July 13, 2010

I. Background

Taliban Abuses Against Women and Girls 1996-2001

The Taliban’s oppression of women in Afghanistan during their rule from 1996 through 2001 is well documented.[3] It included edicts restricting movement, the denial of the right to work, beatings and other physical abuse, arbitrary detention, and a near ban on post-pubescent girls’ access to education. The impact of these edicts varied across the country, and enforcement was erratic and unpredictable, and most keenly felt by middle class women who had previously been working or going to university.

Restrictions on movement, dress, and work

According to Taliban edicts, women were not meant to be seen in public without a close male relative as a mahram (chaperone), and were instructed to cover completely their bodies and faces under a chadori or burqa.[4] There was a ban on women working outside the home, except in health care, where strict rules were devised to minimize interactions between sexes. The Taliban also enforced strict dress codes for men, including beard length and headdress, but men continued to work and to enjoy relative freedom of movement.     

The change was most sharply felt in urban areas where women had previously enjoyed greatest freedoms. Prior to Taliban rule, women accounted for as many as 70 percent of teachers, and approximately 50 percent of civil servants.[5]

These restrictions were enforced by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (al-Amr bi al Ma’ruf wa al-Nahi ‘an al-Munkar), also known as the “religious police,” which was modeled on a similar department in Saudi Arabia. Women accused of even minor infractions were sometimes subjected to public beatings, threats and imprisonment.[6] The religious police not only beat women publicly for, among other things, wearing socks that were not opaque enough, showing their wrists, hands, or ankles, or not being accompanied by a close male relative, but also for educating girls in home-based schools, working, and begging.

Beatings by the religious police were harsh, unpredictable and arbitrary, with no defense, and no appeal. In an interview with Human Rights Watch in 2001, Shokeria Ahmed, a widow, told us of a typical incident when she was shopping for fabric:

I went to get some material for tailoring… I had to put up my chadari to compare the color because the shop was dark. The Taliban came and they beat both the shopkeeper and me. They beat us with a wire, made from rubber with a wooden handle and the rubber attached to the end of it. They said to me, ‘Stupid, cover your face.’[7]

Even for those women who escaped such harsh treatment, or lived in areas with greater freedom, fear was pervasive. Khalinda Parveen, a 30-year-old mother of three who lived in Mazaar-i Sharif told Human Rights Watch that after the Taliban took over she rarely left her house:  “I stayed home. I only went to the bazaar with a chadari [burqa] and came back fast. We were scared to look around. We heard that women were beaten for having their hand out or for having nail polish. People live in fear. If one is punished, everybody fears being the next.”[8]

Some women were imprisoned as well as beaten for violations of Taliban edicts. In 2001 Human Rights Watch interviewed one doctor who reported having treated three women who had been detained in Dar-al-Tadib, a women’s detention center in Kabul. One, the doctor reported, had been beaten on the head for begging, another had been detained for wearing a wide ankle shalwar (trousers), and the third for taking a taxi without a mahram (chaperone). The last of these was a twenty-five-year-old widow suffering from facial paralysis, who was worried that her deceased husband’s family would not accept her back because the Taliban had detained her.[9]

The controls on women’s mobility also impaired their access to medical treatment. Women were allowed to travel to hospitals but only witha male escort, which could cause difficulties, particularly in emergency situations such as childbirth. A decree requiring women patients to be treated only by women doctors was impractical given the shortage of female medical professionals. Irfan Ahmed, an NGO worker, described to Human Rights Watch the impact on women’s access to health care in conservative rural areas such as Khost, Paktia and Zabul: “[T]here are very few female doctors, and in no way could they respond to the need of patients. Most women who get seriously ill have to go to the cities or to Pakistan. The roads are in poor condition and women die on the road. Each month, I hear about a case. In July, I saw a body of a woman who died giving birth on the road.”[10]

Denial of girls’ right to education

During the Taliban time the vast majority of girls did not receive an education, particularly those in urban areas and those over the age of eight. The UN estimated that only 3 percent of girls received some kind of primary education.[11] Some girls’ education continued in secret, in other areas local Taliban leaders turned a blind eye to girls’ schools.[12]Nikba Shah, a former teacher in the Lycee Ajani for girls, in Samangan province, worked secretly in a home school soon after the Taliban took over her area in 1998. She told Human Rights Watch:

I was beaten on the way to school. Our papers were torn up. I had books and papers hidden under my arm. I dropped some, and when they fell, three Taliban started to beat me. They were Afghans and had black turbans. We had started to organize schools elsewhere. We were hiding materials under our chadari [burqa] and wore dirty cloths so that we did not attract attention. They realized because as soon as two or three women got together, they would become suspicious. [13]

