Women Today in Taliban-Controlled Areas:
Human Rights Watch Report July 2010
Life Today for Women and Girls in Taliban-Controlled Areas
The accounts of women interviewed by Human Rights Watch show that their freedoms are reduced as the insurgency gains strength in their areas. These women all told Human Rights Watch that they had been happy to see the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Most had since taken up their former employment or new jobs, including as teachers, health workers, and civil servants. While many said they already faced considerable pressure and restrictions because Afghanistan is a conservative society, the restrictions increase dramatically when insurgent groups gain more power.32
The forces of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) target women in a wide range of professions and at all levels, including low-level civil servants.33 They have issued threats and carried out attacks on women who are provincial councilors, police officers, teachers, health workers, social workers and lawyers.34 Men in jobs associated with the government are also attacked, but women in public life face additional threats -- not only because they are more visible (as a smaller group), but also because they are women working outside the home, being seen in public, and mixing with men. Girls above primary school age are also subject to a disproportionately higher level of threat than boys.
Attacks and Threats Against Women Working Outside the Home
At present no organization has specifically researched and reported on attacks on women in conflict areas by anti-government elements. The following cases offer anecdotal evidence of the nature of threats, restrictions, and violence that women suffer living in areas where militant factions have gained some control.35
On April 13, 2010 a female aid worker, Hossai, age 22, was shot in Kandahar as she left the offices of her employer, a for-profit US development organization, DAI. She died the next day from her wounds.36 In the weeks preceding her death someone saying he was with the Taliban had been calling her, warning her to leave her job. Hossai told relatives that she did not think the threats were real.37
A common means of intimidation and control of local communities by insurgents is the use of night letters -- threatening letters usually hand-delivered or posted to a door or mosque by insurgent groups, often at night. Nadia N., who worked for an international NGO in a southern province, received the following night letter soon after the killing of Hossai:
We would warn you today on behalf of the Servants of Islam to stop working with infidels. We always know when you are working. If you continue, you will be considered an enemy of Islam and will be killed. In the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women's names are also our list.38
Nadia N. told Human Rights Watch that she believed that she was targeted because she was working "outside the home." She informed the local security services, but said she expected no protection. She resigned from her job, and has moved to another province. 39
Many women, like Nadia N., above, told us of "night letters" they'd received -- written threats that are sometimes addressed to communities, sometimes to individuals. Often letters refer to the gender of the recipient.40 Fatima K. received this letter in February 2010:
We Taliban warn you to stop working otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working. The money you receive is haram [prohibited under Islam] and coming from the infidels. The choice is now with you. 41
The following translation is of a night letter sent to a large number of homes in Kapisa province in late 200942:
To all those girls who live in Kohistan 1 district of Kapisa province and to those girls in particular who make telephone call to radio stations and introduce themselves and request songs. Hereafter, they are seriously warned that they should not call any local or international radios. If anyone does it again, particularly girls, they will face serious consequences: they will either be beheaded or acid will be thrown in their faces. From: The Islamic Brotherhood Group.43
Asma A., who was a teacher at a girls' school in a southern province, was sent a night letter with a Taliban insignia in October 2009 that forced her to leave her job. This is an excerpt:
We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter.44
Jamila W. was threatened in August 2009, when she was working with the local electoral commission, in a southern province. The letter she received was also signed with a Taliban insignia.
..... [Y]ou work with election office together with the enemies of religion and infidels. You should leave your job otherwise we will cut your head off your body. You will have no right to complain then.45
She told Human Rights Watch that she ignored the letter, but several days later her father was murdered. Since then she has been terrified. She resigned from her job, and has moved house.
Freshta S., a teacher in a southeastern province, was forced to leave her job because of Taliban threats. She told Human Rights Watch:
The security situation deteriorated in the last three years..... In my village the Taliban distributed 'night letters' and warned that women cannot go out and work. If they go to work then they will be killed. This scared me and my family and since then I have spent all my days at home.46
Similarly, Madiha M. was working as a teacher in an eastern province. More than a year ago she was forced by both night letters and community pressure to give up her job.
I received a lot of threats. I got night letters to my house. And the community where I was living, they also did not want me to work. They also threatened us saying I should not go out and should not teach. So finally I left my job.47
Rahela Z., who was working as a civil servant in a southern province, received the following letter in mid 2009:
You are working with government and organizations. You are warned by Taliban to stop working with them otherwise the Taliban's court shall make a decision about you, which would have severe consequences for you and your family. You will lose your life.48
Loss of Employment
Many of those who were forced by Taliban threats to give up their jobs said they found it hard to make ends meet. Hooriyah H. from an eastern province said,
I was working with the [name of government program withheld] one-and-ahalf years ago. But after the threats that the Taliban were giving to the people and me, I stopped working. They were distributing night letters and giving warnings to the community elders saying that women are not allowed to go out, questioning how the elders could allow women to work. I have to feed my children. My husband also does not have work. We are in a very difficult situation [financially].49
Talking about how challenging it is to work in her central province, Hiba H., a government employee, said, "It is a very unstable province with many districts under the control of the Taliban and they have their own rules and regulations. So it is very difficult to work in those areas." In 2009 Hiba received many complaints from women in the region about the Taliban distributing night letters warning them against leaving their houses. "The last case I heard was a couple of months ago where they have pasted these warnings on walls in different places," she said.
