Chinars and the roses but the ubiquitous security, heavily fortified walls, barbed wires and occasional soldiers or police. If there were bunkers and more soldiers, they were hidden from the public gaze. The formidable concrete walls topped with several feet of barbed wires were abnormally high.

People I spoke to were worried about prospects of Afghanistan falling into hands of tribal warlords and Islamist extremists. Taliban was regaining its holds on several pockets and Daesh, the Afghani version of Islamic State, was increasing its footprints. There is always the lurking fear of another strike by armed militia, many locals said. Charges of corruption and nepotism that the Afghan government led by Prof. Ghani Afghani had begun to face and its inability to penetrate deeper into the provinces, characterized by the divisive fabric of a society divided on caste and ethnic identities like Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, was feared to give greater space to the Taliban. Afghanistan was sitting on a powder keg, engendering security concerns, especially with US itching to pull out.

And yet there was hope. The country was trying to rebuild itself after four decades of war, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and horrifying tragedies of deaths, scale of orphans or physically challenged, and drug addiction.
Kabul was at that time of the most peaceful cities of Afghanistan, I recall as I now hear reports that it is likely to fall into the hands of Taliban within a month or two. Even in 2017, signs of its vulnerability were visible. Before my visit, the last major attack took place on May 3 in Kabul. 8 civilians were killed and three American soldiers wounded when a suicide bomber attacked an American military convoy during the morning rush hour. Five people were killed and 10 wounded in a suicide bomb blast near government offices in the heart of the city on April 12. The Islamic State (IS) armed group claimed responsibility for both the attacks. On May 21, two days after my return, a guesthouse run by a Swedish nongovernmental organization came under attack in Kabul late Saturday, leaving one German woman dead, a guard beheaded, and a Finnish woman missing. I was parked in a hotel in its immediate neighbourhood.

USA and European countries were trying to broker a peace formula in run up to the retreat. As an experiment anti-Soviet warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and head of the Hizb-e-Islami Party had been brought out of the bag and returned to Afghanistan after two decades of exile. According to the peace deal, Hizb-e-Islami was expected to lay down all arms in-exchange of release of prisoners. Within Afghan society, Hekmatyar was both condemned, for his atrocities in the post-Soviet era, and popular for fighting against Soviets and Taliban. A Pasthun war-lord from the Kunduz province, he wielded enough influence among Pashtuns of Afghanistan and was seen as less lethal, even acceptable, as compared to Talibans.

Hekmatyar’s entry into the scene, which soon became a forgotten story, was a sign of the complex cusp on which Afghanistan stood in 2017, amidst hope for modernization and democracy on one side and the increasing popularity and control of the more radical Islamist groups like Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-e-Islah on the other.

Things slipped into chaos thereafter with Taliban overshadowing Afghanistan’s politics in the last couple of years. As US eventually pulled out without waiting for a peace deal, the takeover of all the provinces of Afghanistan, but for Kabul, has been a cakewalk for Taliban, exacerbating the anxiety, fears and trepidations of the larger population, particularly the Afghan women, condemned to live in a landscape of endless war and strife.

In 2017, among the articles I wrote on Afghanistan, was one that captured snapshots of women who braved the daily rigours of Afghanistan during the Taliban days and thereafter. I think of them and wonder where and how they are coping with a fresh bout of turbulent times. While I pray for their safety and strength of their indomitable spirit of resilience, the article that celebrates their courage and resistance is shared below:

Snapshots of Afghanistan’s courageous women
Wazhama Tokhi undertakes the long over 2 hours journey from Zabul, a rural province of Afghanistan where she lives, to neighbouring Kandahar, three times a week to study Law and Politics in Kandahar University. She wears a burqa one day, a hijab the next and dons a tightly wrapped chaddar over her, covering her head and face, the third.
Is it a fashion statement? No! It’s safety measure.

The Kandahar province has a pervasive Taliban presence. Almost on a daily basis, they stop the buses coming from Zabul and keep an eye on the movement of the public. Women studying in educational institutions obviously do not fit in their scheme of things. Wazhama cleverly uses the different attires, forced on Afghan women by the Taliban, to deceive them, pretending to be a different person each day. She says, she is usually the only woman in the bus. “There are lot of Talibans in the area and they call the shots,” she says in her not so fluent Urdu, “there are also Daesh men but I have never seen them.”

