A Precarious Time for Afghan Women

By David Zucchino Los Angeles Times.

KABUL, Afghanistan.

Ghazalan Koofi loves her mother but not the life her mother has been compelled to live.

The older woman, her face cloaked in a shawl, had an arranged marriage at age 11. She didn't go to school and spent her life raising seven children with little help from her husband.

Today, at 50, Shahgol Shah still obeys mahram, the Afghan custom that forbids women to leave home without a male relative. She wears a burka in public. "That's our tradition," Shah says.

Koofi, 26, lives a life her mother could never have imagined. She leaves home unescorted every day, working at a government ministry and attending university classes at night. She speaks fluent English and has never worn a burka. She dresses stylishly but modestly, her wavy black hair peeking from a head scarf.

She chastises sexist male colleagues and demands their respect. She insisted on a seat at a recent tribal gathering dominated by white-bearded men in turbans. She treasures her "love marriage" with Shoaib Azizi, 27, a police department employee who calls his wife "a very brave woman." He helps with housework and caring for their infant son, a radical act that some male friends consider weak and shameful.

Koofi came of age after the U.S.-led military invasion toppled the repressive Taliban government in 2001. She has benefited from 12 years of slow, fitful gains for Afghan women. But with U.S. combat troops leaving Afghanistan next year, Koofi and other Afghan women worry that their freedoms will begin to erode.

"We are entering a very dangerous period for women," Koofi says. "I'm very worried that we will return to those terrible days when the only place for a woman was in the home, doing housework and serving the men."

Koofi and her mother play with her 11-month-old son, Ahmad, inside the family's tidy concrete home on a hillside overlooking smoggy west Kabul, two generations filled with equal parts hope and fear about the future of the next one. ___ Across Kabul, Shukriya Matin also belongs to that vulnerable generation of women who have become adults in a world of new freedoms, and fear a future without them.

Matin was in grade school when her family fled the Taliban in 1996; she was twice beaten on the street for not properly covering her hair. For six long years, she was a low-paid child carpet weaver in Pakistan after her family fled the Taliban.

She returned to Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion and earned a high school degree and a midwife's certificate. Now, at 28, she directs a private hospital program in Kabul that provides maternal care to illiterate villagers.

Inside the neat, sparsely decorated home she shares with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, Sitayesh, Matin describes her sense of dread about the future.

"Only God knows what will happen to women after 2014," she says in lightly accented English as her daughter plays on the floor, watched over by her parents.

The arc of Afghanistan's recent history can be traced through the three generations of Matin's family.

Her mother, Zahra Matin, 52, was engaged at 9 and married at 13. She is illiterate; she spent her life working at home so that her children could attend school. Now she dreams of her granddaughter attending college.

The older woman dreads the departure of foreign troops and worries that the Taliban, "They are criminals," she says harshly, will quash her dreams, and the dreams of her daughter.

But she also has faith that Afghanistan will continue to allow women to break free of the past. "For myself," she says, "I'm still hoping to take literacy classes and finally become an educated woman."

Her daughter sits on the floor and cradles young Sitayesh. She plans to send the girl to school and ultimately to college, but she fears she may have to go abroad to do so.

"Some people are saying the Taliban might come back, and we'd all have to flee to Pakistan again," she says, stroking the girl's hair. "I don't want that life for my daughter." ___ The gains Afghan women have made since 2001 are under threat. A recent United Nations report said a landmark 2009 Afghan law on violence against women has been ignored or poorly enforced; a human rights commissioner appointed by President Hamid Karzai wants to repeal the law entirely. The report described "fears and anxiety" among Afghan women about a swift reversal of gains after 2014.

Heather Barr, a senior researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, warned in December: "Signs are everywhere that a rollback of women's rights has begun."

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported in January that violent crimes against women reached record levels last year, rising 24percentover 2012.

Afghanistan is still a deeply conservative Islamic country where some village girls as young as 9 or 10 are forced to marry older men, and some women's groups estimate that at least half of all marriages violate the Afghan legal marriage age of 16.

Some women and girls who flee arranged marriages are hunted down by their fathers and brothers, beaten and sometimes killed.

The practice of baad, or giving away a young woman as payment to settle debts or atone for family crimes, is illegal but still prevalent in rural areas.

Traditions still require burkas in public for millions of provincial women, but also in cities such as Kabul or Jalalabad.

It is not uncommon, even in Kabul, to see women packed into the backs of station wagons or the open trunk of a car.

There are undisputed gains: Women now have the right to vote and some serve in parliament, the army and the national police force.

There are 150 female judges. Yet the percentage of women in the government workforce has actually decreased by 4 percent since 2004.

Under the Taliban government, the only education for girls was in clandestine home schools. Today, 3 million girls attend school, but that's still only 40 percent of all school-age girls. Because of family or economic pressures forcing girls to work or marry, the dropout rate for girls remains much higher than for boys.

Taliban extremists in remote districts still throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, burn down girls' schools and attack female polio vaccination workers.

In the last six months, four Afghan policewomen have been assassinated. Prominent female politicians are routinely threatened or slain by insurgents.

Last year, the acting head of women's affairs in eastern Afghanistan was killed by a bomb placed in her car. A few months later, her replacement was shot to death on her way to work.

"The situation for women is very fragile," says Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken member of parliament who taught at an underground home school for girls during the Taliban era. The lawmaker, who is Koofi's aunt, has been trailed by gunmen and threatened with death by the Taliban. Yet she intends to run for president in 2018.

In her spacious Kabul home, where two feminist books she has written are on display, she says, "Our gains could easily be reversed, and we'd have to start from scratch for the simple right to work outside the home or go to school." ___ Shukriya Matin's father, police Col. Ismail Matin, 58, promises his daughter that he'd die before he'd allow the Taliban to return.

"We're ready to shed our blood to defend the life we have now," the colonel says, dressed in a gray wool police uniform.

He spent his life savings to free his oldest son, Nayeem Matin, from Taliban custody (for not growing a beard) and send him to Australia on a rickety refugee boat. The son, now 31, is a warehouse manager in Melbourne who visits Kabul often because his Afghan-born wife, Hosnia, 26, is homesick.

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