Historically, a succession of different governments, regimes, and political factions have manipulated women's rights in pursuit of their own political agendas, and some of these have sought to strip Afghan women of their fundamental human rights, freedoms, and dignity. Afghan women have symbolized their families' and societies' honor, and this concept of honor has been a potent source of political mobilization and manipulation by various competing forces. In particular, the seclusion of women and strict control over their movement is central to this honor code that is inextricably tied to the conduct of women. Under the Taliban, this control has been institutionalized by various edicts governing all aspects of women's public and private lives, by severely restricting women's freedom of movement and association, and their access to education, healthcare, and employment. Women in the cities have been especially targeted and have borne the brunt of the zealous enforcement of these decrees by the Religious Police. But women in rural areas have also been adversely affected.
The Taliban edicts formally order the seclusion and segregation of women from men unrelated to them. Thus, women are effectively banished to the domestic sphere, and may not be seen in public unless they are almost totally concealed in a chadari or burqa55 and then only when accompanied by a mahram (a close male relative). Furthermore, women must not wear clothes that are decorated, brightly colored, or form fitting, and women are not permitted to travel alone in a taxi. Even as regards access to healthcare, it is not only the structural consequences of continuing armed conflict, but the restrictions on women's movement, such as traveling with a mahram and wearing a veil in public, that severely constrain their ability to seek and receive medical treatment. The very same discriminatory edicts inhibit the ability of female health care professionals to carry out their work safely and effectively and limit the few opportunities for professional development that women doctors hope to achieve. Similarly, access to education for women and girls has been further aggravated by discriminatory polices that ban girls from all but elementary levels of education, and ban women teachers from working.56 The punishment for violating these codes is severe. Typically, members of the Religious Police accost and may assault or imprison women who breach these restrictive requirements.
Women living under Taliban rule report being in a constant state of fear. The slightest infraction, real or perceived, of gender-specific norms or mores as expressed by Taliban edicts can and often does lead to summary beatings by the Religious Police. There is no defense or appeal. Punishment is immediate and harsh. The opinions, thoughts, expressions, resistance and very existence of women is effectively denied by the existing policies that seek to make Afghan women invisible, as the cases documented below illustrate.
Most women Human Rights Watch interviewed57 had either been beaten or had witnessed other women being beaten. Women are not just beaten for violations of the dress code. They are beaten if they travel without a mahram. A woman doctor who left Kabul in January 2001 recounted the risks she had taken simply to get to work at her hospital. She worked long shifts and so took her infant son, whom she was breastfeeding, with her to her work.
My husband hailed a taxi to take my child and me to the hospital. Five minutes later, a Religious Police car stopped the taxi. He made me get out of the taxi. I was lucky my husband told the taxi driver I was a doctor. The taxi driver told the Taliban that he was taking me to the hospital. There were three Taliban. One of them beat the driver with a yellow cable that was pretty wide. I was scared. He asked me why the holes in my chadari were so big? Why are you alone in the taxi? I asked, "Are you going to beat me?" I put my child away in the car and told them, "Beat me, but do not hurt the child." He beat me. I hid my face. He hit me several times - on the back and arms. I had bruises.58
Women reported being beaten for all manner of dress code infringement including wearing their chadari loosely, or wearing the wrong chadari; for wearing wide ankle trousers that revealed their ankles; for revealing their hands; for lifting the veil when they could not see; and for not wearing socks or for wearing the wrong type of socks. The Religious Police beat Shokeria Ahmed, a widow, because she lifted her veil to inspect some cloth before she purchased it from a shop in Kabul:
In March 2001, on a Monday, I went to get some material for tailoring. I took a piece of cloth and some colored string for that cloth with me. 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.' No one helped because no one can. 59
Similarly, in another case, a woman from Kabul was beaten for lifting her chadari to reveal her face:
Meena Akram, a forty-year-old teacher from Helmand who had spent part of her life in Kandahar, the seat of Taliban power, related how various political factions in Afghanistan have sought to control women's external appearance, especially their use of the veil.
