KABUL — In the months leading up to the 1929 overthrow of King Amanullah, the dynamic Afghan reformer whose wife Queen Soraya notoriously tore off her headscarf in public, historians say, the girls and women of Kabul detected change in the air. They shied away from the handful of schools he had painstakingly opened for them, and reluctantly took back the veil, ambitiously declared optional by the king only one year before.
Now, as the protracted NATO-led war rumbles towards its official close, Afghan women are once again pondering their fate. Fearing that the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 might be at least partially filled by the Taliban, Afghan women are following their ancestors and retreating. They are leaving work, government and, in some instances, abandoning the public sphere.
"Everyone in the country knew my voice, and it got to a point where I wasn’t prepared to risk my life anymore," says Aminah Bobak, who in April abruptly ended her successful career as a journalist after a decade of radio and TV work around the country.
She is one of about 200 female reporters from Afghan news outlets who voluntarily left their jobs in 2012, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai — a drop of 10 per cent and by far the largest single-year dip since the U.S.-backed invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
Perched in a dimly lit corner of a slanted, mud-brick cafe in central Kabul, Bobak, 28, poured out her passion for journalism. She started as a biology student at university, working in her free time for a radio station. She later moved to Rasaa TV, an Afghan news channel set up by global media development organization Internews, eventually becoming its deputy editor. Bobak remembers her time fondly, causing her soft brown eyes to crinkle. "I loved it," she says.
Currently, just short of a fifth of Afghanistan’s 11,000 journalists are women. For the first time since the 1970s, Afghan women have become noticeable to their compatriots — often as an authoritative female voice parachuted into the wilds by airwaves.
"But joining the channel was a good chance for my enemies to recognize me, and I got scared. I mean the Taliban of course," Bobak says. The Taliban have often regarded Afghan reporters as their enemies, and this view intensifies when they are women. Nai’s Khalvatgar points to "the thinking that the Taliban are coming back. Men will need to keep women in their homes to avoid insult, and the women themselves are also making these decisions." By the ultra-conservative code that most Afghans still live by, women must seek permission from a male relative or husband for most decisions.
Women have won back hard-fought rights such as voting, education and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and the last decade produced a league of knowledgeable, determined young women for whom the Taliban’s return is anathema. But these women’s worrying retreat from the public sphere hints at failure by both the local government and its international backers.
So fragile are the gains that Western diplomats in Kabul privately expressed concern at Hillary Clinton’s February departure as secretary of state, wondering how the tenuous progress could be maintained without her commitment, let alone furthered. "Many of us had this feeling of ‘how are we going to keep this up?’" one told me.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly ambivalent on women’s rights. He stressed the importance of girls’ education in a January speech at Georgetown University, but female lawmakers and rights workers say he changes his tune on home turf. In March 2012 he appeared to back comments by the Ulema Council, a powerful group of Afghan religious scholars, which said women are worth less than men. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual report on the state of rights in the world, warned ominously that "the Afghan government’s failure to respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already-perilous state of women’s rights." It added that growing global fatigue is "reducing political pressure on the government" to safeguard women.
Increasing anguish over security left Bobak feeling she had no choice but to quit her job. "If foreigners were staying, I’d go back to work right away," she says.
This pervasive fear of the unknown means women are making fewer appearances on the dust-coated, rutted roads zigzagging Afghanistan’s major cities, observers say. "You hardly see women on the streets nowadays. As a woman, you feel everyone is looking at you. Even going to restaurants has become tense," says the 37-year-old Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from Badakshan province, on Tajikistan’s southern border. The widowed mother of two daughters, Koofi campaigns for girls’ education, and has launched an idealistic bid to become president next year.
She is riding on the international success of her memoir, The Favored Daughter, detailing her youth as the 19th child of a polygamous father who had seven wives. Koofi was recently forced to change the security policy at her palatial home after receiving more written and verbal threats "than usual" from the Taliban, she says. Several years ago, gunmen riddled her car with bullets when she was in it, but she survived unscathed.
"We’re more at risk, and I think as we get closer to 2014 the risk of being targeted and attacked will increase," Koofi says.
The ubiquitous feeling of oppression returned in 2012, when the "double whammy" of the 2014 troop withdrawal and presidential election reduced the ability of politicians and activists to fight for women’s rights, says Erica Gaston of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "It is not surprising that given this shrinking political space on all progressive issues, women activists are the first to feel it."
Last year proved exceptionally violent for women, including a wave of high-profile killings, such as the car bomb attack on Hanifa Safi, head of women’s affairs in eastern Laghman province. Months later, her successor Nadia Sediqqi was shot dead. According to the United Nations, 301 women and girls were killed last year, a 20 per cent increase from 2011, with deliberate targeting by insurgents rising threefold.
In January, the head of women’s affairs in northern Balkh province, Fariba Majid, fled to Finland, where she reportedly claimed asylum. "They wanted to kill her," the department’s caretaker Miriam Muradi whispered down a crackly phone line.
Koofi says the damaging effects of targeting high-profile women are far-reaching: "This can silence the whole women’s movement, leading sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to think twice before they allow women out of their homes."
Educated Afghan women often evoke history when evaluating their status, capturing the tug of war between urban female emancipators and the rural conservatives. One of the first orders the illiterate bandit Habibullah Kalakani gave after deposing Amanullah in 1929 was to shut girls’ schools.
In the early 1930s, after Kalakani was deposed, his successor reopened them. Afghanistan’s gender policy continued to swing like a pendulum for the rest of the twentieth century. The 1950s saw the arrival of female doctors; a decade later women joined government for the first time, followed by years of mass literacy campaigns. The Soviet war of the 1980s, and the civil war that began in 1992 increasingly excluded women from the public. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned women from talking to men who were not a relative or husband, and ordered the windows of homes be painted so that women could not be seen inside.
At the back of a shoddily painted police station in Kabul, First Lieutenant Zakiya Mohammadi, 47, is unwavering in her assessment of the future. "Once the Americans go we’ll have to sit at home again, bored," she told me in the office where she has intermittingly worked for decades — depending on who was running the country.
Amie Ferris-Rotman is senior correspondent for Reuters in Afghanistan.