In the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, the government of the warlord Ismail Khan recently applied new rules rolling back educational opportunities for women and girls. Men may no longer teach women or girls in private classes. Girls and boys are no longer allowed to be in school buildings at the same time. The effect of the ban will be to block many women and girls from attending private courses. There is a shortage of women teachers; almost all the teachers in private courses are men.
The new rules are especially cruel now. Many women and girls are studying hard to make up for the six years lost under the Taliban. They have been using private classes in English, computers and basic subjects to supplement formal schooling.
The order has created a local uproar. As one Afghan woman said, "It is a very strong kind of discrimination against women getting education." She was resentful of the authorities' suspicions. "All the time they suspect girls of immorality," she said.
Unfortunately, the situation in Herat is not unique. All over Afghanistan, especially outside the capital, progress on female education is being compromised by the behavior of ultra-conservative local leaders, allies of the U.S.-led coalition in the war against the Taliban. They used their connections to the United States to seize power but then embraced some of the Taliban's most odious restrictions.
Hundreds of thousands of girls and women have returned to schools and universities across the country. But "only the doors to the schools are open," a young women in Herat told us. "Everything else is restricted." Even education is now under assault. In the north and east, girls' schools have been burned or shelled (luckily, when closed). Leaders in some southern provinces have allowed police forces to threaten women and girls going to school. Pamphlets have been secretly distributed warning families against sending their daughters to school.
Attacks on female education are linked to the growing power of fundamentalist groups. In many areas, police are imposing supposedly Islamic rules on women and girls, many of which appall ordinary Afghans.
Officials in the north and west have pressured women not to work for foreign organizations. Herat police have forced women to wear the all-encompassing burqa and have subjected women and girls seen with unrelated men to forced "chastity" examinations at the local hospital.
Local police in several areas near Kabul have shut down wedding parties for playing music, harassed shopkeepers selling music or movies, and beaten up musicians.
Donor countries involved in Afghanistan should increase their pressure on the Afghan warlords to stop targeting women and girls. The right to education, and women's rights generally, should be emphasized by donors as Afghanistan's new constitution is drafted and then elections are held in 2004.
Donors should make sure that Afghan women's groups get adequate support and funding, not just in Kabul but throughout the country. Women and girls must have the right to use their education: to work, speak publicly about the government and women's rights, and participate in the decisions that affect them.
Zama Coursen-Neff and John Sifton are researchers for Human Rights Watch and authors of its recent report on women in Afghanistan.