Many liberals backed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, believing it would end women's servitude. I met dozens of women, from a young MP to a serial killer, to discover whether things are betterby Charlotte Eagar / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Shirin Gul is in the warder’s office in the women’s block of Kabul’s Pul-i-Charki jail, one eye on the Indian soap blaring from a television in the corner. Plump and small, smooth-skinned at 50, she simpers at the male warder and me with rank intimacy.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” she says, putting her hand on my knee, coming so close I can feel the warmth from her face on my cheek. “My husband did it. He’s in jail with my eldest son. But everyone is telling lies about me. Two days ago the vegetable seller said to me, ‘I hear Shirin Gul is in here. I know her.’ He didn’t even realise he was talking to me.”
A gold and turquoise ring glints on her hand as she flicks her tears away. “It’s bad, in Afghanistan,” she says, “for a woman to be talked about.”
Gossip is the least of her problems. Shirin Gul is awaiting execution for feeding 27 men poisoned kebabs and selling their cars over the border in Pakistan. Her death certificate is on President Hamid Karzai’s desk. Her victims were mostly taxi drivers, their bodies found buried in the gardens of her houses in Kabul and Jalalabad. If Karzai signs the certificate, Shirin Gul will become the first Afghan woman to be executed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
“She used to lure the taxi drivers in with offers of food—it’s our Afghan code of hospitality,” says a neighbour, Ahmed. Any visitor to Afghanistan can vouch for the constant offers of food, green tea and little sweets, and for how it can be offensive to refuse them. “The police found seven bodies here,” Ahmed continued. “The smell was terrible.”
“More like 11,” says Abdul, another neighbour. “The owners of the house moved back into it—nobody would rent the place. But at night their beds kept shaking. So they dug the floor up and found more bodies. She killed my cousin. He was a taxi driver, on the Jalalabad-Kabul road.”
“Shirin Gul represents everything that Afghan men believe justifies their treatment of women,” says a journalist who has spent many years in Afghanistan, as we stand on a roof overlooking the ploughed mess of Shirin Gul’s garden. “They think women have such strong sexual desires that if they aren’t locked away, all hell breaks loose.” In Shirin Gul’s case, the word on the street is that she seduced her husband’s nephew, Rahmatullah, and then persuaded him to murder her husband so they could marry. Rahmatullah allegedly strangled the victims, with the help of four male accomplices, after Shirin had fed them drugged kebabs. Yet nobody talks about the executions of these men, which are also pending: it is Shirin Gul who has transfixed Afghan society.
But shirin gul is hardly the only woman in Afghanistan facing problems. Of a population of 25m, about 55 per cent are female, yet most women are kept in near-servitude to men.
When America, Britain and their coalition partners invaded Afghanistan over five years ago, one of their key concerns—after terrorism and the opium harvests—was the Taliban’s treatment of women. Women’s degradation in Afghanistan won over much of the liberal establishment to the war. Under the Taliban, women were forbidden to work or to go to school. They were forced to wear the all-enveloping burkha, swaying like sky-blue lampshades through the streets. If caught uncovered, they could be flogged. The punishment for adultery was execution—on a football pitch surrounded by crowds, for whom the weekly slaughters took the place of television, film, music and other banned entertainment.
After Kabul fell, a flock of “gender specialists” arrived, dedicated to empowering the women of Afghanistan. Yet a report last year by Womankind Worldwide, an NGO that has worked in Afghanistan since 2003, stated that the status of Afghan women had not improved significantly in the last five years.
It is not all bad news. Thanks to the (western-inspired) positive discrimination in the constitution which requires that at least 25 per cent of MPs be female, there are 68 women MPs. The Afghan parliament has a higher proportion of women (27 per cent) than that of Britain (19 per cent) or America (22 per cent). Education is compulsory for girls aged seven to 12. The age of consent for marriage has been raised from seven to 16 for girls. Women’s equality is now enshrined in the constitution, which states: “Citizens of Afghanistan—whether man or woman—have equal rights and duties before the law.”
According to Afghans themselves, however, and to many aid workers who know the country well, these advances are often little more than ministerial dreams. Most school-age girls are not at school; 85 per cent of the female population is illiterate (but then 71 per cent of the entire population is illiterate); 1,600 women per 100,000 (1.6 per cent) die in childbirth, compared to 12 in 100,000 in the US (0.012 per cent).
Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world: its average income is $300 a year, according to the World Bank (compared to $1,500 in China or $2,320 in neighbouring Iran). While the country is so poor, few women have time to worry about acquiring an education or defending their rights.