Activist Arezo Qanih, who was in grade school in Kabul when the Taliban came to power, told Human Rights Watch:  

I was in class seven when the Taliban came to power. They announced that all girls’ schools should be closed, and for two years after that I did not study. I used to sit at home, and my father and brother would buy me novels. I had a collection of around 300 novels… I remember those times well—there was always this underlying tension, this nervousness.[14]

Taliban leaders would sometimes attempt to justify restrictions on girls’ education by saying that the ongoing civil war was an obstacle to their service provision, or that there were insufficient state resources to allow for girls’ education. Particularly in the context of their grossly discriminatory treatment of women this justification seems flimsy, especially because as security came to areas like Kabul, their policies did not change.[15]

The Taliban’s rise to power can be seen in part as a response to the bloodshed and chaos of the civil war, during which time women were subject to severe insecurity and violence, including the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war. The Taliban’s ideology is placed firmly within the highly conservative continuum of Afghan culture and politics, bearing similarities to some of the dominant Mujahidin factions that were favored by the Pakistani intelligence services (and CIA and Saudi Arabia) during the Jihad against the Soviets of the 1980s, which continue to be so influential in government today. However, one of the distinguishing features of the Taliban was their attempt to shift social and religious control out of the hands of families or community religious leaders, and into the hands of the state, which became the primary means for enforcing their deeply conservative interpretation of Sharia (Islamic Law).

Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) abuses against women

Hezb-i-Islami, meaning “Islamic Party,” played an active part in the conflict against the Soviet-backed government of the 1970s and ‘80s.[16] It was one of the primary recipients of US, Saudi Arabian and Pakistani military assistance throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.  Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who commands a far smaller group than the factions under Taliban command, but is believed to have direct or indirect ties to the officially registered political faction Hezb-i-Islami, which is very influential in the Afghan government.

Hekmatyar is widely regarded as having views on women not dissimilar from the Taliban.[17] One of his early political acts was reportedly to throw acid into the faces of unveiled women while at the University of Kabul in the early 1970s.[18] During the late 1980s and 1990s Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) was implicated in attacks on nongovernmental organizations that employed Afghan women to assist in relief work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan.[19]

In 1994 Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) issued decrees in areas under its control that bore similarities to later Taliban edicts, including restrictions on women’s movement and dress.[20] A broadcast by Hezb-i-Islami’s radio Payyam-e Azadi (Message of Freedom) in Pashto in December 1994 decreed: “All Muslim sisters have to wear Islamic attire. They have to refrain from randomly walking around.”[21] Some people interviewed by Human Rights Watch suggested that Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) members are generally less hostile to women’s rights than the Taliban, particularly with regard to women’s right to an education. However, the enforcement of a strict ideology with regard to women’s dress, freedom of movement, and gender segregation can result in similar restrictions on access to education, and the right to work. A senior government official also told Human Rights Watch that Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin)was suspected of carrying out attacks on girls’ education in some areas of the country.[22] (See also Attacks on Education). 

Government failure to protect women’s rights today

Following the fall of the Taliban, most Afghans hoped for peace and a legitimate government. Women and girls who had suffered such brutality during the Taliban era, and in the preceding decades of conflict, anticipated great improvements in their lives. Leaders all over the world promised help. Some of those improvements came quickly - girls began to return to schools in bigger numbers, women became more visible in public life, many returned to work. [23] In December 2001, a month after the fall of the Taliban, Dr. Sima Samar became the deputy prime minister and first minister of women’s affairs in Afghanistan. The new constitution, passed in 2004, guaranteed women equal rights and a dramatic improvement in their political representation, with a quarter of seats in Parliament reserved for women. 

However, even in these early years flaws were visible. From its inception, compromise weakened the fabric of the new state, with the elevation into government of former Mujahidin commanders and warlords, many of whom have attitudes to women that are reminiscent of the Taliban. [24] Their power has too often placed them and those they protect above the law. Dr. Samar was forced to resign from her position after just six months due to death threats against her. [25] More decisive action against the perpetrators of such threats might have set a different tone.

