KABUL — Behind compound walls and deep in government offices, schools and in hospitals, Afghan women have made great strides in the last nine years. In every province, thousands of girls attend — even in the war torn ones.
In most government offices there are at least a few women workers. Most hold jobs involving limited, if any, responsibility. A few have powerful positions but even in the minor jobs, it is important that they are there, a reminder of the more than half the population that in earlier days was kept at home. A reminder, too, that women and the workplace are not antithetical concepts.
They have miles to go. Around 85 percent of women and girls cannot read; the maternal mortality rate remains one of the highest in the world, and women rarely hold jobs of authority other than teachers.
Women fear that even these small steps will be threatened if the Afghan government and western donors, in their anxiety to stop the fighting, make a peace that does not allow small steps to become larger ones.
The most important thing is that women are dreaming again, dreaming of more learning, of making Afghanistan a better place.
Palwasha Siddiji, a primary school science teacher in Qara Bagh, a district north of Kabul, looked up from correcting papers in the teachers’ break room at the girls’ school and said that her own dream is to go on and study science at university. She wants to see the growth of a United Nations program that gives families extra cooking oil and milk if they send their daughters to school.
As Palwasha talked, other women chimed in. Many, but not all, had suffered under the Taliban. Some said that the trade-off — more security for fewer rights — was worthwhile; others thought not.
Many women want to believe that this time the Taliban will be different. It is not impossible that in some places individual Taliban commanders could be more open to women.
Nuria, a female provincial council official in Baghlan Province, said that in Pashtun areas this time around the Taliban had refrained from forbidding girls to go to school “as long as they wear complete hijab.”
In Ghazni, however, schools for girls are closed in much of the province.
Even a boys’ school was burned recently, and its headmaster was murdered. Across the south, women and their families have been intimidated to stop them going to school.
Violence breeds a climate of impunity in which women are easy to prey on because in most cases there will be no reprisal if they are harmed, even killed.
“It ’s clear that in the provinces where we don’t have security, where the fight is going on, most of the girls’ schools that were open in 2003 and 2004 are closed now,” said Dr. Sima Simar, the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
She agreed that the Taliban brought stability, the question is: at what price? “It was more secure during the time of Taliban rule,” said Dr. Simar. “Because half of the population — the women — were practically in prison,
“It’s very secure in a prison, in a jail; but do we want that kind of security?”