Under the Taliban, life for Afghan women and girls was a living nightmare.23 The Taliban totally eradicated women from the public sphere and stripped them of power in the private sphere. Taliban decrees prohibited women from working outside the home and traveling in public without a mahram (husband or close male relative), and the requirement of the burqa was strictly enforced.24 Women and girls risked being beaten on the streets of most major cities for showing any part of their bodies, even by accident, for wearing the wrong kind of shoes or socks, or for making too much noise walking. Women were barred from university and almost all girls schools were closed. One human rights group described the Taliban's restriction on women's rights as "one of the most deliberate forms of discrimination against women in recent history."25
Many Afghans-women and men-considered the Taliban's reactionary codes to be anachronistic and cruel. Afghanistan has a diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious makeup, in which both women and men hold a variety of views on women's rights.26 The Taliban's interpretations of Islamic law were foreign to much of Afghanistan's people, especially those in urban areas.27 By imposing a monolithic and unified set of social standards on the whole country, they alienated huge sectors of the population. Refugee returns during Taliban rule slowed significantly in many places, and even reversed. Some of the Taliban leadership skirted the rules, allowing local governments leeway on some issues and sending their own daughters to schools in Pakistan or Iran. Late in the 1990s, some of the finer points of the Taliban's many decrees were abandoned or were not enforced: female health workers were allowed to resume work in some cities, and in some areas schools were reopened. And in many rural areas, women continued to work and travel outside without the burqa or a mahram. In some areas, girls even went to school. 28 But until its demise in late 2001, the Taliban strictly enforcing most of its restrictions.
When Taliban rule ended, many people within and outside of Afghanistan considered its collapse to be a "liberation" for Afghan women and girls, and for the population at large. There was much hope that Afghan women would soon enjoy increased freedoms and rights, denied to them under the Taliban.
No one expected the situation to change overnight. The rights of Afghan women and girls have been a contentious issue in Afghan politics and society for most of the last hundred years, while, for the most part, Afghan women themselves have been sidelined from public discussions and decision making about their rights and role in society.29 Women's rights have been used to polarize political and ideological conflicts, and reforms directed at women have often led to political instability. During the twentieth century, limited attempts by Afghanistan's male leaders to impose social reforms affecting women's rights contributed to political tensions and even revolutions. In 1929, King Amanullah's government fell soon after he tried to impose strict new social reforms, including the abolition of purdah (separation and veiling of women) and establishment of coeducation.30 Thirty years later, in 1959, then-Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud alienated religious conservatives with his attempt to abolish purdah and force new social reforms.31 (After he took power in a coup in 1973, he continued some of his attempts at reform.) In the late 1970s, when Soviet-backed communist leaders pushed new reforms including forced coeducation and the elimination of the "bride-price," these sent male rural leaders into open revolt, contributing to the Soviet Union's decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979.32 (Much of the rhetoric of the opposition to the Soviet occupation-the "jihad"-was couched in terms of "protecting" women from communist forces bent on destroying their purity and their Islamic values.33)
In the 1990s, women's rights in Afghanistan remained a divisive issue. When Afghanistan's formerly Soviet-backed government collapsed in 1992 and the government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (a loose coalition of mujahidin parties) was installed in Kabul, decrees were announced instructing women to observe hijab-covering of the head, arms, and legs.34 Local commanders in other cities announced similar decrees. Most of the urban female workforce continued at their workplaces but felt increasingly vulnerable to violence and attacks on their autonomy linked to political instability.35 Women in rural areas and returning refugees also faced restrictions. The Taliban took power in most of the country by 1996, introducing their notoriously repressive policies toward women.
During the 1970s and 1980s, and during communist times especially, increasing numbers of urban women worked in government and business and attended school and university.36 Some women and girls who fled to other countries (for Heratis this was often Iran) also enjoyed better access to education. While these trends were not mirrored in rural areas and among some sectors of society, they help explain why many Afghan women have expectations for greater freedom in the future.