20 years or so, tall with a slender frame and extremely pretty, Wazhama is an amazing young woman, oozing with energy, passion, ambition and sees the world as an opportunity to learn and contribute something for her people. She can surprise you with her experiences of a lifetime. As a student of class 7th, she had already begun teaching younger girls from her village. “From 2011 to 2013, I taught about 400 students in a classroom I set up in my home. I was doing this on voluntary basis as these children had no access to schools, mostly because the schools were far off,” she tells.

It wasn’t easy as the Taliban were opposed to schooling in any form and so everything had to be done secretly. But she only got more and more encouraged by the intimidations of the Taliban. Since 2013, she has been involved in setting up ‘secret schools’ in remote areas under the domination of Taliban, who had destroyed all existing schools and razed them to the ground.
Today, she not only attends classes in her university, though only 3 times a week, she also works with a local NGO on women and child rights. “I am helping families affected by domestic violence and raise these issues with the Afghan officials as well,” she says in a matter-of-fact manner. Whatever little stipend she gets, she spends it on books and stationery for young girls in her village. She narrates it all as if it is a happy song and dance sequence. She is also a member of the government created youth parliament, which take up youth issues with the government, and shows an immense capacity to learn. “I want to learn computers and English,” she tells.

Where does she get the inspiration for doing so much? She says her family is very supportive. “My father is an engineer,” she adds. She strongly believes education of girls and women is the way forward for Afghanistan. Is she aware of the far more turbulent times that the country went through? “Yes, my sisters tell me how it was.”

Her own faint recollection is of the time when the Americans landed. “I was very small. I remember they came in our region with all their war gear, after defeating the Taliban militia and they used to help people with food and essentials,” she recalls. Her family never moved out of Zabul, throughout the highs and lows of conflict.

Wazhama is conscious of Afghanistan’s history but optimistic to be a part of the rebuilding process. Her ambition to do so gives her immense energy. Fortunately, her recollections of the past are not clouded by first-hand gory experiences of the past, which only came to her second-hand from elders in her family.

In contrast, for Dr Feriha, the agony of the years of violence, tyranny and oppression that Afghanistan went through are unforgettable. “Things are better, but injustices keep happening. Did you see those children today whose parents were killed, their throats slit, by Daesh,” she asks (referring to the orphaned children, victimized by terrorists, who had been brought at the venue of the conference we had attended earlier in the day). “I was so upset the whole day, after seeing them. So innocent, they were,” she says, and her eyes turn glassy. She, however, refuses to let the brutality of the ongoing war or the trauma of the past bog her down as she tirelessly fights back, carrying on her work as a gynaecologist, presently in Herat, in western Afghanistan, close to the Iran borders.

Feriha graduated from medical college in Kabul in 1991 when the war was still going on and rival warlords Hekmatyar and Rabbani were jostling with each other for power and supremacy. She went back to her home in Sangeen Grishk in Helmand province and started her practice at the clinic of a senior surgeon her father knew. A lady doctor in this rural province was almost unheard of. She was working against both a conservative society and the much worse political scenario that was turning chaotic by the day.

Today, when she looks back, she has many stories to reveal of the gory brutality that she experienced and saw in her day-to-day life. She spoke of a minor 10-year-old girl who was brought to her after she had been continuously raped. “Not only were there evident bruises on her body,” she says, shutting her eyes and taking a pause before she adds, “The vulva and labia inside her vagina were hanging out. The vagina was severely damaged, there was nothing inside. It was difficult for her to survive. I tried my best.”

Women, she says, were particularly vulnerable those days. If militant commanders got to know there were young pretty women, they would forcibly take them for marriage and kidnap them. So, 9 young girls from her family were shifted to Herat, for sometime, to protect them. She stayed back and continued her work passionately and diligently, coping up with the pressures.

She recalls a Taliban moulvi who came to her with the request that she produce a fake certificate of impotence of a man in his neigbourhood so that he could declare his marriage null and void and marry his wife instead. “I refused,” she says and added “but, he managed to go ahead with his plans somehow.” Sometime later, he brought his pregnant wife to Feriha, who handled her delivery.

She recalls living through constant threats of armed militia, who sometimes entered their clinics for treatment of wounds or just to intimidate them. “At one time, the senior surgeon with whom I worked, fought back one of them – with a surgical knife. The Taliban escaped unscathed and turned around and kidnapped the surgeon,” she says. “I went to the same Taliban moulvi, asked him to spare his life. They asked me why I was trying to save him. I said because he is my teacher and I owe everything I am to him.” They let him go, after much argument, she says with a sense of triumph.

“Situation was so bad that once I had to go to Kabul for work and on the way back to Helmand, it took us 10 days to travel with no change of clothes. We had to keep stopping to take shelter,” the gynaecologist says.

