The Sunday Times November 05, 2006
They’d rather die: brief lives of the Afghan slave wives
THE first thing one notices about 16-year-old Gul Zam is her eyes, pretty and dark yet as watchful as a hunted animal’s. But then the scarf covering her head shifts slightly, exposing a livid red scar on her neck. The hands that play nervously in her lap are ridged with pink burns that reach up her arms, across her chest and down her legs.
Three months ago Gul Zam poured petrol over her body and set herself alight. To her it was the only way out of a marriage so abusive that her husband Abdul had beaten her until her clothes were soaked in blood.
“I felt all other ways were blocked,” she whispered. “My husband and his family treated me like a slave. But I could not go back to my family because of the shame that would bring. So I crawled into the yard, poured a can of petrol over me and lit a match.”
Five years after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, the number of Afghan women setting fire to themselves because they cannot bear their lives has risen dramatically.
Gul Zam’s husband and in-laws watched her burning and did nothing. She was saved by a neighbour who poured a bucket of water over her, wrapped her in a sheet and rushed her to hospital. After the doctors removed the sheet, tearing the blisters, she spent 10 days in a coma. Her head had been fused to her chest by the burns. She has endured several operations and will need at least six more before she can move her arms.
“This is a society where being born a woman is not a gift,” said Alberto Cairo, an Italian doctor who runs the Red Cross clinic in Kabul where Gul Zam is being treated. His room is full of fairy lights and a laughing Christmas tree that he has kept up all year because “there didn’t seem to be much happiness”.
A report last week by the UK-based charity Womankind Worldwide said cases like Gul Zam’s were becoming more common because between 60% and 80% of all marriages in Afghanistan were forced. More than half of all girls are married off before the age of 16, some as young as six. Many of these marriages are to settle debts or feuds between tribes. The women are regarded as commodities rather than wives and are often treated like slave workers by their new families.
Those who try to escape often end up in prison like 13-year-old Shabano, jailed in Kandahar for running away from the 50-year-old man to whom her father had sold her. “We don’t have democracy in this country if someone wants a love marriage,” she said, nibbling at grimy nails in the dark, dirty cell. “My father exchanged me for a teenage bride for himself.”
Gul Zam was lucky. Not only was she saved, but unusually her family have decided to support her and her father demanded a divorce. But her story is an indictment of the international community’s failure to improve the lives of Afghan women.
In 2001 the West’s most-cited criticism of the Taliban regime was its oppression of women. Not only did the Taliban forbid women from working and girls from being educated, they also beat them for wearing lipstick or shoes that clicked on the ground. The all-encompassing burqa, with its ugly shape and cage-like grille over the eyes, became a symbol for a heartless regime.
Laura Bush, America’s first lady, took over her husband’s weekly radio address to highlight the plight of Afghan women. Cherie Blair made an impassioned speech at 10 Downing Street, saying: “Women could have their nails torn out for wearing nail polish.”
“The recovery of Afghanistan must entail the restoration of rights of Afghan women,” insisted Colin Powell, then the US secretary of state.
Five years on there is just one woman in government — the minister for women’s affairs. Symbolic photographs of women throwing off their burqas after the Taliban had fled were no more than that. Apart from a small educated elite in Kabul, the overwhelming majority of women are still forced to cover their entire bodies and faces. The United Nations recently circulated a memo to all staff in Afghanistan, advising women to cover their heads even in Kabul.
Watching boys flying kites over the Bala Hissar fort or chattering girls streaming to school, white scarves over heads and rucksacks on backs, to say there have been no improvements since November 13, 2001, when the Taliban fled the capital, would be wrong. Millions of Afghans voted for a new president in 2004 and a parliament in 2005 in which 25% of the MPs are women. Five million children, of whom 1.5m are girls, are enrolled in school.
But there is a huge gap between the reality on the ground and the “remarkable progress” claimed by western diplomats who sit in fortified compounds behind guards and concrete blocks and who never leave Kabul. The only area in which the country could really be said to have made remarkable progress is in growing the poppy. Under British supervision, Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest opium producer. Last year it produced 6,100 tons — 92% of world supply.
