- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

HERAT, Afghanistan | Khadija Ahmadi was the only woman on the 13-person radio station staff.

The 30-year-old mother of three was highly regarded by co-workers for groundbreaking broadcasts in this western Afghan city — ones that allowed women to speak openly about their personal and family troubles over the airwaves.

The show, as Mrs. Ahmadi described it, was “unique and controversial.”

So controversial that it sparked violence.

On April 6, a grenade was hurled over the wall of Mrs. Ahmadi’s compound, damaging the second floor of her house. A similar attack followed four days later. Fearing for her safety, Mrs. Ahmadi abandoned the job and fled with her family to Tajikistan for the better part of the year.

Since returning to Herat late last year, she has reported to work but won’t go on the air.

“These people are just against women,” Mrs. Ahmadi said of her attackers. “Many people hear the word democracy, but they have no idea what it means.”

Under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were forbidden to work, pursue education or even step outside their homes without a relative. Despite sweeping reforms and new laws affording everyone more rights and opportunities under Afghanistan’s democratically elected government, women here still live and work in fear.

“Men in Afghanistan always want to dominate women,” Mrs. Ahmadi said. “The man has the first and last word.”

Aid workers say that culture of male dominance, coupled with a lack of education and a worsening security situation, have stifled efforts to improve women’s rights.

“We made gains after the Taliban, but then we began losing ground in 2004,” said Soraya Sobhrang, who heads the women’s division of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). According to the AIHRC, the numbers of honor killings, rapes, kidnappings, domestic abuse incidents, sexual harassment cases, forced marriages and child marriages are rising again.

Cases of violence against women increased from 1,545 in 2006 to 2,374 in 2007, according to AIHRC research, and United Nations’ officials report a similar increase. The AIHRC says many other incidents against women are never reported due to fear of reprisals and social stigmas often placed on victims who expose attackers.

New family laws have given women more rights in the matters of marriage, divorce and child custody, but the laws are rarely observed in many parts of the country — hardly surprising since the country’s military, police and an international force of 70,000 are still grappling to contain the Taliban, warlords and other militant groups.

“This is a culture of impunity when it comes to violence against women and infringements of their basic human rights,” Mrs. Sobhrang said. “Blood feuds are settled with the exchange of women. Society looks down on rape victims and doesn’t accept them.”

Even women in the professional ranks are not immune to violence and discrimination, particularly those who campaign for equality.

“It’s not safe for women like me working in government to go out into the streets,” said deputy women’s affairs minister Sayeda Mogan Mostafavi. “I rarely walk in public.”

Shukrian Barakzai, who is one of 68 women in Afghanistan’s 249-member parliament and a tireless advocate for women’s issues, has received death threats in anonymous letters and also faced chants of “kill her” when standing to address her fellow legislators.

To emphasize her point, Mrs. Barakzai said she even faces opposition from conservative female members of parliament. In addition, young wives in their in-laws’ households are often physically and verbally abused by other women in the family, she said.

“The violence doesn’t always come from the man’s side,” Mrs. Barakzai said. “Afghan women need to unite. Those who oppose us are better organized.”

In a land where less than two-thirds of the population 15 and older can read and write, advocates believe education will help advance women’s rights.

“Educated people accept progress for women very slowly, step by step, but it’s much more difficult for the people in the villages,” said Mrs. Mostafavi, referring to rural areas of the country lacking educational opportunities.

But in this deeply spiritual and devout Muslim country, religion often takes the place of education, and mullahs, or Islamic teachers, wield tremendous influence over the population. Unfortunately, though, many of Afghanistan’s mullahs are illiterate and hold antiquated notions of a woman’s place in society.

“Some mullahs, particularly those with little formal education, believe a woman’s husband should dictate her behavior,” said Fazel Ahmad Manawi, a professor of Islamic law at Kabul University. “However, the educated mullahs understand women are human, and these mullahs advocate for equal rights.”

Mawli Muslim, 53, a former member of Afghanistan’s national volleyball team, is among the progressive mullahs seeking to raise awareness of women’s issues.

“Afghans generally want to live by Islamic custom, and this way does not accept the abuse of women,” said Mr. Muslim, who is also a member of the government’s intelligence service.

The women’s affairs ministry is trying to take advantage of the reach and influence of mullahs like Mr. Muslim. In a new program to promote women’s rights, ministry officials are sending liberal mullahs to rural areas to speak to conservative colleagues.

“Sometimes the mullahs are opposed or at least surprised when I begin to speak about the rights of women, but they understand once I point out examples in theKoran,” said Mr. Muslim, who has addressed other mullahs in Jalalabad, Badakhshan and Herat provinces.

Mr. Muslim points to a number of mosques in Kabul that now provide space for women to pray as evidence of modest progress in the capital.

Still, it’s hard to find much expectation of change.

“Our minds are in the past,” said Mrs. Ahmadi, the former radio host. “The situation for women in Afghan society maybe will improve in 100 years.”

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