However, far from ensuring that the rights of women are respected, the current Afghan government has regularly sold them short. President Hamid Karzai has often pandered to conservative factions or political allies at women’s expense. For instance, in May 2008 he pardoned two gang rapists who had served only two years of an 11-year prison sentence. The victim’s family says the release was the result of the political connections of the rapists, including one family’s connections to the Office of the President.[26]

In February 2009, Parliament passed the Shia Personal Status Law, which the president signed. The law regulates the personal affairs of Shia Muslims, including divorce, inheritance, and minimum age of marriage. A number of provisions severely restrict women’s basic freedoms, for instance, those preventing women from leaving their homes without permission from their husbands, or granting custody rights to fathers and grandfathers in the event of separation. The law was passed ahead of the 2009 presidential election, when Karzai was seeking the voting blocs of powerful hardline Shia leaders.[27]

Ideologically conservative factions dominate the Parliament, including the political faction of Hezb-i-Islami, and a significant number of former warlords and former insurgents. Parliament has often displayed hostility towards women’s rights, issuing repeated calls for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to be dissolved and casting aspersions on safehouses for women and girls.[28] In 2008 a parliamentary committee drafted a bill that would introduce Taliban-style prohibitions, such as bans on women and men talking in the street and on shops selling revealing clothing.[29] In late 2009, after the enactment of the Shia Personal Status Law, conservative factions in Parliament attempted to weaken the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law by revoking articles criminalizing child marriage and domestic violence, which were deemed to be in contradiction with Sharia.[30]

An argument is often made against women’s rights defenders in Afghanistan that the Taliban or former Mujahidin leaders in government merely reflect a deeply conservative culture (thus the return of the Taliban to political mainstream is of little consequence). Many activists dispute this, arguing that since the 1980s there have been efforts to diminish or remove alternative power bases or political parties, and furthermore that religion is used as a tool by some in an underlying political struggle. One activist told Human Rights Watch: “It’s not the case that Afghan society doesn’t accept women, in many parts of the country-even in rural parts-you see women are respected. But the conservatives rule our society, and impose Sharia on an illiterate society that doesn’t know Sharia… We already have a kind of Taliban in government. Now they want to bring the real Taliban, so they will have everything.”[31]

If high-level Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) leaders are brought into the political mainstream, the pressure upon women in political life and the instances in which their rights are compromised will likely increase. These risks exist in both reintegration and reconciliation processes, since both are likely to involve Taliban and other insurgent commanders ending their fight in exchange for political participation and other inducements. Foreign policymakers developing strategies for reintegration and reconciliation need to understand this political context, particularly the experiences of women living today under de facto Taliban control. There may be many insurgent fighters who are not ideologically committed to an extremist interpretation of Islam or the subjugation of women. But many existing commanders at all levels are behaving today much as they did while the Taliban were first in power, less than ten years ago, repressing women’s rights at will. 

[3]Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan - Humanity Denied, vol. 13, no 5, October 2001, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2001/10/29/humanity-denied; Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan - Massacre at Mazar-iSharif, vol. 10, no. 7 (c), November 1, 1998, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/1998/11/01/afghanistan-massacre-mazar-i-sharif, pp. 2-4; Human Rights Watch, Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan, vol. 13, no. 1 (c), February 2001, http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2001/afghanistan/afghan101-03.htm#P126_15001; The Afghanistan Justice Project, “Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity: 1978-2001,” 2005,  http://www.afghanistanjusticeproject.org/warcrimesandcrimesagainsthumanity19782001.pdf (accessed June 10, 2010); “UN Mapping Report, 2005,” unpublished document on file with Human Rights Watch. (This 296-page unpublished report documents violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by all parties to the Afghan conflicts between April 1978 and December 2001. The report is a compilation of existing reports from UN agencies, international and national human rights organizations, scholars and journalists.)

[4] Taliban decrees were not always enforced, so in some parts of the country women would continue to move around without a male relative. One interviewee told Human Rights Watch that in Kabul she could move around with only a young boy as her escort. However, she’d had to give up her law career.

[5]Final report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan submitted by Mr. Choong-Hyun Paik, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1996/75, E/CN.4/1997/59, February 20, 1997, para. 71.

[6]Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, pp. 3, 6, 12-20; “UN mapping report, 2005,” p. 271, paras. 9.97-9.99.

[7]Human Rights Watch interview with Shokeria Ahmed (pseudonym), Peshawar, Pakistan, September 6, 2001, cited in Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, p. 13.

[8] Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, p.16; Human Rights Watch interview with Khalida Parveen, Quetta, Pakistan, September 3, 2001.

[9] Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, p. 14; Human Rights Watch interview with Amna Atmar, Pehsawar, Pakistan, August 31, 2001.

[10] Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, p. 16; Human Rights Watch interview with Irfan Ahmed, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 27, 2001. These restrictions exacerbated existing barriers to women’s access to healthcare, including cultural barriers on movement in conservative areas, and shortage of female medical staff.

