You have to accept that if you are working on womens rights, you will face problems. The main obstacle is the security issue as a whole. There are a lot of obstacles. Everyone knows well the language of guns and war. Even entering the door of [this office], that itself is a grave risk.
Politically powerful military factions, the Taliban, and conservative religious leaders continue to threaten and intimidate women who promote womens rights. Human Rights Watch interviewed a wide range of women targeted for intimidation and harassment. These women had chosen to participate in public life as journalists, potential political candidates, aid workers, teachers, and donors. Women whose behavior challenged social expectations and traditional roles also faced harassment. In other cases, factional leaders or Taliban have launched rockets and grenades against the offices of womens development projects, such as those providing health, literacy, and rights awareness programs. Such symbolic attacks sent a clear message that women and girls seeking to claim the most basic rights could face retaliation.
Continuing violent attacks and threats against women in the public sphere have also created an environment of fear and caution. Womens rights activists and journalists carefully word their statements or avoid publishing on some topics because they are afraid of violent consequences. Many women, ranging from community social workers to Afghan U.N. officials, told Human Rights Watch they wore burqas when traveling outside of Kabul. These decisions were made not out of choice, but compulsion due to the lack of safety guarantees. Many women blamed the failure of disarmament, the entrenchment of warlords in both regional and central governments, and the limited reach of international peacekeeping troops as the reasons why they felt unsafe.
Using threatening phone calls, night letters, 22 armed confrontations, and bomb or rocket attacks against offices, factional and insurgent forces are attempting to scare women into silence, casting a shadow on the Afghan womens movement and governmental attempts to promote womens and girls development.
Women rights activists expressed frustration at the inadequate security provided to them by the central government and international peacekeeping forces. After facing an attack, one womens rights activist who had been unable to obtain adequate security from the central government said, After that, I said I am not going to the provinces anymore. I used to be involved in election [campaigning], but not anymore. Why should I care who wins the presidential elections, Karzai or Jalal, if they do not care for my life or protection?23
Below are examples of the types of threats and intimidation that Afghan women have experienced in the previous twelve months:
Sometimes the government cannot intervene and that is a fact. The [central] government does not have full authority in Afghanistan. The gun is still leading the people. The people with guns are the ones who cause problems especially for women.25
They called me on my mobile phone, saying, You are doing things you should not. We will kill you. We know you are staying at [name withheld]. We will kill you, dont work with foreigners.28 We will kill you as an example to other women. [I knew they were watching me] because, as I answered the phone, they said you are opening your door, you are wearing these clothes, you just turned your head. It was so scary. I was very scared. I dont go around as much as I used to and I will never go to [the city where this took place].29
Project managers discontinued funding for the womens center in that location and do not have immediate plans for opening a new one there.
The e-mails said, You are going to foreign countries and forgetting chador.30 You are abusing women, trying to get women out of houses, to take off their chador. You NGOs have big resources, you are the ones eliminating Islam from Afghanistan. You are trying to teach women computers and English, you are not trying to teach them Islam. You are telling them they are better than men. The e-mails said, I know you, you are not wearing a burqa . I know you are single, anything can happen, very bad things. The two letters said, Do not go out of your house. If you do so, I will throw acid on your face. Then you will have to wear a burqa forever.31
The threats have affected the behavior and movements of K.N. and she lives in fear. She told us, Sometimes I am afraid. I changed the way that I wear chador [to cover more of my face]. I used to take a car from the street, now I take it from my gate. I do not want to go to the bazaar, they can do anything they want to me there. It hasnt been that long, [it happened] just three months ago.32
Today I am very sad, yesterday I cried. Atta Mohammed33 said bad words against me . They are slandering me. It is a womans life to be honorable and treated properly. I havent faced any problems from society, just commanders. Commanders threaten me, they say bad words, words that exist for bad women [being non-Muslim, dishonest, having inappropriate contact with men]. Physical threats would be better then these words and bad names. If I get cut here, I hurt my arm, but from this [attack on my reputation] I get mental pain.34
Although many of the women whom Human Rights Watch interviewed remained defiant and determined to pursue their work, others quietly expressed their fears and the ways they have been forced to curtail or change their work or their movements. Still others may never choose to become involved with womens rights or work in the public sphere because of the risks it entails. A womens rights activist working for an NGO lamented the fact that, So many women wanted to make organizations for womens rights. When they saw the threats, they left the work.35 One woman working on human rights said, Of course I am afraid. I know that people dont like the things we do. I would never give up [doing things] my way even if I faced problems in the future, but I do not want to die soon. I have a lot of hopes.36
Guns are ruling, there is no security, I wish disarmament could take place. It has a direct effect on our work, because with guns ruling, there is no security and women cant work freely, go to health care centers, they cant go to school. If we work for the development for women, it takes a lot of energy. If the law ruled instead of guns, we would only need half the energy we do now.
