When the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001, many Afghan women were hopeful. But in some parts of the country the same officials who administered the policies of the Taliban remain. This has meant the reimposition of extremely repressive social codes.An area of special concern is the province of Herat in the west of Afghanistan, which has a liberal literary and cultural tradition. Under the rule of the local governor, Ismail Khan, women's and girls' freedom of expression, association, movement and rights to equality, work, education and bodily integrity steadily deteriorated through 2002.
Reminiscent of the Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, Herat police can arrest men and women whom they deem to be behaving immorally, and have trained squads of adolescent schoolboys to spy on women and girls.
In October 2002, the Herat Council of Scholars and Clerics, a new semi-governmental body, issued an edict entirely banning women from visiting Herat's public parks at night. Since July 2002, police forces under Ismail Khan have regularly arrested Heratis for "vice crimes" and without conducting trials have beaten them, shaved their heads and blackened them with kohl, then shown them on television to humiliate them and send a message to the public.
Women and girls caught walking with men on the street, riding with men in cars and being alone with men in private homes are arrested by police. Arrest can be followed by an abusive gynecological examination at Herat's hospital to look for evidence of recent sexual intercourse. This practice is official government policy.
A doctor at Herat's only hospital told Human Rights Watch that as of October 2002, police were taking about 10 girls and women daily to the hospital for gynecological examinations to determine whether they had recently had sexual intercourse.
The Herat government is, in effect, policing women's and girls' sexuality.
Women and older girls must wear a burka or chador; if they go without it they may be harassed and threatened. Few jobs are open to women, and those that are come with significant limitations from the government. Ismail Khan has pressured women not to work with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or for the United Nations, although these agencies need women to administer many of their emergency aid and reconstruction programs.
Human Rights Watch interviewed university students who despaired of ever working as lawyers, journalists or engineers: "I am not optimistic," says one student. "I want to be useful to our country and be a successful journalist. But it is impossible for a girl to be a journalist.... Women are shown on radio or TV, but they don't say the news or work on a movie. There are just short reports about women, not by them."
One person responsible for the closed environment is Herat University's dean, Abdurrauf Mukhlis, the former head of Ismail Khan's religious police in the early 1990s. Unlike in the universities in Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul, male and female students study separately, on Ismail Khan's order, over the objection of the ministry of higher education in Kabul.
Although the exchange of ideas is at the core of what constitutes a university, political speech in Herat University is expressly forbidden, and students and teachers report that they fear retaliation if they even discuss current government policy.
Says one student: "If I want to say something, for example, about the education department or the university, I know they would probably kick me out. If they didn't do this, they would fail me. At first they come and say you are free to say everything, but when someone tells her ideas, the head of the university calls her and says, "Why did you say this?'"
When we asked a university student how things had changed from the Taliban's rule, she replied: "Only the doors to the schools are open. Everything else is restricted."
Even the much-lauded restoration of the right to education is under attack. Schools for girls have been attacked with rockets or set on fire in at least five provinces: Kandahar, Sar-e Pol, Zabol, Lowgar and Vardak. Local forces have done little to prevent these attacks.
In Kabul, a reconfigured vice and virtue squad (renamed "Islamic Teaching") is now operating. A team of some 90 women under the ministry of religious affairs harasses women in Kabul's streets for "un-Islamic behaviour" such as wearing makeup, and in some instances follows them home to castigate their parents or spouses.
In other areas, troops under the control of current government officials -- members of the Jamiat-e Islami party who are loyal to General Mohammed Fahim (the defence minister) or the former president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani -- have been enforcing Taliban-era "moral" restrictions. For instance, they have forbidden families to play music and dance at weddings, in some cases arresting and beating musicians. One musician from Kabul told Human Rights Watch that he and two colleagues hired for a wedding were taken to a prison, soaked with water, beaten with cables and left overnight in their cell in freezing temperatures.
The Afghan Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to monitor human rights conditions and investigate abuses, is not receiving sufficient political and moral support from the international community, including the UN, to effectively do its job.
Women also remain sidelined in the central government: only two cabinet ministers are women, one the minister of women's affairs and the other the head of the ministry of health, policy areas in which female employment is less controversial.
"We are very afraid," says one woman. "It is difficult for us to say things against the government because it will create problems for us. We are under the control of someone who looks at women darkly."From the Human Rights Watch report We Want To Live As Humans: Repression Of Women And Girls In Western Afghanistan, the full text of which can be found at www.hrw.org.