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Slow progress for Afghan women

For Afghan women, changes have been dramatic since the fall of the Taliban. NBC’s Dawna Friesen reports from Kabul.
/ Source: NBC News

If there is one image that symbolized the brutality of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it was that of a woman in a blue burqa being executed in public in Kabul’s sports stadium. The videotape, shot with a hidden camera, was smuggled out of the country and eventually aired around the world.

No one saw the executed woman’s face, or heard her story, but her death was a revelation to the world about the plight of Afghan women.

Now, the veil of silence around her execution has been lifted.

Her name was Zarmina. The 35-year-old mother of seven was jailed without trial in Kabul’s decrepit women’s prison, accused of killing her husband, who allegedly had beaten her and her daughters for years.

Zarmina was left to languish in a 6- by 10-foot jail cell with her infant twins. Abandoned by her family, she had to take on chores for the other inmates to make money for food and baby formula.

Rana Sayeed is one a handful of female police inspectors who worked through the years of the Taliban regime. She got to know Zarmina, and says the Taliban showed no mercy, and cared nothing about domestic violence.

“Zarmina should never have been killed,” she said. “She had a hard life. She was not educated. She wasn’t aware of Islamic law. All she knew was that her husband beat her.”

It’s been almost three years since Zarmina was driven into Kabul’s stadium in the back of a pick-up truck and, in front of a huge crowd, shot in the head at point-blank range.

The stadium is used for sports now, not executions. If she were alive today, Zarmina would hardly recognize life in Afghanistan. So much has changed, especially for women, since the Taliban regime collapsed.

A new life
Today, women can leave their homes without the escort of a male family member. They no longer have to cram into the back of buses and give up their seats to men. They can get their hair and nails done in beauty salons that have opened up all over Kabul. Girls can go to school, and young women to universities, where they sometimes even share classrooms with men.Being a woman can sometimes be an advantage in the job market. At the Najib Zarab raisin factory in Kabul’s industrial area, workers in a huge warehouse wash, sort, dry and pack raisins for export to Russia.

During the Taliban regime, when women weren’t allowed to work, the owner of the raisin factory had to fire all his female employees.

But last January, the reverse happened. Forty-five men were fired, replaced by women. They sit side-by-side, cross-legged on benches, leaning over conveyors belts sorting raisins.

“The owner says we are better workers,” said supervisor Nafisa Bah. “We are more meticulous, and more motivated to work.”

They earn 40,000 Afghanis, or roughly $1 per day. “It’s not a lot, but enough to buy food and school supplies for our children,” Bah said.

Both her daughters are back in school and she is able to pay for them to study English. “We have hope now. Hope for a better life for our children,” Bah said.

Behind the veil
The tables have truly turned for Seema Ghani, a 33-year-old Afghan woman who has returned to Kabul after 12 years in England. She now works at the United Nations, where her secretary is an Afghan man. But she knows she is the exception. Most women here are still subservient to men, and most still wear the head-to-toe veil when they are in public.

“You can’t bring Western feminism into Afghanistan. It’s too early. It’s impossible. We can’t push it. It takes time,” Ghani said.

And it takes courage. The Taliban regime is gone, but women’s fear of men is not. They are wary of men’s reactions if they remove their all-encompassing burqas, and they don’t trust the new government to protect them.

The burqa — as stifling and oppressive as it seems to Western women — provides Afghan women a sense of security. It allows them to walk anonymously through the streets as they shop and go to work. It’s too early to take it off, many women said. It’s too soon to believe fundamentalist attitudes have changed.

“I think, my God, we really need a lot of time to change here,” Ghani said. “Maybe more than 50 years. One of my friends actually assumes we need another 200 years until we have a proper civilization.”

Fundamentalist threat
Consider Sima Samar. Last fall, she was a symbol of hope for Afghan women. A physician and feminist, she’d been appointed the first women’s affairs minister in Afghan history and was invited to Washington, D.C., as a guest of President Bush during his State of the Union address in January.

Since then, Samar has been accused of blasphemy by powerful Islamic fundamentalists, who branded her “the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan” and demanded “appropriate punishment” which, under Sharia law, means death.

“I am a woman, and that’s still a big problem in this country,” Samar told a Canadian newspaper. “The main issue is that I’m outspoken. There are still fundamentalists in this country. They have changed their faces but not their mentality.”

She no longer holds a Cabinet post, and never leaves her home without bodyguards.

“There were different rumors that I had been killed, that I had been injured, and I had been kidnapped. I really don’t want to be kidnapped. But I don’t really care if they kill me somewhere on the street,” Samar said bitterly.

There are still two women in the Cabinet, but neither has as high a profile as Samar did.

Her experience is a reminder that men still wield the power, and women are largely silent.

The story of Zarmina, the woman executed for killing her abusive husband, ended at a dusty, unmarked grave in a huge cemetery on the edge of Kabul.

Change came too late for Zarmina, but her death may have made a difference for other Afghan women.