The dominance of armed political factions and continuing attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent forces have greatly impeded womens participation in the public sphere, and also present grave obstacles to implementing desperately needed womens development projects, including education, health, and income-generating programs. When insurgent forces or armed factions attack a womens rights NGO staff member or the office of a women-focused development projectthey affect the provision of services and opportunities to dozens and sometimes hundreds of women. This intimidation is often symbolic, as with attacks on girls schools, and it creates an atmosphere of fear sending a message to women, girls, and their families that they may be targeted if they participate in these programs. Local commanders, Taliban, and other insurgent forces have attacked dozens of girls schools in the past two years.37
The presence of international security forces makes a critical difference. In places with greater assurances of safety and where NGOs feel safe to work, for example, Kabul, Afghan women and girls have participated enthusiastically in education, rights awareness programs, and other activities. In other locations, threats and harassment of staff working on womens development projects, intimidation of beneficiaries, and attacks on offices and vehicles has contributed to premature closure of projects or has prevented projects from even getting started.
Below are examples of the types of threats and intimidation that womens rights advocates and womens development projects have experienced in the past twelve months:
A woman working for the implementing womens rights organization said:
They issued warnings about foreigners coming to the center; they did not like that. They said, you will be killed or they will be killed. One of our female staff was threatened by armed men. If she had continued the work, she might have lost her lifein May 2004, two armed men came in front of [her] car and pointed a gun. They said they were leaders of a big group. They said, We dont want to see you here again or else you risk your lives and the life of your driver. 40
The interviewee did not believe the religious leaders to be affiliated with a political party, but said they were backed by armed groups. She and her colleagues spent months trying to resolve the situation but since the governmental authorities were unable to help, the womens rights NGO could not resume the project. She said, Nothing worked. We felt we had lost.41
There was a Datsun there, like our office car. I thought they were from my office. I turned. There were three men with weapons, two at the back side and one in the front of the car. The man in the front said to me bad things, We will kill you and your family. I went inside and didnt talk with them because I was very afraid. They did not have military clothes, were wearing ordinary clothes with pakol [round wool hats worn by many militia forces in Afghanistan, especially Tajik militias]. It was not clear who they were. I came to Kabul two or three days later without informing anyone [to escape the situation]. I was in Kabul for one or two weeks.45
In addition to the threats and intimidation just described, factional control of government offices has also impeded womens projects. For example, the Ministry of Womens Affairs in northern Balkh province is controlled by individuals allied with the military faction Jamiat-e Islami (Jamiat). Many of the independent NGOs in the area complained they face harassment and at times active hostility from local ministry officials. One womens rights activist noted, I am under a lot of pressure, I cannot conduct activities freely, because they do not allow anyone to work with us.48
Fear of attacks prevents many women from working or traveling, especially in areas where there is no international peacekeeping presence or where the central government has not established control over local warlords. The lack of safety in these areas has severely limited the expansion and reach of womens development projects. The continuing rule of the gun has forced Afghan and international NGOs, U.N. programs, and Afghan government initiatives to concentrate their activities in regions where womens rights projects are less likely to be targets and where assurances of safety enable them to recruit and retain female teachers, health care workers, and social workers.49 One womens rights activist told Human Rights Watch:
It is not the fault of NGOs, it is a result of the security problems . There is bad security and not many NGOs operating in Kandahar, Hilmand, Farah, the eastern part [of the country], Paktia, Taloqan, Takhar, and Badakshan. Most are working in Mazar-e Sharif, Ghazni, Logar, Parwan, and Bamiyan [which are safer].50
One woman wanted to acknowledge that her organization, which has encountered obstacles and threats in different provinces, also receives, lots of requests, even from commanders, to come and open [womens] centers.51 Such cooperation, however, is not common in large parts of the country, which remain hostile environments for womens rights initiatives.
Security is an important issue. Everything is in the hands of a few of people. If women feel secure, they can raise their voice . We feel danger in all ways, the gun is ruling here. It is difficult to speak the truth here, because it is not a secure and healthy environment here.