When the Taliban completely took over, her family shifted to Pakistan and returned after 16 years. Their flight from Afghanistan was prompted when she sensed that one of the militants was plotting to kidnap her. “We packed and left the same night,” she says.

“I got married in Pakistan – to an Afghani; it was an arranged marriage and I had not seen my husband before I got married,” she tells, smiling coyly. In that smile, one can notice the prettiness of her face with her delicate features and her glowing skin while her eyes twinkle, stealing away the sorrowful expression for a while.

She is now practicing in Herat and lives with her family. “I have earned enough for myself and want to help people who are needy. I have opened a small hospital where the poor treated free of cost,” she says. “Whatever be the situation,” she says with a determined look, “I am not going to give up.”

For women in Afghanistan, it is a constant battle in their homes and in public spaces where they negotiate on a daily basis for an equal space amidst the additional dangers that an unending conflict imposes on them. The US backed Afghan government is keen to facilitate the education and empowerment of more and more women to project a gender sensitive image of the country. President Ghani Afghan and his wife, Rula Gul take particular interest in promoting women’s agendas. Women have 28 percent representation, mostly through reservation, in the two houses of the parliament – House of Elders and House of People. The country has four female cabinet ministers, two female governors, three female ambassadors and two female deputies on the High Peace Council. This is far above the Indian average.

However, this does not essentially translate into empowerment of Afghani women. It also reflects the disparities between the educated and illiterate, the elite urban western educated women and the lesser privileged ones living in the rural areas, who bear the daily rigorous hardships of life and their sagas of victimhood, bravery, strength and resilience remain untold.

Seema Samar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, who graciously invited us for lunch to her office, informed us of the phenomenally high complaints received by the Commission from women. They are of different nature – domestic abuse, harassment by war lords or the local government functionaries, particularly police.

Some women from Balkh said that when women go with their routine complaints to police, they are further harassed and troubled, even raped, by the police. And, then there are women who have no earning male members in the family, they say.
Bibi Zallajah, from Helmand province has lost three sons who were in the Afghan army, all three in the last three years, killed by the armed militia, separately. Another one, also in the army, was injured but survived. “The Taliban have been intimidating us and come to our house still. At one time, we were even forced out of the house,” she tells, saying her husband has a psychological problem and cannot work. She is left to fend for the family including the widows and young children of her three slain sons. One of her grand-daughters, just about 6 years old, accompanies her, clinging to her as she speaks. Her sole surviving son, she tells, does not live with her. “He has two wives and a large family to feed himself,” she says. “What am I going to do? Why doesn’t the government or anybody help?” she questions, wiping her tears and stating that no ex-gratia relief was paid to her for her slain sons. She was in Kabul trying to get some help but felt the response had not been encouraging.

Many other women face far graver challenges. Take for instance, Marya Akrami, Director, Afghan Women Skills Development Center, who in recent years has been facing the threats of Taliban and now, the ISIS, for working on women’s rights and trying to save the lives of women by setting up shelter homes. She opened her first shelter home in 2002 in Kabul. These shelter homes are for women who have suffered domestic violence, and who run away from their families or are abandoned. Some have children, some have had their noses or ears cut off. Her most recent achievement is establishing the first restaurant fully run by the women from the shelter homes.

An impressive and brave woman, I first met her two years ago at a conference in Kathmandu and was struck by her undeterred zeal to work against challenging odds and mesmerized by the fascinating stories she had to narrate. One of them is unforgettable. It was about an 18-year-old girl abducted by a group of policemen who beat and raped her for five days. Marya’s organisation succeeded in pursuing the case and the conviction of the cops. She hasn’t changed, even as the last two years have only worsened. Much of her work is related to domestic violence but she sees domestic violence also as a direct impact of violence by militants as “men get easily influenced by violence around them and go home to practice it on women and children”. She says that such women who are the victims of such violence need to be supported and empowered, especially poor women, who do not have the capacity to stand on their own.

At the three-day women’s seminar, such sentiments were echoed by ordinary women who negotiate with multiple challenges in their daily lives and felt that there was need for effective laws and effective governance to make the government accountable for all including women. Many, including illiterate women, felt that more space for women in local bodies and strengthening of local bodies like jirgas and shoras was important. The prime issues for women, they felt, were security and education, which they should have the capacity and access to take up at the grassroots level. Education is a priority for all.

As Marzai from Nimroz, who spoke incessantly about impact of enforced displacements on psychology of women and children, summed up, “there is need for education so that future generations can be saved from war”.