Afghanistan is engulfed in its bloodiest violence for 10 years. At least 3,000 people have been killed this year — more than twice last year’s total.
For all the talk of girls’ education, only 5% of those of secondary school age are enrolled. More than 300 schools have been burnt down this year or shut after threats from militants, leaving 200,000 pupils with nowhere to go.
There have been no significant water or power projects and two highways built with western aid have become almost no-go areas. The Kabul to Kandahar road is plagued by Taliban militants setting up fake checkpoints, killing Afghans accused of collaborating.
Two weeks ago I drove on the other new road from Jalalabad to Kabul, wearing a burqa because of warnings of foreigners being kidnapped. I was stopped at three checkpoints set up by police to extract bribes. As for the much-heralded parliament, it has more warlords and people charged with human rights abuses than women MPs. It has yet to create any legislation, though it has voted in pay rises for its members.
“Parliament is just a showpiece for the West,” complains Malalai Joya, one of the female MPs. “Women do not have liberation at all. People in power, whether in government, parliament or governors, are warlords and jihadis who are no different in their outlook from Taliban.”
The 27-year-old MP has received so many death threats for her outspokenness that she has to sleep in a different place every night. To meet her involves going to a spot, then following an old man on a motorbike. She will not give out her address. The house is surrounded by sandbags and guards who search visitors before they can enter.
Inside Joya sits in a room that is bare of decoration apart from a black and white photograph of King Amanullah, under whose reign in the 1920s women were given equal rights and strict dress codes were abolished. She tells me she has just returned from visiting a five-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and raped in Kabul by a local commander. “The killing of women is like killing a bird for these men,” she said. “We have no value.” When she tries to speak in parliament, she is physically attacked by fellow MPs. “When I speak, they pelt me with water bottles,” she said. “One shouted, ‘Take and rape her!’ “The West talks of Afghan women having freedom and going outside without a burqa but I tell you the burqa was not the main problem for women. Look at the high rate of suicide among our women. The real problem is security and more and more are returning to the burqa.”
In the south, Nato forces seem hell-bent on proving the alliance can fight at least as well as the Americans. What was supposed to be a reconstruction mission has morphed into combat producing high casualties.
But the violence is no longer confined to the southern and eastern provinces. Somehow the Taliban, who were driven out of Afghanistan by US-led forces and B-52 bombers in just 60 days, are creeping nearer the capital. According to a US military official, nine of the 21 districts in Ghazni, which is less than 60 miles south of Kabul, now have “significant Taliban influence”.
Even Kabul, which was an oasis of calm, has become a jumpy place where people live behind high walls and sandbags after suicide bombs rocked the capital.
Although the number of foreign troops has risen to 37,000, it is generally accepted that it was too little too late and the distraction of the war in Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup. Neighbouring Pakistan, from where the Taliban emerged, has proved an ideal haven and training ground.
“The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation,” says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
David Richards, the British general who commands the Nato forces, admits he was shocked by the lack of basic development when he arrived in Afghanistan in April.
He has created a Policy Action Group, a kind of war cabinet chaired by President Hamid Karzai, bringing together ministers and international donors to “bump-start” development. “If we don’t act soon, we risk more and more people turning to the Taliban,” he warns.
Aside from such grievances and the worsening security, the other main problem is corruption. Public institutions are weak or nonexistent. Where institutions do exist, they are so corrupt that people wish they were not there.
In the ante-room to Karzai’s office, it is common to see people offering bribes to get relatives lucrative posts or arrange for them to be let off crimes. Karzai has refused to act against senior government officials or his own relatives, whom the international community says are involved in the narcotics trade.
“I am very unhappy,” complained Younus Qanuni, speaker of the parliament. “The past five years we’ve had a golden opportunity in Afghanistan. Instead I feel once again terrorism is returning: narcotics, increasing daily corruption while in people’s lives there are no changes. Things are moving in the wrong direction.”
For girls like Gul Zam facing years of operations and stigma as a divorcee, the end of the Taliban was never meant to be like this.
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