Even women doctors are not exempt from obeying the dress code while they are carrying out surgery or other medical work in hospitals. Amna Atmar, told Human Rights Watch that female staff were required to wear a chadar when performing surgery rather than the usual headwear worn to protect patients from contamination. Dr. Atmar recalled an incident in late 2000 when the hospital administrator instructed her to wear the chadar while she was in the middle of an operation:
Another woman doctor from Kabul described how she had been assaulted in 1998 when she traveled alone in a taxi to the hospital where she worked:
Some women were imprisoned as well as beaten for violating these edicts. 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. 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. The three women had been detained for between twenty and forty-five days when the doctor saw them.64
A female manager of a clinic told Human Rights Watch of a woman patient whom the Taliban had detained. She had gone to a store to buy sweets for a guest but was stopped and questioned by Religious Police. When she became angry at their persistent questioning, they took her and her infant child to Dar-al-Tadib detention center. Her husband tried to find her, but when he was told that she had been arrested for insulting the Taliban, he divorced her. As a result, when she was released from prison, she had nowhere to go with her child and so arrived at the medical clinic to seek help.65
Many women told Human Rights Watch how they had feared being beaten and had adjusted their behavior and routines to reduce the threat. Zhora Shah, a twenty-seven-year-old literature graduate, described how difficult she had found it to give up work and to stay at home: "If women are deprived like this - of work and education - they will all go crazy." But fear had made her very cautious. "I spent my days at home. I lived with my family. Shopping for food was difficult. The Taliban sometimes beat up women where we shopped. My brother did most of the shopping. When I went out, I was very careful and did not go far."66 Another woman acknowledged that after years of seeing the Religious Police beat women for the most minor infractions, the threat was enough to ensure conformity: "Now there is less beating. People have understood and do not do anything to be beaten."67
Khalida Parveen, a thirty-year-old mother of three who moved to the Saidabad neighborhood of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997, after the mujahidin looted her house, told Human Rights Watch that after the Taliban takeover, she had rarely left her home:
Women from the cities, such as Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar, complained that these restrictions seriously affected their daily lives and caused them a great deal of stress. One Afghan man well informed about the conditions and their impact on women in Afghanistan said that for many, the restrictions are so great as to render them house-bound and cause them to become extremely depressed, as there is nothing other than house work to occupy their time: "no television, no music, or videos. They have lost hope. ...They are oppressed by laws, by the state, and by the family." 69
Many urban-based women have a pervasive fear of the Religious Police, having either been victims of their violence or having witnessed it. This fear further restricts their movements, forcing them to make arrangements to avoid leaving the home or traveling alone and to ensure that if they go out, they are accompanied either by their young sons, brothers, or a group of women. For those women who do have a level of mobility because of their work as health care professionals, the challenge is in dealing with the rules governing such limited mobility. One Kabul doctor, who had fled Afghanistan six months earlier, spoke of the problems she had faced:
The general decrees controlling women's mobility also impair women's ability to access medical treatment. Women who must travel to seek medical attention may have to put off a visit to a clinic if they have no mahram who can accompany them. Even those women who do have a mahram may be reluctant to ask him to take time off from work to make the trip. In emergencies, this can prove too difficult to organize. Majida Akbar, a seventeen-year-old from Kabul whose sister-in-law went into labor on April 2001, stated:
My other sister-in-law was in labor four months ago too. She also had to give birth at home. She bled a lot. We had to wait for the men to come to get the medicine to stop the bleeding. The baby came at 1:00 p.m. The bleeding started at around 2:30 p.m., and we received the medicine at about 7 or 7:30 p.m. The children were born ten days apart. 72
Other decrees that are specific to hospitals, particularly a decree requiring that only female doctors treat female patients, are unrealistic and impractical to implement considering the lack of qualified female medical professionals.73 Unless women are allowed full, free, and equal access to education in the future this problem will only worsen. Those women who have been permitted to study often get inadequate training.74 In the city of Herat, for example, a medical assistant was reported to be training female medical students outside the faculty, while doctors were training male students in the faculty of medicine.75 Local Afghan and international NGOs, struggling to rebuild the health care system throughout Afghanistan, were constrained by a lack of resources, continuing hostilities, restrictions on the training and supervision of female health care providers, and constant struggles in negotiating with Taliban authorities on programs and projects, especially those that involve women either as beneficiaries or as implementing partners.
