KABUL (AP) — On the same day an Afghan female lawmaker announced her candidacy for Afghanistan‘s presidency, an impoverished widow seeking to escape a life of despair set herself on fire.
With every step forward that women in Afghanistan take, violent incidents highlight the fact many still struggle for basic human rights eight years after the ouster of the conservative Taliban regime.
In a speech commemorating International Women’s Day on Sunday, President Hamid Karzai challenged Afghan religious leaders to denounce violence against women and reject traditional practices that treat women as property.
“The forced marriages, the selling of women these are against Islam,” Karzai told some 600 women gathered in a high school auditorium in the capital, Kabul. The Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 forced women to stay at home and banned them from appearing in public without a body-covering burqa.
Much has improved since then: Millions of girls now attend school, and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women. On Saturday, a female lawmaker, Shalah Attah, said she will run for president in this year’s election, now set for August.
But despite those advances, millions of Afghan women still face violence and traditional practices such as the trading of women as brides to settle feuds. Rape reports have increased.
Karzai’s speech came one day after a widow in western Afghanistan burned herself alive in what relatives called a desperate move to escape her miserably poor life. Jan Bibi, 53, lived with family and made a little money washing clothes for neighbors, officials said. On Saturday, she walked into her room, poured gasoline over her body and set it on fire, according to Dad Mohammad, police chief of Obe district.
The family rushed her to a hospital where she died, Mohammad said.
The incident occurred in an area where scores of women have killed themselves by self-immolation to escape abuse, forced marriages or other oppressive customs. As a widow, Bibi would have been on the bottom rung of traditional Afghan society undesirable for marriage and unemployable because of her gender.
Even in the cities, where women have made great strides in employment and recognition, there are signs of backsliding in recent years. Karzai noted in his speech that the number of women working in government ministries has actually dropped to 21 percent from an earlier figure of 32 percent.
A U.N. report this week on human rights in Afghanistan said that “threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase.”
Still, there are Afghan women passionately working for change. In cities across Afghanistan on Sunday, groups of women donned blue headscarves to show their support for women’s rights and prayed together for peace and justice.
In the southern city of Kandahar the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace about 600 women gathered in the Human Rights Commission hall in a show of support for women and a call for peace.
During Karzai’s speech in Kabul, women in the audience repeatedly interrupted their president to tell him about their plight. One woman, 30-year-old housewife Tuba Rahimi, stood up and stopped Karzai mid-sentence, shouting that his government was not doing enough to prevent violence against woman. She asked why a letter she had sent to the government calling for action had not been answered.
When Karzai started asking where she had sent the letter so he could follow up, Rahimi walked up on stage and handed a copy to the president. He accepted it graciously.
Rahimi told The Associated Press that she came to the event hoping to give her letter to Karzai.
“I wanted to use the solidarity of Woman’s Day,” she said. “I knew this was my opportunity.”
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.
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