Honour killings are still common, child marriage even more so. Last summer, I met a poppy farmer in Helmand who told me he had just sold one of his daughters, aged nine, into marriage with an opium dealer (the dealer had sold the farmer poppy seed on the never-never, but the farmer’s opium crop had been eradicated, and so he owed the dealer money). “I have a five year old too,” said the man. “I might sell her also.” He spoke as if the transaction had no emotional meaning whatever. He said he couldn’t afford to feed the girls. He didn’t say how much he would get, but the going rate for a healthy girl is about $3,000; more if she comes from a wealthy family.
According to development workers in Afghanistan, the fledgling ministry for women’s affairs is given little support for its attempts to change things. Both the former minister for women’s affairs, Massouda Jalal, and western aid workers say that no one in government takes the ministry seriously. “We have had bomb threats. But we don’t have bulletproof cars or proper security,” Jalal told me last summer, before she lost her job in a cabinet reshuffle. Despite the privacy of her office, she was swathed in hijab from head to wrist and ankle. “The government pays our guards $20 a month. Who will risk his life for $20? Women activists are in the front line. My representative’s car in Helmand was blown up and her office was surrounded by terrorists on motorcycles.”
Westerners who have worked inside Afghan ministries say that new ministers are more devoted to squeezing out the maximum benefits for themselves and their entourages before the next lot come in than in doing their jobs. The ministry of women’s affairs is apparently no exception, its occupants redefining “equal opportunity” for their own purposes.
“They think, ‘At last women have a chance to do a bit of sponging as well,'” says a Kabul diplomat. “They spend most of their time on foreign trips. They can’t get anything done while they are jetting off to America or Australia the whole time. Jalal is a strong and intelligent woman, and she had a lot of good ideas, but nothing seemed to get done.”
Jalal, however, was not exaggerating the dangers: a few weeks after we spoke, Safia Ahmed Jan, Kandahar director for the women’s ministry and one of Afghanistan’s best known women’s rights campaigners, was murdered outside her home in Kandahar by two men on motorbikes. Beyond the wire fences of the vast army base near Kandahar city itself, the province is largely under the control of the Islamist anti-coalition forces known these days by the catch-all TAQ (Taliban Al Qaeda).
When Malalai Joya, a female member of parliament, spoke out against the number of mujahedin warlords who have reinvented themselves as MPs, she was bombarded with water bottles in parliament by fellow MPs, both male and female, threatened with rape by her male colleagues and called an “infidel” by the speaker, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a former mujahedin commander. She now flits from one safe house to another.
Jamila Niazi is headmistress of the main school in Lashkagar, capital of Helmand province. Six thousand girls and 2,000 boys are taught at her school.
“At 9am today I had another threat to my life,” she told me late last year. “A man came to school and said he wanted to talk to me. My bodyguard found a gun hidden in his clothes and the man ran off.”
Jamila, who is paid $50 a month, has had several threats to her life already this year, just because she is educating girls. We had tried to see each other in Lashkagar last summer, but it was too dangerous, despite a heavy British troop presence in the town. “They send me letters, threatening to kill me. I wear a burkha just so they can’t recognise me. They’ve threatened several times to burn the school down, but I don’t think they can as we have very good loyal guards. They’ve said if I move anywhere in Afghanistan, they’ll get me.”
Jamila is not easily cowed by danger. She taught girls secretly under the Taliban, despite officials threatening her at home. But now she says, “Do you know any way I can get out of Afghanistan? I really think this time they mean to kill me.”
Stories like this are common. In November, six Afghan women were murdered in Kunar, an area under TAQ control, and their bodies found by the side of the road. Their crime, apparently, was to have jobs. Some worked for the government, some for NGOs—but the problem was more fundamental than alleged collaboration: these women were doing more than just minding the babies at home.
Just walking the streets, a visitor sees that western-style emancipation is a long way away. There are few women outdoors in Afghan towns and cities. Although in Kabul not all women wear the burkha, all at least cover their heads in public. Every woman I asked, including the minister of women’s affairs, said the law required it. (“The law of Afghanistan is based on Sharia law,” said Jalal.) In fact, the constitution and the law require nothing of the kind—the constitution merely states that laws must “not be contrary to the beliefs and provisions” of Islam—but the government has “requested” women to cover their heads. In Helmand, in the more conservative south where Islamists hold sway, every woman out of doors shuffles along in her blue tent.
Thanks to Afghanistan’s endless fighting, there are 2m widows in the country. Yet most Afghans believe it is illegal for women to live alone. As with uncovered heads, the truth is that it is not illegal—but rather almost impossible. Most of the prisoners in the women’s block with Shirin Gul are girls whose crime was to run off with a boyfriend.
Anne Johnson, director of Afghanaid, an NGO that has been in the country for 25 years, says that the security situation means that many of their local aid workers wear burkhas for safety’s sake even as they preach gender equality to other Afghan women.
