Afghanistan: Women bear the brunt under the US jackboot

By Farooq Sulehria

Kabul shocks and surprises. Pleasantly surprising is not merely the city's scenic beauty. What also surprises is the change Kabul has undergone since the days of Taliban rule. It has changed beyond recognition. Instead of thousands of Kabul residents cycling dilapidated roads or earthen streets, one witnesses thousands of latest-model cars plying the newly built four-lane Airport Road that connects Kabul Airport with the Hotel Intercontinental. Hundreds of recently built structures, mostly marriage halls or housing blocks, line the road all the way. Centuries-old Bagh e Babur has also been rehabilitated. Lake side at the scenic Kargha Valley is thronged by picnicking Kabulis (mostly men).

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Rich and poor in Kabul (and Malalai Joya) -- photos by Farooq Sulehria

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Cinemas, shut down by the Taliban, now show Indian films. One needs a remote control in hand when sitting before TV sets. There are a dozen channels to choose between. Sitar e Afghan (Afghanistan's version of Idol) is a short cut to stardom.

A different world -- particularly for women

However, my destination upon reaching Kabul was not the Hotel Intercontinental. Having travelled a few kilometres along Airport Road towards the Intercontinental, my friend and host Salman Shah asked the taxi driver to take a right turn. We entered the beautifully named neighbourhood Khair Khana (``Home of Peace''). It was a different world. The unpaved streets and bullet-riddled houses were in marked contrast to the smooth Airport Road and its modern buildings. A taxi ride costs extra if one wants to go off the main road. This extra charge is due to the wear and tear on the vehicle of plying unpaved streets. My host lives here in a US$1400 a month rented home with his large family. The Shah family is part of what constitutes Kabul's middle class. Five of Salman's six sons are working with international NGOs, while his youngest son and his only daughter go to Kabul University.

Despite a steady income -- all five sons religiously submit their salaries to Abai (their mother) -- the Shah family hardly lives a life that could be deemed comfortable. It is particularly hard for the women who bear the brunt when everything [required for] urban life is in short supply. There is a paucity of water. During winter, there is running water for just three hours a week. In summer, with the increase in water consumption, water supply becomes even more erratic. Electricity is a three-hour-a-day affair, if one is lucky.

Only 6 per cent have access to electricity. Gas connections are non-existent. Food prices are sky high. In Ghazni province, people have been eating dry grass since the food crisis has worsened. For women in Shah family, all this means drudgery as daily household chores begin as dawn breaks.

The men want their clothes ironed since all work in posh offices, and they are dress conscious. Hence, as the men are getting ready for work, Salman's daughter, Bareen, is busy ironing. In line with the old saying, necessity is the mother of invention, an electric iron is heated on a small gas burner.

In the kitchen, Laima, one of the daughters-in-law, is struggling to make as much use of the oven as possible. Small iron buckets full of water are put inside the oven beside the bread. Then Laima runs with these to the bathrooms. Men use the water to shave and wash their faces. When breakfast is over, Sultana, the eldest daughter-in-law, gathers the utensils and takes them to the courtyard, where water is stored in big tanks, to be rinsed. Though it is sunny, the temperature is below zero. Ice-cold water cuts through her fingers. Still every single drop of water is saved. There is a hand pump just outside the house, the water from this is hard. It cannot be used for either dishwashing or laundry, not even for taking a bath. It is good only for the toilet.

By the way, toilets here are a nightmare, consisting of a small room, one metre above ground level, built in a corner of the courtyard, with a small window in the outer wall opening in the street. A deep hole in the ground is dug. The family defecates in that hole. Once a week, a sweeper comes and removes the faeces. Sanitation does not exist in most of Kabul's neighbourhoods. Across Afghanistan, hardly 8 per cent have access to sanitation facilities.

Since most streets are not paved, when the snow disappears there is a lot of dust. Clothes get dirty when one goes out. Hence, there is lot of laundry for the women to do. Laundry is often postponed until there is running water.