As this report documents, although Taliban-era codes are no longer officially enforced against Afghan women (or men), in many areas women and girls in Afghanistan still suffer serious ongoing restrictions on their rights and freedoms. Women are still being marginalized and discriminated against in Afghan society and politics, and women also remain sidelined in the central government: only two cabinet ministers are women, one as minister of women's affairs and the other at the head of the Ministry of Health-policy areas in which female employment is less controversial. Women are also underrepresented in international development programs: Afghan men dominate the staff of most development offices-both U.N. and nongovernmental-a problem that existed well before the Taliban. And the general security situation for women is extremely poor.
In the second half of 2002, women's and girls' rights rapidly deteriorated in the province of Herat, which is under the control of the former mujahidin commander Ismail Khan.39 Herat, located in the northwest corner of Afghanistan, on roads linking Afghanistan to Iran and Turkmenistan, has a long history as one of the more open societies in Afghanistan, in which both men and women highly valued and pursued literature, poetry, painting, and intellectualism.40 As this report details, many of the women and girls of Herat are chafing under Ismail Khan's rule, surprised at the restrictions he has imposed and angry at the fact that life has remained so repressed, even with the Taliban gone.
Ismail Khan has had a major role in Herat's history for most of the last twenty-five years. In 1978, when the communist government took power, Ismail Khan (as an army captain) led one of the largest uprisings against the new government. Later, forces under his command set up a rebel base from which they fought a guerilla war against the Soviet and Afghan communist forces throughout the 1980s.41
Ismail Khan came to power in Herat in 1992 as the formerly Soviet-backed government in Kabul collapsed. He set up a leadership shura (council) and took steps toward rebuilding the city. Little interested in the petty rivalries between mujahidin parties in Kabul, he sought to create an independent mini-state in the west of Afghanistan, supported in part by Iran. During his rule, he implemented a more conservative social order, abolishing many of the gender-oriented reforms implemented by the communist government and urging women to wear conservative hijab. He also created religious police to monitor his restrictions. Some women told Human Rights Watch that it was during this period that they, reluctantly, put on the burqa for the first time.
By 1995, Ismail Khan's government was in trouble. The local population considered his troops to be undisciplined and his administration corrupt. Local leaders were angered by his nepotism, and businesses were unhappy with the exorbitant customs duties and taxes imposed on goods passing into and through the city.42
The emerging Taliban movement took advantage of Ismail Khan's unpopularity and weaknesses, attacking Herat in 1995 and capturing it in September of that year. (They took Kabul the next year.) Ismail Khan fled to Iran. With aid from the Iranian government, his forces soon regrouped to fight the Taliban. But in 1997, fighting in Faryab province, Ismail Khan was betrayed by an ethnic Uzbek commander and taken into Taliban custody. He spent the next two years in a Taliban prison, from which he escaped in 2000.43 Meanwhile, Herat-a city of poets, musicians, and intellectuals-suffered under Taliban rule. Many Herat residents formed secret schools and literacy classes for girls and women, and went to extraordinary lengths to covertly disobey the Taliban restrictions.44
When the U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Ismail Khan again returned to Afghanistan to rally troops in Ghor and Badghis provinces.45 Coalition forces gave him substantial financial and military support-weapons, radios, satellite telephones, and cash.46 He also received assistance from Iranian military sources.47 In October and November 2001, his forces attacked Taliban positions between Mazar-e Sharif and Herat.48 The Taliban fled the west of Afghanistan in early November, under intense coalition bombing.49 Ismail Khan entered Herat on November 13, 2001, and soon took control of other western provinces.50
As the Taliban retreated, many Heratis rejoiced, happy to no longer face Taliban restrictions and believing they were to enjoy newfound political freedoms. But Heratis' optimism was short-lived. Within weeks of taking power, it was clear to most residents of Herat that Ismail Khan and his forces were not interested in granting political freedoms or allowing women to participate in the city's civil and political life. Ismail Khan-who dubs himself the "Emir of Herat"-runs Herat with an iron fist: since taking power his forces have forcibly stopped political rallies and protests, arrested dissidents, intimidated and beaten opponents, and stifled independent media.51
