Fear of a Return of the Taliban

It has been a decade since NATO forces intervened in Afghanistan. While a recent survey indicates that Afghan women are feeling safer, the vestiges of the Taliban regime are still strongly visible. And whether or not there is rising sentiment for NATO troops to leave, it is emphatically not a sentiment shared by the majority of the country’s women.

"When I first came here, somebody asked me, how do I feel. I said 'I feel like a bird flying,” said Yalda Atif, a 21-year-old Afghan woman who left Afghanistan to study in the United States. “When I was walking around here, I wasn't scared, I was totally satisfied. And now I know who I am and what I can do for myself, for my family and how I can build my personality. But in Afghanistan I was a very simple-minded girl who only knew the way from my house to school, that was all."

In a recent survey by ActionAid, 66 percent of Afghan women said they feel safer than before the war and 72 percent believe their lives are better. Ninety percent are worried about a return of a Taliban-style government.

The Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, were infamous for their strict laws marginalizing women, depriving them of the right to work, study or move freely. Afghanistan's constitution now stipulates that men and women have equal rights, but many independent agencies say women in the conservative country are still subject to widespread discrimination and oppression.

Atif came to New York on an academic scholarship. "As a young woman in Afghanistan, when you are done with school and your education, the community will force you to get married, and I didn't want that," Atif says. Atif says her family gave her an unusual amount of encouragement to pursue her education. "My family has been my biggest support. In the street that I was living on in Kabul, we were the only kids going to school and working outside, while the rest of children were at home. I was seeing all our neighbors standing behind their windows and looking at us," she recalls.

Her mother is a schoolteacher and her two older sisters are highly educated. One is a physician and the other an economist who works for the US embassy in Kabul. Atif recently became a case manager for Women for Afghan Women in New York, which has been helping Afghan women since April 2001.

The organization provides front-line programs and services to women in crisis in eight provinces in Afghanistan - Kabul, Kapisa, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Faryab, Sar-i-Pul, Nangarhar. It also serves Afghan women living in New York. The group provides training and workshops about women's rights according to US law. About 70 women each week also attend English as a second language and computer classes offered by the group as well as civic education classes and preparation for the driving test. "We help women with social services, domestic violence issues and our main mission is the empowerment of women," says Naheed Bahram, the New York program manager.

In 2010, Women for Afghan Women served 387 women, among them 37 cases of domestic violence. "Domestic violence is a huge problem in the Afghan community, but it's hard to get the word out. Women do not usually come and talk about it," says Bahram.

In Afghanistan, a woman who speaks out and seeks help is often seen as bringing shame on her family. That reticence persists here. Atif believes that the work done by Women for Afghan Women can help reconstruct her country.

"My philosophy is by trying to build yourself, you will build another Afghan woman, and another Afghan woman will build another Afghan woman. And finally we will reach Afghanistan and that's how the Afghan society will be changed. But if I don't do anything, things will not change," she believes.

Atif has been working on the case of Fakhia, an Afghan woman who only wanted her first name to be used. Fakhia, 31, only speaks Farsi and can barely communicate in English. She emigrated a year ago after marrying an Afghan-American man.

"Due to security problems and the deterioration of life in Afghanistan, I got married to an American citizen and I was happy to come here in the USA, to live in a safer place," Fakhia says. But her husband died in a car crash last February, leaving her widowed. She has no family left in New York but she still wants to stay here, not wanting to lose the freedom given to there and to have the right to "circulate freely without being accompanied by a man".

Fakhia speaks well of the current Afghan government for "providing facilities to improve the daily life of women, like better access to an education and to political life." But she says security problems hinder women by providing another pretext to prevent them to go outside unaccompanied.

Atif backs that up with recollections of the many times her university education was disrupted by safety concerns. "Most of the time, we heard news of a suicide bomber on our way to school or we sometimes had news that a suicide bomber will enter the school. Then we got scared and had to leave the university."

Amid daily violence and frequent terrorist attacks in her country, Atif worries about the Taliban seizing power again. "They still have the power to come back at any time," she says. However, she assumes that as long as the United States has a presence in the country that won't happen.

The Afghan war is widely criticized, including by several Muslim-dominant countries. Pressure for troop withdrawal is rising. But nearly 40 percent of Afghan women think Afghanistan will become a worse place if international troops leave, according to ActionAid's survey.

Fakhia agrees. "When the Taliban were in power, women were badly treated. But now women have been gaining a little bit more freedom. If they come back, it would be worse for women because the Taliban will never tolerate such betterment for women."

When asked to focus on the destruction caused by 10-year old war, Atif feels that is not the best way to look at it. "We should also see the positive points of the American deployment in Afghanistan. The girls now dress differently and go to school. Lots of buildings have been constructed in Kabul. I saw a lot of development in my country. When I saw Americans coming to our universities and offering us a lot of professional opportunities for women and men and providing us with computers and any kind of help they can offer, I think we should also see this positive aspect. We are all grateful for that."

Program manager Bahram agrees. "We do not want them forever in Afghanistan; we want them to leave but only when it will be the right time. I don't think that Afghanistan is ready yet to stand on its own feet."

(Hajer Naili, an editorial intern for Women's eNews, has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa. For original story, log on to: http://www.womensenews.org/story/equalitywomen%E2%80%99s-rights/111006/afghan-women-in-ny-reflect-10-year-war.)