By Reese Erlich
Young girls run and shout here at the Afghans4Tomorrow girl’s school, much as they do everywhere in the world. But the sight is unusual in Afghanistan because these girls wear school uniforms, not all-encompassing burkas. They’re are also playing inside an enclosed courtyard — away from public view. Listen here:
A total of 126 students attend this private girl’s school supported with funds from western charitable groups. Satwana Dasgupta, Afghans4Tomorrow executive director, says Afghan women have made some progress since the US invasion in 2001. But Afghan women must overcome years of turmoil and conservative traditions.
“It’s a combination of a traditional society plus men wanting to protect their women,” she explains. Men have “shoved them inside the house. The men have gone outside, while they’ve protected their women. Afghanistan 30 years ago had a lot of women… doctors and engineers. They have to come back to the level they were pre-war before they can move forward beyond that.”
Dasgupta says under President Hamid Karzai’s government the lives of Afghan women have improved somewhat but mainly in Kabul. Recently, however, the Karzai government has caved to pressure from conservative religious and political forces.
Karzai caused a huge stir by signing a new family law for the country’s Shia Muslims. Among other provisions, the law gives fathers sole custody of children in case of divorce and requires that a husband grant permission before his wife can work.
Fatima Gailaini, a woman’s rights activist and head of Afghanistan’s Red Crescent Society, opposes the new family law. She fears that the law, which for now only applies to Shias, will eventually be extended to all Afghan women. “What would we do then?” she asks.
She notes that in 1964 Afghan clerics drafted laws that were far more progressive towards women than those in affect today. “We have to believe that the clergy and lawyers who made those laws in 1964, we don’t have their equal now,” she says.
President Karzai and other defenders of the Shia family law say it provides greater autonomy for a religious minority. Dasgupta says Afghans will now have to resolve problems by themselves.
“Change needs to happen at a speed they (women) feel comfortable with,” she says. “It needs to be driven by them. The international community can’t rant and rave about the poor Afghan women. A better use of their time is to zero in on programs that work with Afghan women and supporting them.”
With that in mind, Dasgupta continues efforts to provide job training and schooling for Kabul’s girls and young women. But even the few women who do receive higher education face extreme difficulties.
At Kabul University, students stroll into modern buildings under the watchful eye of AK47-toting security guards. Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work or even attend school. Student Hosay Kasmi says the Karzai government hasn’t done nearly enough to promote women’s rights.
“After we take our BA degree, there is nothing to do in Afghanistan,” says Kasmi. “We cannot study further. We have to apply for scholarships to foreign countries. I think most families won’t let us.” Kasmi says government policy and cultural tradition make life difficult for women, and some young girls are forced to marry against their will. “Most families marry their girls at a small [young] age. … The husband does not let them work outside the home. … It’s better for you to stay at home and serve your children and educate them.”
But at the Afghans4Tomorrow girls’ school, students are determined to change their society – regardless of how long western troops stay or who wins the war. I ask a student named Tvana if she believes Islam teaches that only boys should attend school.
People who say that “are wrong,” she says. “Islam says girls should go to school and work for a bright future for Afghanistan.” All the other girls in the class agreed.