Ismail Khan has demonstrated no real allegiance to the Kabul government and has repeatedly refused to allow officials appointed by President Karzai to take posts in Herat.52 Over the last year, Ismail Khan has attempted to create a cult of personality, using government-controlled television, radio, and newspapers to propagate an image of a kind and generous leader, "His Excellency the respected Emir Ismail Khan."53 He has also undertaken various reconstruction projects, rebuilding parks, roads, schools, and a library-projects that have improved Herat's economy, living conditions, and overall appearance (he delegates few issues, dealing directly with even the most mundane matters, from the design of public parks to the approval of small businesses). Many foreign visitors and journalists have been charmed by "the Emir."54 High-level visiting dignitaries treat him like a head of state-for example, reviewing his troops at the airport.55 The overall picture that emerges of Ismail Khan is of an autocratic leader set on creating an image of benevolence. But as time has gone on, the image has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Most Heratis are terrified of him: his past brutality toward the Soviets and Afghans who worked in the communist government is well known, as is recent violence against local political opponents, the routine torture of criminal detainees, and the arrest and humiliation of women and girls who violate his edicts.56
Compared with the first time he ruled Herat, Ismail Khan embraces a more fundamentalist vision of Islam. He has announced restrictive social prohibitions and adopted retrogressive Taliban-era laws and policies.57 For example, since July 2002, police forces under Ismail Khan have regularly arrested Heratis for "vice crimes" and, without conducting trials, have beaten them, shaved their heads, and blackened them with kohl, and then shown them on television to humiliate them and send a message to the public.58 And, as this report documents, Ismail Khan is now enforcing many Taliban-era restrictions against women and has created religious police (including a youth police group) to monitor compliance.
23 For a general analysis of life for Afghan women and girls under the Taliban, see Human Rights Watch, "Afghanistan: Humanity Denied," A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 13, No. 5(C), October 2001, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/afghan3/.
30 See Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 452; Foreign Area Studies, Afghanistan: A Country Study, Richard F. Nyrop and Donald M. Seeking, eds, 1986, p. 121.
39 For more about the history of Herat and Ismail Khan, see Human Rights Watch's November 2002 report "All Our Hopes are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan," http://hrw.org/reports/2002/afghan3/.
45 "Powerful anti-Taliban commanders in north making advances," AVN Military News Agency, October 12, 2001; Parisa Hafezi, "Afghan group says repulses Taliban in northwest," Reuters, October 29, 2001.
46 Human Rights Watch interview with L.H., observer familiar with anti-Taliban operations, Herat, September 11, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with W.D.H., Herat, September 14, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with senior United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) official, Kabul, September 24, 2002.
47 Human Rights Watch interview with senior UNAMA official, Kabul, September 24, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with A.L., Herat, September 11, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with A.A., Herat, September 12, 2002.
48 Susan Glasser and Molly Moore, "Rebel Forces Claim Key City of Herat, Seize Road to Kabul; Area's Former Ruler Returns in Victory Six Years After His Defeat by Taliban," Washington Post, November 13, 2002.
50 Ahmed Rashid, "The Lion returns to his old haunts," Daily Telegraph (London), November 13, 2001. Ismail Khan's troops immediately occupied the police station, military compounds, and the headquarters of the Intelligence Service, or Amniat. Human Rights Watch interviews with K.M. and W.A., Herat, September 11, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with H.S., Herat, September 12, 2002.
52 Human Rights Watch interview with M.Z.Z., Kabul, September 29, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with L.H., Herat, September 11, 2002. Ismail Khan's son, Mir Wais Siddiq, is now serving as a member of President Karzai's cabinet, essentially as a representative of his father (he has no former governmental experience). After President Karzai was elected by the loya jirga to lead the Afghanistan Transitional Administration, he invited Ismail Khan himself to Kabul to serve as a member of his cabinet. This was presumably an effort to weaken his hold on power in Herat, but Ismail Khan refused to go.
57 Human Rights Watch interview with W.D.H., Herat, September 14, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with L.H., Herat, September 13, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with senior UNAMA official, Kabul, September 24, 2002.