Mursal A., who used to work in a southeastern province, told Human Rights Watch that she had to give up a job she'd loved. She said the threats are compounded by impunity:
I had to give up my job three years ago due to the threats of the antigovernment forces. I was receiving threatening phone calls and night letters. They threatened that if I did not leave my job I would be killed..... . In my provinces there are many security problems for women. Here women get killed but no one is held accountable.50
Latifiyah L. from a central province, said that after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 she "felt like she was released from a dark prison."51 She trained in medicine and was keen to improve women's health in her village. "Unfortunately, my dream did not come true because of the security problems for women," she said. When many from her village in a central province began to receive night letters from the Taliban, she restricted her work movements. She said, The Taliban again became powerful, which frightens me. The Taliban are distributing night letters threatening girls and women not to work out of homes. I don't know what the Taliban will do to women if they become more powerful. When I travel to the provincial capital, I try to go with my brother or father..... I also make sure that I don't carry documents with myself that can prove that I am a social worker. If the Taliban find such documents they will definitely kill me.52
One of the reasons why working women are targeted appears to be the strict Taliban ideology that demands gender segregation and controls on women's movement that were such a feature of the Taliban era.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one of the founding members of the Taliban and the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, was detained by the United States at Guantanamo after the Taliban's fall, and is now resident in Kabul. In an interview with told Human Rights Watch in February 2010 he said that he still thinks it is inappropriate for men and women to mix. When asked about what changes he might anticipate for women's current freedoms were the Taliban to regain some political influence, he said:
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: [W]e should also think of the negative aspects of this freedom. Look at their corruption -- the integrity of women is at risk now. In some NGOs -- just go and see how they are treated and see how they are used. Go to the hotels where the women are employed and their rights are violated, and in private sectors where women are employed and they are misused. Go to Bagram and see how the American forces use the women there. This is corruption -- so this aspect should also be considered -- as well as the rights of women.
Interviewer: Moral corruption?
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: Moral corruption.
Interviewer: Because they are working together with men?
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: Yes. It is against Islam. If you put a young adult man and woman in one room for some time, of course there will be some interactions, which is against Islam. This is like a virus here and it will spread.53
Attacks on Girls' Education
Girls' education has been subject to proportionally more violence than boys' education. This includes threats and attacks on female teachers and students, and targeted attacks on girls' schools, resulting in major disruption and denial of girls' right to education.54
In February 2010 a girls' school in a northern province received the following night letter:
You were already informed by us to close the school and not mislead the pure and innocent girls under this non-Muslim government; however you did not pay attention and you are continuing to keep the school open. We want to remind you that we are going to implement what we are saying, and we do not want to discuss this. This is the last warning to close the school immediately and put a lock on its door. We should not see you in the province too. If you remain in the province, remember that you along with your family will be eliminated. Just wait for your death. It will be a good thing to accept our order. It depends on you.55
At the time of writing, the school remains open.
Since March 2009, night letters have been distributed in numerous villages in Kunduz province, ordering female teachers and girls to stop attending school. Unidentified armed men delivered the letters to girls' schools and local mosques. Most bore the Taliban insignia and were signed by the Taliban shadow governor. Although there are variations in orders from Taliban to different schools in the area, the common restriction is that girls should stop attending school past puberty (around fourth grade).56 The requirement that girls can only be taught by female teachers causes additional problems in rural areas where there are chronic shortages of women teachers.
