- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — Just 15 years old, Sahar Gul has become the bruised and bloodied face of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The teenage bride’s eyes were swollen nearly shut as she was wheeled into the hospital seven months after her arranged marriage. Black scabs crusted her fingertips where her nails used to be.

According to officials in northeastern Baghlan province, Gul’s in-laws kept her in a basement for six months, ripped her fingernails out, tortured her with hot irons and broke her fingers — all in an attempt to force her into prostitution. Police freed her after her uncle called authorities.

The horrific images, captured by television news cameras last week, transfixed Afghanistan and set off a storm of condemnation. President Hamid Karzai set up a commission to investigate, and his health minister visited her bedside. Police arrested her in-laws, who denied abusing her. A warrant was issued for her husband, who serves in the Afghan army.

The case highlights both the problems and the progress of women 10 years after the Taliban’s fall. Gul’s egregious wounds and underage wedlock are a reminder that girls and women still suffer shocking abuse. But the public outrage and the government’s response to it also show that the country is slowly changing.

“Let’s break the dead silence on women’s plight,” read the title of an editorial Wednesday in the Afghanistan Times.

Despite guaranteed rights and progressive new laws, Afghanistan still ranks as the world’s sixth-worst country for women’s equality in the U.N. Development Program’s annual Gender Inequality Index. Nevertheless, Afghan advocates say attitudes have subtly shifted over the years, in part thanks to the dozens of women’s groups that have sprung up.

Fawzia Kofi, a lawmaker and head of the women’s affairs commission in the Afghan parliament, says the outcry over a case like Gul’s probably would not have happened just a few years ago because of deep cultural taboos against airing private family conflicts and acknowledging sexual abuse — such as forcing a woman into prostitution.

“I think there is now a sense of awareness about women’s rights. People seem to be changing and seem to be talking about it,” Kofi said.

Ending abuse of women is a huge challenge in a patriarchal society where traditional practices include child marriage, giving girls away to settle debts or pay for their relatives’ crimes and so-called honor killings in which girls seen as disgracing their families are murdered by their relatives.

And some women activists worry that their hard-won political rights may erode as foreign troops withdraw and Karzai’s government seeks to negotiate with the Taliban to end their insurgency. Women’s rights, they fear, may be the first to go in any deal with the hardline Islamic militants.

“I’m afraid we won’t have all this anymore if the Taliban are allowed back into society,” said Sima Natiq, a longtime activist.

Freedoms for women are one of the most visible — and symbolic — changes in Afghanistan since 2001 U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban regime. Aside from their support for al-Qaida leaders, the Taliban are probably most notorious for their harsh treatment of women under their severe interpretation of Islamic law.

For five years, the regime banned women from working and going to school, or even leaving home without a male relative. In public, all women were forced wear a head-to-toe burqa veil, which covers even the face with a mesh panel. Violators were publicly flogged or executed. Freeing women from such draconian laws lent a moral air to the Afghan war.

As U.S. troops begin to draw down, activists say Afghanistan is unmistakably a better place to be born female than a decade ago.

In parliament, 27 percent of lawmakers are female, mostly because the constitution reserves 68 seats for women. More than 3 million girls are in schools, making up 40 percent of the elementary school population, according to the education ministry. A survey last year indicated that women dying in childbirth had dropped by nearly two-thirds to below 500 per 100,000 live births since 2005, although that is still one of the world’s highest rates.

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