Freedom of expressionparticularly in terms of speaking freely about a wide range of womens rights issues and of dressing according to ones preferencesremains elusive for many Afghan women. Powerful military, political, and religious figures continue to use threats, violent attacks, and other intimidation tactics to stifle womens voices. Human Rights Watch documented cases of death threats and harassment against women who spoke out about sensitive womens rights issues like human trafficking. Factional control over the media has muted freedom of expression in several provinces. Many Afghan women struggle to assert their freedom to speak and dress how they like, but instead, fear pushes them to choose their words and appearance carefully to avoid stirring controversy and attracting reprisals.
Womens freedom of expression varies regionally. In some places, womens ability to create publications, establish womens radio stations, and to speak freely has expanded significantly. In these places, programs to train women journalists are flourishing, as are women-focused and women-led media projects.
Other places are marked by an atmosphere of fear and repression. For example, in August 2004, before Ismail Khans removal from the governorship of Herat, women in Herat were often nervous or hesitant to give interviews. One woman in Herat told Human Rights Watch, I am 100 percent afraid to talk, even now talking to you I am afraid. There is no freedom of expression here.52
Below are examples of retaliation against individuals who have spoken out about womens rights and the fears that women from several parts of the country shared with Human Rights Watch about freely expressing themselves:
I have received threats about twenty times . They were telephone threats, there was one even a few nights ago . Our weekly is hot and spicy [provocative] . I know the Taliban will never accept me. The telephone threats are usually at night. I have not reported them to anyone. If I want to report it, what can they do? Nothing at all.54
Human Rights Watch interviewed women who talked about avoiding certain topics in their public speaking and writing to prevent threats and violence. One journalist said, I feel I should control what I say and unfortunately I do this most of the time.58 Most tried to present their work as moderate and mainstream, distancing themselves from work considered sensitive or explosive. Others felt that the atmosphere prevented some women from getting involved at all: Security as a whole is a problem. Many women dont want to get involved or talk about human rights.59
Women continue to self-censor themselves regularly. A womens rights activist noted, women are very careful about their statements. There is 50 percent freedom of speech, and 50 percent under pressure. [For] journalists and women who are speaking out . Self-censorship is a protection mechanism.`60 A woman government official told Human Rights Watch: I have lots of things to say about these eighteen [presidential] candidates. I know everybody, and I know what they have done. I have questions, and I cant say them. I would put myself in too much danger.61
Perhaps the most sensitive issue for womens rights activists is how to engage in public discussion about womens rights and Islam without facing retaliation from conservative religious and political leaders. All of the womens rights activists whom Human Rights Watch interviewed agreed that the best strategy to promote womens rights was to highlight the ways in which womens rights are protected in Islam and that any perceived challenge to the religion would result not only in social ostracism, but threats to their physical safety. As one young activist noted, The main point is that you have to be careful about Islam. I believe that Islam is good for women . You can never say that Islam is wrong, you have to focus on the point that you want to change. If we say, we should change tradition, that is better.62 A prominent editor of a womens publication said, If Islamic rule is mixed in with traditions, you cant write about that. For example, divorce.63
One womens rights activist told Human Rights Watch:
I am afraid to talk. I cant raise my voice. I am a mother. I feel worried for my children. I cant talk about sharia for example. I cant talk about womens rights in Islam, I am afraid of religious leaders and mullahs. Everyone knows them and if I talk about womens rights, they will call me non-Muslim.64
The consequences of publishing sensitive articles about womens rights and Islam can include prosecution, slander, and death threats. Many female journalists around the country noted the case of a womens rights activist and journalist in Mazar-e Sharif who was forced to go into hiding in 2003 after she published an article on womens rights in Islam that enraged a military faction and local religious leaders. The Council of Religious Elders called for her trial, while others accused her of attacking Islam and called for her death.65 Although the Mazar-e Sharif court threw the case out in mid-2003, she told Human Rights Watch that she and members of her family still encounter harassment from officials affiliated with the dominant political faction in their workplaces, educational institutions, and daily lives.66
The powerful influence in regional governments and the cabinet of political parties and military factions with long histories of human rights abuses also inhibits womens freedom of speech. These figures have used their positions in government to consolidate control and to undermine potential opposition or critique. In one province controlled by a conservative military faction, a woman running a womens radio station complained about her inability to broadcast stories about sensitive womens social issues. She told Human Rights Watch:
We are not free to publish some stories . Whenever we try to conduct research, the government doesnt allow us. They wont help us get the necessary documents. We did a lot of research about burning [of women, but could not air the story] . Our real problem is that we cannot publish about family problems, widows, women working on the streetprostitutes.67
One manager of a Kabul radio station said although they try to take some risks in their reporting, we dont talk too specifically about commanders, because of guns or people who can threaten us or make limitations on our funds or our programs.68 A womens rights activist in Kandahar said, I cannot talk freely, because in the Kandahar environment, I am afraid. People may interpret what I say wrongly. I am afraid to talk about political issues especially, because each political party is working for its own benefit. If I talk on political issues, they will think I am talking about them and it will be dangerous for me.69
 Night letters refer to threats or letters that arrive at night, often directly to the recipients home or office. These letters are often particularly frightening to the recipient as the practice demonstrates that whoever is threatening her has visited her home and knows where to find her.