Prior to the wave of threats and letters, there were physical attacks on schools in the province. In 2008 and 2009 there were three arson attacks, one rocket attack, and an improvised explosive device (IED) planted at one school. 57
In April 2010 more than one hundred girls and women teachers fell ill in Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan. At the time of writing, forensic tests have not determined a possible cause of poisoning.58 Abdul Moqim Halim, head of the Kunduz Education Department, told Human Rights Watch that the incident was an attack by "enemies of the people," a phrase used by the Afghan government to refer to insurgent groups. Kunduz parliamentarian Fatima Aziz said:
The enemy is attempting through this kind of action to keep the young generation-particularly the girls-in the darkness, and deprive them from education. I hope families will not be threatened by this and continue to let their daughters go to schools.59
There have been similar attacks reported in other parts of the country. On May 4, 2010, 17 girls fell ill at Durkhani High School, in Kabul, and were taken to hospital. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Asef Nang, told reporters that "there are destructive elements who don't want girls to continue their education."60 In April and May 2009, 90 girls fell ill at three schools in Kapisa province, including vomiting, dizziness and loss of consciousness.61 There was no claim of responsibility by the Taliban or Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin). It is not known what might have caused the symptoms.62
In November 2008 Taliban members threw acid in the faces of a group of five girls on their way to a school in Kandahar, leaving two girls badly disfigured.63
A number of the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch living in Taliban-controlled areas also reported restrictions on their daughters' education. Freshta S. said in January 2010 that she was forced to take her girls out of school in her eastern province:
I cannot send my daughters to school because the girls' schools are banned by the Taliban. We have received several threatening messages from the Taliban through public announcements in the mosques and night letters from the address of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan against girls' education. For a mother like me, it is a real misery that my daughters cannot go to school and we are not able to do anything.64
Girls and their families are not only frightened by incidents that take place in their districts, but are affected by attacks in other parts of the country, such as the November 2008 acid attack noted above, and a 2007 attack in which unidentified gunmen killed two schoolgirls and wounded six others in Logar province.65 Fahima R., an eighth grade teacher in Kapisa province told Human Rights Watch, "Every time a girls' school in Kandahar or anywhere in the country is burned, I notice fewer girls in my classroom. I know parents fear that something will happen to their girls on their way to school."66
Elaha M., who herself was threatened with night letters and forced to leave her job as a women shura (village council) member, said, "Only my younger daughters can go to school. If the security becomes worse then I cannot even send them to school."67
Some women, like Suraya S., said that the Taliban are compelling parents to restrict girls' education to madrassas (Islamic schools), rather than government schools.
My daughters are not allowed to go to school. The Taliban said that if girls want to be educated, they should go to madrassas. My daughters are now small but what about their future?68
An interview conducted on behalf of Human Rights Watch with Mullah Abdullah, who described himself as a "spiritual leader of the Taliban in Ghazni province", explained why the Taliban targeted girls schools: "We are opposed to un-Islamic educations for women. We close those schools that teach adultery, nudity and un-Islamic behavior."69
Silencing Women in Politics
What does that sacrifice mean? If it means I have to wear a burqa, and in exchange the whole country is at peace, we have bread, and power?... For women I think it will be more than miserable. I don't think we will really get to the level of having stability and security -- we will just lose. Every women activist who has raised her voice in the last 10 years fears they will kill us. I don't know how otherwise they will treat us, how they will deal with the existence of the women activists in society. -- Women’s Rights activist70
Women who are active in political life -- including parliamentarians and provincial councilors -- face attacks and intimidation. This has profound ramifications not only for the safety of women who continue political work, but for their ability to continue to defend the rights of all Afghan women and girls. It can also deter the next generation of women leaders.
On March 6, 2010, unidentified gunmen attacked parliamentarian Fawzia Kufi, the second time she has escaped an assassination attempt.71 On April 5, 2010, Provincial Councilor Neda Pyani was seriously injured in a drive-by shooting in Pul-e Khumri, Baghlan province.72
The government has barely mustered a response even when very high-profile women are killed, attracting much media attention. It has never brought to justice the killers of several prominent women in public life, including Sitara Achakzai, Malalai Kakar, Zakia Zaki and Safia Amajan.73 The fact that these assassinations go unpunished increases the threat against women and compounds their fear. Although male politicians have also been attacked, every attack on a high-profile woman has a multiplier effect on other women in the same profession or region.74
Beyond physical attacks against women politicians, women face constant verbal abuse and threats from their male counterparts while working. Nuhaa N., an official involved in discussions about the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, described how male parliamentarians hurled insults at a woman parliamentarian who was defending the law. Nuhaa said,
She was arguing passionately for EVAW law. Some MPs said she was un-Islamic and called her a prostitute. She retorted asking them whether they would call their mothers or sisters prostitutes, to which one of the MPs said, 'They don't work outside the house and are not prostitutes.'75
This pressure threatens to increase if extremely misogynist Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin) members are brought into the political mainstream. Many of the women interviewed support reintegration and reconciliation, but also expressed concerns that threats and intimidation would only worsen after reconciliation. Said one activist: "We have concerns, of course. We face too much pressure now. What would they do if they were back to silence us?"76
The government's failure to take attacks and threats against women seriously greatly increases the threat that women face, by creating a permissive culture for those who seek to silence and sideline women.77 Without a strong platform in government and society from which to lobby for their rights, women's advancement in Afghanistan will grind to a halt. Their protection becomes all the more pressing if women are entering an era that will become even more hostile to their rights -- which reintegration and reconciliation may create.
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