While there is no specific times for running water, it may be delayed for a day or so, therefore, all the women are on red alert for two days. As soon as the only tap, which is in the courtyard, begins vomiting water, a big drill begins. Abai gets busy boiling water since clothes, unlike crockery, cannot be washed in cold water. Husna begins rinsing dirty linen in a bucket. In the backyard, Jamila is busy putting buckets of water in another samovar. This is the weekly opportunity for the women to bathe. Meanwhile, Laima will be running to the bathrooms, kitchen and toilet to fill every possible tank, bucket and empty bottle to store water.

Daily chores make it hard for Husna and Salma to continue their studies. They study English language and computer courses respectively. This is a bit unusual in Afghanistan. Girls, once married, are almost never allowed to continue their studies. Eighty-four per cent of women are unable to read and write compared to 69 per cent of men. This is despite the boast of the administration of Harmid Karzai that about 2 million girls are registered at schools and colleges.

The Shah family is liberal by Afghan standards. But even for a liberal like Salman Shah, watching the very popular romantic Indian TV soaps in the presence of his daughter or daughters-in-law is inappropriate.

(TV is, by the way, the only entertainment available to ordinary Afghan families, particularly women. Women working in television do so at the risk of their lives. Zakia Zaki was killed in June 2007, while Nlofer Habibi was stabbed in heart only recently, on May 15.)

As the sun sets, life comes to a grinding halt in Kabul owing to power cuts. ``Under the Taliban, we had electricity for two hours a day'', Abai recalls. Those who can afford generators turn their TV sets on.


The men gather in front of the TV in Salman's room and discuss politics. The security situation, haphazard reconstruction and corruption are the issues that dominate their discussion. Security is biggest challenge. The warlords have taken the people of Afghanistan as hostages, while in so called ``war on terror'' 6000 people were killed in 2007. Besides 220 foreigners and 1000 Afghan troops, most killed were civilians. Six-hundred people -- 50 a month on average -- were killed by landmines last year. A big part of Afghanistan has yet to be demined. It is true that corruption is a big drain on funds. But then $10 billion out of $25 billion pledged by the global community in 2001 to rebuild Afghanistan has not been delivered. And 40 per cent of what was delivered went back to the donor countries as corporate profits and fat salaries drawn by their staff working here in Afghanistan. This is according to recent report by a coalition of NGOs called Acbar.

Here the men are served their dinner. Only Abai joins them. The rest of the women have a TV of their own in the living room, next to the kitchen. Since petrol is expensive, the generator is not used for more than three hours. During these hours, the women serve dinner to the men and have their own in front of their TV. Often, one of them, serving the men, does not get the chance to see the whole soap opera. She must catch up with the proceedings from the others.

One day, a picnic was planned at Bagh e Babur, for my sake. This was the first time for the Shah family, especially the women, to visit Bagh e Babur. Not that women in this family are extra oppressed. But for an Afghan family, an outing like this is beyond their monthly budget. In the case of women, the security situation and sexual harassment makes it even more difficult to go out. Sexist remarks, body invasions, obscene gestures await any woman venturing outside her home. Though in this family no woman wears wears the burka -- though all women cover their heads when they leave home -- outside (blue) burka-clad women outnumber those who go unmasked. While it is true that the situation is not comparable with the Taliban-era's dark age, women in Kabul have not regained even a fraction of the civil liberties they used to enjoy during 1970s and 1980s.

Eighty per cent woman suffer domestic violence, 60 per cent are coerced into forced marriages, while half of them are married before reaching the age of 16. Self-immolation, of late, has become a common practice among desperate Afghan women seeking an escape from harsh Afghan life.

``All those women removing their burkas in front of cameras soon after the US invasion were doing it for two dollars'', Bareen told me. ``Mostly it was poor women. They would get two dollars from Western journalists to remove their burka in front of the camera. Journalists would get a scoop. Afghan women would get a meal for their hungry kids'', she explained. Well, such is life, at least in Kabul, under the US jackboot.

[Farooq Sulehria is a member of the Labour Party Pakistan based in Sweden.]