“Women are beginning to know their rights, but they aren’t supported in their families,” says Zarghuna Kargar, the 24-year-old presenter of Afghan Woman’s Hour on the BBC World Service, which broadcasts in Dari and Pashto several times a week from Bush House.
London-based Zarghuna does not wear the hijab. An Afghan paper recently printed a photograph of her, copied from the BBC website, saying that women in the media were not obeying Sharia law and covering their heads. “My colleagues in Afghanistan had to tell them that first, the BBC was not a local organisation, and second, I was on the radio, not TV,” she says.
Zarghuna is pleased that a large number of her listeners are men. She told of an email from a male college student who had listened to one of her programmes on menstruation. “I made all my friends listen to it,” he wrote. “Now we know about it. No one talks about this kind of thing in Afghanistan.”
“A lot of our listeners say, ‘When we hear one of your programmes about an Afghan woman’s life, it is like listening to a story about my own life,'” Zarghuna says. “For example, it is illegal to force a girl or widow into marriage or give a girl up to settle a dispute, but in the real world no Afghan woman is allowed to choose her partners. The programme talks about how women can’t go to court to fight these things because most women aren’t allowed outside their homes.”
Arranged marriages continue at every level. Habiba Danish, at 26 one of the youngest female MPs, representative for Tahar province, was married off as an 18-year-old student by her father, a landowner and judge, to be the second wife of a warlord in Tahar. Tall and beautiful, with long dark hair and the pale skin prized by the Afghan upper classes, Habiba was widowed after 38 days when her husband was murdered by his rivals. Eight months later she gave birth to a boy.
“Everybody wants to be able to find her own husband and fall in love,” Habiba says, in the carpet-strewn sitting room of her little white Kabul house. As she speaks, she removes a pistol from the hands of her son, now seven, and slips it under the carpet on which she is sitting. Like all female public figures in Afghanistan, her life is under constant threat.
“But my father told me he would cut my throat if I talked to a boy. I didn’t see my husband until my wedding day. Some of my friends had seen him and told me he was really ugly. I cried throughout my engagement. Then when I did see him he wasn’t so bad. But he had another wife and he was always off fighting, so I only ever saw him between midnight and 5am.”
She blushes as she tells of watching a horror film with her husband and of jumping with fright into his arms. “He burst into tears and said, ‘Thank you, horror film. That’s the first time my new wife has touched me voluntarily.’ Two weeks later he was killed. He died just as I was beginning to love him.”
In both Tahar and in her rented Kabul house, Habiba lives flanked by various male relatives, but one can tell that the traditional dynamic between them is changing. Her brothers do as she says—leaving us alone to talk in the sitting room, bringing the car to take her to parliament. It’s not just, as she says, that she is “a rich woman, with land and horses.” Her brothers are rich too. The difference is that her status as an MP seems, for the moment, to trump theirs as men.
Yet Habiba still lives with her family, covers her head the moment any man enters the room, and pretends, until the interpreter has left, that she can’t really speak English. In fact, she used to teach English in a school in Pakistan. And when her menfolk do her bidding, it is with the air of playing a new game of whose rules they are not quite sure, a game they might stop playing at any moment.
There are of course problems faced by emancipated women everywhere, problems that Habiba and her fellow female MPs are beginning to learn about—juggling work and childcare, finding a mate who is not put off by a strong, successful woman.
“I’ve decided to marry again but I haven’t had time to find someone yet,” she says. “I need a husband who can support me in my work, help me with my duties. I need a person who can go with me to the villages. I need a wife,” she laughs. “And I won’t find that in Tahar. Husbands in the country want power over their wives.” She sounds like any successful western career woman. Then she says, “But we simply can’t have boyfriends. My father would kill me if I did.”
One of Habiba’s male family friends—single, 30, a fizz of frustration desperately needing a wife—is amazed when I ask whether he’d want to marry her.
“Of course not, she’s a widow!”
“What’s wrong with that? She’s beautiful, has a good job, lots of money.”
Blushing, the man says, “Well… I’d like a virgin.”
Sex is the great Afghan taboo. It’s not just the girls who don’t have sex before marriage. On Afghan Woman’s Hour they may preach about contraception, but it is is never mentioned in general conversation.
Take Shirin Gul: it turns out that the gossip about her is just the sanitised version—love with a family member (who else does an Afghan woman meet?), trusting men, Afghan hospitality. “Shirin Gul was a prostitute,” says Nasirullah Khan, the police investigator who co-ordinated the case. “She started seeing her second husband, Rahmatullah, when her first husband was alive. Rahmatullah was a client. They killed the first husband together, then they started killing taxi drivers. She’d offer the driver sex. At home, she’d give him a drugged kebab and then her husband would throttle him. Then they’d sell the taxi over the border, for about $5,000 each.”