Irfan Ahmed, a well-informed NGO worker, confirmed that the shortage of female doctors remains a serious and urgent concern.
Doctors also face many restrictions in their work that both adversely affect their personal lives and curtail their effectiveness as healthcare providers. Women doctors expressed frustration over the rules governing their working conditions; since the gender segregation that is required severely limits the professional expertise and experience they can obtain from their male colleagues. Doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that the few women doctors who today remain in Afghanistan are mostly junior doctors lacking specialist knowledge, who, like any newly trained physicians require supervision by better qualified colleagues. But this is denied to them for the most part as the more qualified doctors are predominantly male.
Dr. Zainab Khan, a twenty-nine-year-old doctor from Kabul, explained the challenges she faced when practicing medicine under the Taliban in 1998:
Dr. Massoud Jalil, who works for an international NGO, spoke about the challenges in organizing training for women:
But, as Dr. Jalil acknowledged, the Taliban edicts banning any form of interaction between unrelated men and women makes this dangerous, including for male doctors like himself.
Apart from healthcare professionals, widows are also exempt from the edict banning work for women outside of the home. However, the approximately 40,000 widows of Kabul are destitute and unable to secure stable employment that would sustain them and their families. They also face continual harassment and violence by the Religious Police. Rural women, though not exempt from the Taliban's discriminatory policies, tend to suffer fewer work-related restrictions because of the nature of their occupations. Many of the rural women Human Rights Watch interviewed worked actively on family farms or had been involved in home-based wool spinning and carpet weaving. Even when working from their own homes, however, as Taliban edicts permit, women were not safe from harassment by the Religious Police, especially in the more vigilantly policed city of Kabul.
An educated widow, Zafia Akil, who left Kabul in June 2001, explained the difficulties she had faced in tailoring women's clothes from her home. Apart from the problems of having to travel without a mahram and the difficulty of inspecting the materials she needed to buy for her work while wearing the chadari, the suspicion with which the Religious Police viewed her work was a further threatening impediment:
Women in the cities who lost their livelihoods as a result of the Taliban's edicts banning women from working attempted to find alternative means of generating some income for their families. One female refugee who had left Afghanistan two years previously described how she and other women had sought to survive:
Some educated women, especially former teachers, have continued to operate in secret home-based schools for girls. These schools have received support from international aid organizations operating in the country, sometimes with the tacit approval of local Taliban officials. But many such schools have been shut down when the Religious Police became aware of them. Teaching in such circumstances takes place in an atmosphere of tension and stress. 82 Dr. Lyla Gul, who fled Kabul in 1998, but whose friends continue to struggle to educate women in home-based schools in Kabul, commented, "the Taliban have paralyzed half of society-half of society is dead in Afghanistan because the women are prevented from working or studying."83
Nikba Shah, a former teacher in Samangan's Lycee Ajani for girls, worked secretly in a home school, soon after the Taliban took over her area in 1998. She told Human Rights Watch:
A teacher working for an international aid organization that both secretly assisted home-based schools, and ran primary schools for girls in a number of provinces, described the situation in Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan as typical:
Teachers have had to be constantly alert to detection and so have evolved ways to conceal their activities, though these are not always effective. Often, family members are harassed as a way to punish or intimidate female teachers. Sahelia Kalim, who had been a teacher working in a home-based school funded by an NGO, explained that in early 2001:
In another case reported to Human Rights Watch, a brother of a woman who taught in a home school was detained and questioned by the Religious Police.87 Local Taliban attitudes towards home schools have varied. In some areas, NGOs have successfully negotiated authorization to run girls' schools, at least at the primary level, but even where this has occurred there is uncertainty, and a tightening of restrictions could be made at any time.