[11]UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, “Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Any Part of the World: Report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan submitted by Mr. Kamal Hossain, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission resolution 1999/9,” E/CN.4/2001/43, March 9, 2001, para. 46; Human Rights Watch interview with Anders Fange, Swedish Committee, Kabul, May 7, 2010. Fange was an education provider in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when he says that the majority of girls who were able to attend schools were in rural areas. Fange estimates that approximately 15,000 girls were receiving education nationally, with 11,000 of them in rural areas. However he had discerned in the summer of 2001 that this more relaxed approach to the rural areas was set to change.

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Kate Clark, former BBC correspondent during the time of the Taliban, Kabul, March 2010, and email communication from Kate Clark to Human Rights Watch, June 2010.  

[13] Human Rights Watch, Humanity Denied, p. 18; Human Rights Watch interview with Nikba Shah, Peshawar, Pakistan, September 6, 2001.

[14]Human Rights Watch interview with Arezo Qanih, Kabul, February 22, 2010.

[15]Human Rights Watch interview with Kate Clark, Kabul, March 6, 2010.

[16] Omid Marzban, “Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: From Holy Warrior to Wanted Terrorist,” Terrorism Monitor, vol. 4, iss. 18, September 21, 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=909 (accessed June 10,2010); Steve Coll, Ghost Wars - The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (USA: Penguin Books, 2004), references including pp. 166, 119; Kenneth Katzman,“Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL30588.pdf (accessed June 23, 2010), pp. 10, 31.  

[17]  Interviews with analysts and parliamentarians, Kabul, May 2010, and Washington, DC, June 2010.

[18]Human Rights Watch interview with Hekmatyar classmate, Kabul, May 13, 2010; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars - The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, p. 113; Ron Moreau and Sami Yusafzai, “America’s new best friend,” Newsweek, March 26 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/id/235556 (accessed June 10,2010).

[19] The Afghanistan Justice Project, “Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity: 1978-2001,”p. 59.

[20]US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,“Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 1994: Afghanistan,” February 1995, http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/democracy/1994_hrp_report/94hrp_report_sasia/Afghanistan.html (accessed May 10, 2010).

[21]Thomas Ruttig, “Flash to the Past: Islamic Order à la Hekmatyar,” Afghan Analysts Network, March 24 2010, http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=708 (accessed June 8, 2010).

[22]Human Rights Watch interview with senior government official, Kabul, May 9, 2010.

[23]Human Rights Watch interview with Suraya Perlika, Director, All Afghan Women’s Union, Kabul, February 16, 2010.

[24] Human Rights Watch, Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Threats Against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan, October 5, 2004, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2004/10/05/between-hope-and-fear, summary and pp. 2-3; Human Rights Watch, We Want to Live As Humans”: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan, vol. 14, no. 11 (C), December 2002, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2002/12/17/we-want-live-humans, summary. The influence of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, which was the main conduit of US aid to the Mujahidin groups, was influential in building up the most religious extremist groups during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, at the expense of other factions and political groups, including secularist, royalist and leftist factions. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars - The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, p. 165.

[25] “Afghanistan President Names New Women’s Affairs Minister,” Ms. Magazine, June 24, 2002, http://www.msmagazine.com/news/uswirestory.asp?id=6642 (accessed June 9, 2010).

[26]Human Rights Watch, We Have the Promises of the World”: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,ISBN 1-56432-574-1, December 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/12/03/we-have-promises-world-0, p. 36.

[27]Human Rights Watch, We Have the Promises of the World, p. 3.

[28] Human Rights Watch interviews with women parliamentarians, 2008-2010. See also Kim Barker, “Afghanistan’s efforts to boost women falter - Ministry created to right wrongs has upped awareness, but achieved little else,” Chicago Tribune, January 16, 2007. The questioning of Palwasha Hassan, who was nominated as a Minister of Women’s Affairs, included a question about safe houses being for “bad girls.” Email communication from diplomats to Human Rights Watch, January 2010.

[29] Hamed Haidary, “T Shirts, pigeon flying make up and loud music may be banned,” Quqnoos, April 15, 2008 and United States Department of State, “2008 Report on International Religious Freedom - Afghanistan,” September 19, 2008,  http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/48d5cbf4c.html (accessed June 22, 2010). 

[30] Human Rights Watch interviews with parliamentarians and diplomats, September-December 2009. At the time of writing the parliamentary review of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law had not concluded.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with activist, June 2010.