You can bet Shirin Gul didn’t see much of the money, turquoise ring apart. Her husband gave a lot of it to the mosque and was respected as a pious man.
For all this, the lot of women is much better than it was five years go. Women no longer have their fingernails pulled out for wearing nail varnish. They—at least the middle classes—can think of getting jobs, except of course in the regions where the Islamists hold sway. Under the Taliban, life was universally dreadful for all women.
“There have been enormous improvements,” says Afghanaid’s Anne Johnson. “There are women in parliament, women doing many jobs they couldn’t do under the Taliban. We are involved in a community-level governance programme, getting women involved in public life and decision-making.”
And there was no golden age. The supposed good old days of the king, when women could train as doctors and wear miniskirts, seem to belong to a semi-mythical Eden recalled only by middle-class Kabulis. Under the Russians in the 1980s, the privileges of communist-style emancipation were only for the urban elite.
“I am fed up with hearing about those times,” says Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, who worked in the ministry of women’s affairs on a UN secondment. “The miniskirts were worn by just 15 women in Kabul.” She adds that despite the attention focused on their plight, life for the average Afghan woman is probably no worse than it is for poor women living in other Muslim countries. “Over the border in Pakistan, in the rural areas and the more squalid urban areas, the situation for women is pretty bad too.”
Ceri Hayes of Womankind and Anne Johnson of Afghanaid are keen to impress on me that Afghan women are desperate to have their independence. “Our partners all say to us, ‘Please tell the western media we are not just burkha-clad downtrodden women,'” says Hayes. “They have very clear views on the future of their country, on how to rebuild their communities and forge links across different clans.”
But Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, of Iranian origin but a fluent Dari speaker who can pass as an Afghan, thinks the problem lies deeper than the fighting, religion or law. “It’s deeply ingrained in the day-to-day culture for both sexes. A lot of women feel naked if not wearing the hijab. They are terrified of the consequences. We have all these people working on gender programmes, but they scarcely touch these attitudes.”
As for Shirin Gul—poor, illiterate, married off in her early teens—if she and her husband were American, her story would go to Hollywood, her Faye Dunaway to her husband’s Warren Beatty: Bonnie and Clyde, played out as the working-class feminist heroine of the Hindu Kush. But it’s hard to see her in that role. She and Rahmatullah got caught, Nasirullah the policeman explains, because instead of taxi drivers they started murdering Shirin Gul’s regular clients. In 2004, they killed a businessman who had been using Shirin Gul’s services for years for the money he had on him: he was fresh from a deal in Dubai. The driver who dropped him off remembered the address, and when the victim’s brother, also a client, came asking, she panicked and dumped the dead man outside his own home.
At her execution, Shirin Gul will be shackled, handcuffed and taken into a courtyard, explains Abdul Kayam, second in command at the jail. “No other prisoners can see it and we don’t do it ourselves. It makes a bad feeling in prison. In the king’s time, we had a man called the jelod, the killer, who would come in specially, but now it is an interrogator from the attorney general’s office. We blindfold the prisoner and stand him—or her—to face Mecca. We use three bullets. If the prisoner survives, they go free. But we shoot at point blank range.”
Back in the warder’s offices, Shirin Gul stares up at me through her eyelashes. She strokes my leg again. “My first husband was a colonel,” she says. “He died in the battle for Jalalabad airport, 16 years ago.” (The police say he’s been dead only five years.) “My second husband grew up in the house where we lived. He was 17 and I was 37 but I was still beautiful then. We couldn’t keep our eyes off each other. Our families approved; it was better than me marrying a stranger. We didn’t sleep together until our wedding night, but when we did, it was amazing.” She laughs at the memory but her eyes are blank.
“He used to say, ‘You’ve turned me from a boy into a man.’ We had four children. Then he met a man called Rasul and they started killing. After the first murder I begged him to stop and left for Pakistan. The police caught him with a dead body in the boot of a car. Rasul blamed my husband, bribed the police with $10,000 and fled to join the Taliban.”
It does not seem a likely tale. Shirin Gul, in her glittery black, looks more like a slum housewife than a warlord’s widow, and she can’t remember where she stayed in Pakistan, and she once told someone from a newspaper that she was ten years younger (it was a man, after all) than the age she gave me.
Maybe she was inspired by a Bollywood movie, for she has spun herself the virtuous Afghan woman’s fantasy. The warrior husband and his hero’s death; the beautiful young nephew, the heroine’s reward; and when she dies, she dies for love. It’s a far cry from a dumpy middle-aged whore getting three bullets in the back of the head in a police yard. But then reality is still not much fun for a woman in Afghanistan.