Anwar Shah, who works for an international NGO involved in education, pointed to parallels between the mujahidin and Taliban attitude toward girls' education, and charged that these stem from the way in which girls' and women's education historically has been exploited for political purposes:
Many of the rural women we interviewed were effectively denied access to education both because of the distances involved in traveling to school and the prevalence of conservative attitudes limiting women's role to the domestic sphere of life and reproduction. What was striking, however, was that women who had not had the opportunity themselves clearly wanted their daughters to receive an education. The comment of Durani Hussain, a woman from eastern Afghanistan, was typical:
The Taliban has not only targeted educated, urban women for violence, but also women belonging to ethnic minorities, such as Hazara women. One thirty-five-year-old woman from Mazar-i-Sharif spoke of the deep fear among Hazara women of having their daughters abducted and raped by Taliban forces. This, she said, caused families to be eager to have their daughters marry. She said, "We are Hazaras and if there is war, they [the daughters] will be at risk of being dishonored."91 Another woman who formerly lived in Ali Chapan, a Hazara neighborhood, and had witnessed the Taliban capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998, said many Hazara families had hidden their daughters to protect them.
We knew that if the Taliban came they would kidnap our daughters, and so we sent them to safe places. I sent my daughters to my sister's house, in the Tajik neighborhood away from the Hazara area. The aim of the Taliban was to attack Hazara places, not the Tajik areas of the city. 92
Rural Uzbek and Hazara women, who had recently fled conflict zones from areas in the north of Afghanistan, recounted that when the Taliban took over their areas, women, in particular, were ordered to stay indoors. Many rural women complained that while their freedom of movement was already limited by local custom and family practices, the Taliban's orders had been even more restrictive.
Zhora Gul, a Tajik woman from Shomali, was forced from her home when the Taliban invaded her village sometime between September and December 1999. She told us that when the women in her family were escaping they lost their chadaries, which made them feel extremely vulnerable.
The following eyewitness testimony from a Tajik woman about the abduction of a number of women from the Shomali plains is representative of what many other women mentioned, but had not witnessed, and that human rights monitors have documented as having occurred in July-August 1999. The whereabouts of these women remain unknown.
Human Rights Watch encountered widespread fear and rumors of the abduction, forced marriage, and rape of women by Taliban forces, but individual cases were particularly difficult to document. One important reason for this is the shame felt both by a victim and her family, and the victim's fears that her family and community may ostracize her as a woman who is raped and is perceived to have brought dishonor upon her family. Layla Shah, a twenty-year-old Hazara woman, still remembers what happened to her neighbor in Mazar-i-Sharif:
55 For the purposes of this report a few terms will be used: "chadari" is the word most women we interviewed used to describe the head-to-toe garment they were required to wear that obscures their features and hides their bodies. A burqa is a similar garment. Refugee women interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report used the latter two words interchangeably. A "chadar" is a shawl that may be worn loosely over the head.
56 Although boys are not forbidden to attend schools, the impact of the devastation on their education is also significant. Recently, a higher concentration of religious subjects has been added to lower grades that boys are finding hard to understand. In interviews with education specialists Human Rights Watch was told that because of the low salaries, even male teachers lack the motivation to teach, and that out of necessity many combine teaching with other employment. Human Rights Watch interview, Asma Hussain, Quetta, Pakistan, September 4, 2001. All names of interviewees have been changed to pseudonyms to protect their privacy and to prevent retaliation.
73 Many of the most qualified doctors left Afghanistan because of the insecurity surrounding their work, which along with all other work for women had been banned by the Taliban. Later, as an exception, the Taliban allowed female medical staff to work.
74 It appears that now some women have been allowed to study for a medical degree, while others have been allowed to receive training in nursing schools. This is an exception to the ban on educating girls beyond primary level. This ban virtually means that there will be no women doctors in the future.
79 Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Massoud Jalil, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 23, 2001. Human Rights Watch was told that male doctors, in public hospitals and in private clinics, continued to treat female patients despite Taliban rules, and sometimes at great risk to their personal safety.