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Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban regime, there have been tangible gains for Afghan women.
Almost four million girls are in school, the highest number in Afghanistan’s history, and women, particularly those in urban areas, work as politicians, police officers, pilots, judges and governors.
But many Afghan women are still highly vulnerable and there’s still a lot to do to protect them and their rights.
My earliest memory was of war. I remember the sound of a rocket and then the windows all breaking. I went to school until I was 18 and my happiest memory was when I graduated and was holding my certificate in my hand. I wanted to go to university, but there are no universities here and Kabul is too far to go every day. My brother can’t afford my fees either. And anyway, if I were to go to Kabul every day on my own, the neighbors would think I was immoral.
I want to work, I really do and my family lets me, so I help other women in our village become literate. I really want to be a midwife, but I know it will never happen as I can’t continue my higher education. My mother suffered so much in the past so of course I am afraid of those days returning. I don’t want it to happen to me.
Kubra Serai Ghazni, 45
When I was a little girl I used to dream about learning things but it was during the civil war and we weren’t allowed to go to school. Not having an education really hurts me. My daughter goes to school now though and wants to be a doctor.
When the Taliban were here I used to sew scarves and beadwork to sell and probably earned about 100Afs ($2) a month which was hardly enough to survive but somehow we did. When they left my husband got a job in a bakery and was earning that much per day but it took around 3 or 4 years before things really started to change. Now I run my own sewing business and earn around $120 per month, and employ 60 other women to keep up with the demand. Life is better now.
Rangina Karga, 29
I am the youngest Member of Parliament and am also studying for my Masters.
(…) Life for women has changed; we have women in parliament now – talented women – and were supported in laws benefiting women. It is important that women are listened to – after all, women and children are the most affected and the most vulnerable in war and if we are ignored now, life will return to how it was before. (…) We are still outnumbered by men in parliament and the men often shout us down if they don’t agree with something.
Recently there was a male MP who threatened one of my colleagues. He said, ‘I have killed hundreds of men in my life so what’s to stop me from killing you?’ And there is nothing we can do when people say this. But still we must fight. And we must carry on being active women and help those women who live in the provinces who don’t even know that they have rights, who are only allowed to work for their family. Those are the women who need our help.
Saraya, around 35
I don’t know how old I was when I got married. My husband took me to Pakistan as soon as we were married. When we came back after the Taliban had left it was very tough. Our house had been destroyed and we had no shelter. (…) My husband is a day labourer and earns around 300Afs ($6) a day. He is an angry man and beats my sister-in-law and I. Sometimes it’s ten times a day, sometimes there are days when he is fine. But you can never tell when it’s coming. My children go to school but we can’t afford paper or pens for them. I’d love to work but I am illiterate and with [our eight] children there is no time. But I hope they will one day be teachers or doctors and have a better life.
Storai Stanakzai, 22
I’m a contemporary artist working in jewellery design. I was always encouraged by my family (…), but it’s not easy working in the arts as a woman. I have a page of my designs on Facebook but people have started to post offensive pictures and message me saying that my work is un-Islamic. There’s a guy I used to study with who is really religious and keeps doing this. He even told one of my friends he would throw acid in my face. I walk around the city on my own all the time without a guardian and people say stupid things or call me names but I really, really don’t care. Really. It’s not really their fault; they have lived in war all their lives. (…) I know I can and will succeed.
In order for women to succeed we need to take small steps. I don’t think wearing a burkha, for instance, is oppressive. But being told to lower your voice and to stop having opinions - now that’s oppressive. Here, it is expected that girls marry at 18 and then their lives are over; they are just in charge of having children and the home. But I think you have to live your dreams and force people to let you dream. You can’t let people kill your dreams.
Colonel Jamila Bayaz
I always wanted to be a police officer and follow in my father’s footsteps. After I graduated I worked in the criminal investigations department but then there was a civil war followed by the Taliban. We girls had to stay inside during those days or else be beaten. They stole our lives.
When they were ousted, the country was on its knees but as soon as I was able, I returned to work in the police. It’s a tough job, especially as most people think women shouldn’t work – least of all doing a man’s job. Women like me face daily threats, even from our colleagues in the police force and they tried to make things really difficult for us. Until recently policewomen didn’t even have their own bathrooms or changing rooms in police stations. But it is our duty as daughters of this country to fight against such ignorance.
I was married to a [50-year-old] man when I was 10. My parents had been killed in the civil war and my sister looked after us, but when she got married, I belonged to my brother. He was fighting with the Mujahedeen and had huge gambling debts and sold me to my husband, who was also a fighter. (…) I couldn’t say anything to my brother – he owned me. Until I was around 14 my husband treated me like a daughter but then I became a woman and pregnant. But the Taliban were in power then and I lost the baby and the next one as well, because I couldn’t get to a hospital alone. I have just two children now, which is enough.
When the Taliban fell I was hopeful that life would improve, but it hasn’t. Sometimes I work as a cleaner and earn about 100Afs a day, but it’s not enough. I owe about $300 to neighbors who have leant me money to pay for the rent of this house, which is $30 a month. My husband needs medical care and I have had a headache for days but there’s no money for medicine. I have never seen happiness but I want my children to grow up and become successful people so that they can look after me and we can live in our own home.
In some families when you get married, the husband’s family pays a lot of money for you so they treat their new daughters like slaves. (…) Unemployment and illiteracy are the reason why some women treat their daughters-in-law so badly; it’s all they have ever known from their own mothers-in-law, it’s a cycle.
I don’t have a daughter and I always wanted one. When my sons get married, I will treat them as if they were my own daughters and be kind.
There have been many changes in my life. Now I work with an organization that taught me about rights. I used to be shy. Thirteen years ago, if I had a problem I would just cry on my own in a corner. Now, because I am aware of my rights I can help other women improve their lives too. One girl I helped was married at 14 and when her husband left for Pakistan, his mother threw her out of the house. I helped get her a divorce with the Human Rights Commission and now she is married to a good man with a kind mother.
Photos: Lalage Snow/Oxfam