 Human Rights Watch interview with womens rights activist, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with Safia Sidiqi, gender advisor, Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with AIHRC official, Kabul, August 29, 2004 and Human Rights Watch interview with Ministry of Womens Affairs official, Kabul, August 31, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with M.T., womens rights activist, August 13, 2004.
 The womens development project was funded by an international organization.
 Human Rights Watch phone interview with S.R., Kabul, September 13, 2004.
 Chador refers to a head-to-toe garment worn by women as one way of following Islamic dress code, which includes covering ones hair and obscuring the shape of the body. A burqa is a chador which also covers the face, with a mesh screen to allow the woman to see.
 Human Rights Watch interview with K.N., womens rights activist, Kabul, August 22, 2004.
 Atta Mohammed is the current governor of Balkh province and is a prominent leader of the mujahidin military faction Jamiat-e Islami (Jamiat).
 Human Rights Watch interview with F.O., Mazar-e Sharif, August 16, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with J.H., Kabul, August 24, 2004.
 Shahabbudin Tarakhil and Hafizullah Gardish, Girls' Schools Become Targets, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), June 4, 2004; Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, SCA condemns recent attacks on girls' schools, Press Release, April 1, 2004.
 Mullahs are the traditional leaders of local mosques who lead prayers.
 Human Rights Watch interview with R.S., official from a donor agency, Kabul, August 12, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with S.N., womens rights NGO, Kabul, August 12, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with senior government official, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with D.E., Kabul, August 21, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch phone interview with T.A., Jalalabad, August 29, 2004.
 Security personnel in Kabul now suspect that the June 2 killing of five MSF aid workers, which was first thought to be carried out by Taliban forces, was in fact carried out by a local autonomous militia. Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. and NGO security officials, Kabul, September 21, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with security officials, Mazar-e Sharif, August 15, 2004.
 Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF withdraws from Afghanistan following killing, threats and insecurity, Press Release, July 30, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with F.O., Mazar-e Sharif, August 16, 2004.
 Security problems contribute to difficulties recruiting and retaining female staff for programs in the provinces. In a striking example of how efforts to bolster participation of women has enjoyed significantly more success in Kabul than in the provinces, the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development has increased the number of female workers from forty to two hundred (out of 1900). Despite this progress, only twelve of these women work in the provincial offices. Human Rights Watch interview with a senior government official, Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with womens rights activist, Kabul, August 22, 2004
 Human Rights Watch interview with S.N., manager for a womens rights NGO with projects in several parts of the country, Kabul, August 22, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch phone interview with S.Z., Herat, August 29, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with H.G., editor, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Pamela Constable, A Taboo Issue in Afghan Campaign: As Millions of Women Prepare to Vote, Debate on Their Other Rights Is Dampened, The Washington Post, September 8, 2004. Polygyny refers to the practice of men marrying more than one woman; polyandry is the practice of a woman marrying more than one man; and polygamy is the more general term referring to having more than one spouse.
 In a televised debate among seventeen presidential candidates in late August 2004, some candidates made degrading comments attacking womens rights, including suggestions that giving too much freedom to women will lead them to have sex with animals, and that women were not capable of handling leadership positions in the government. These comments passed without the same level of furor as Pedrams statements about divorce and polygyny.
 Human Rights Watch interview with R.S., U.N. official, Kabul, August 12, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with G.K., journalist, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with F.S., womens rights activist, Kabul, August 24, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with M.H., womens rights activist, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with N.F., senior government official, Kabul, August 24, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with T.N., womens rights activist, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with H.G., editor, Kabul, August 23, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch phone interview with B.A., western Afghanistan, September 5, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with R.H., journalist and womens rights activist, Mazar-e Sharif, August 18, 2004; and Human Rights Watch interview with UNAMA official, August 15, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with R.H., journalist and womens rights activist, Mazar-e Sharif, August 18, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with H.S., journalist, northern Afghanistan, August 15, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with J.S., Kabul, August 28, 2004.
 Human Rights Watch interview with N.V., government worker, Kandahar, August 27, 2004.