Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Thursday, 3 June 2010 14:49 UK

Afghan women's invisible struggle for rights

Afghan women will be represented as tribal elders, religious leaders and members of parliament meet in Kabul for a three-day grand conference known as a loya jirga. But there are fears, as Martin Patience explains, that small gains in women's rights since the days of the Taliban may be lost.

Afghan women in burkas
Wearing the burka was compulsory under the Taliban

With her blue burka rolled up above her face, soft tears rolled down the young woman's cheeks.

It was an extraordinary scene, a quiet, tender, and troubling moment.

Because sitting opposite the young women was her father, listening intently as she explained why she had run away to Iran to marry her boyfriend.

They had fallen in love over telephone conversations, she explained, and both decided to elope after three days, having never met.

The father appeared calm. But he also explained to her his predicament. He had agreed that his daughter would marry another man and had paid the dowry.

Now he was strapped for money. Would she mind asking her new husband to stump up the cash?

Hidden world

This scene unfolded as I visited a women's refuge in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Map of Afghanistan showing Mazar-e-Sharif

It was a glimpse into a hidden world that reporters here - particularly men - almost never see, laying bare the tensions, the heartache, the trauma that afflicts some Afghan women.

I met Hakima, who was forced as a girl into a marriage to pay off a debt. Gita, who ran off with her true love. And Zeba, made to marry her mentally disturbed cousin.

They have been shunned by society, condemned by their families for running away from their abusive marriages.

But the refuge in itself, opened four years ago, is a symbol of progress in Afghanistan, a place where women can gather, a place where they will be protected.

Boxing for rights

Before it was established, many of the women now sheltering behind its walls would probably have been killed for bringing shame on their families.

But slowly Afghanistan is producing a generation determined to fight for their freedoms.

Afghan girls' boxing team
The boxing club for Afghan women was established in 2007

You see young girls going to school, women working in offices and believe it or not, there is even a female Afghan boxing club.

I went to see the women train in a small, dusty gym. Sweat poured from their brows as they pounded punching bags. They were definitely tough.

But while progress has been made, this country remains one of the most conservative on earth.

Afghanistan is very much a man's world. Many of the supposed gains women have made are superficial.

Take women MPs, who make up a quarter of the parliament, as stipulated by the constitution. That means the Afghan parliament is more socially progressive than most European countries.

But representation, one female MP told me, does not equate to power. They may sit in parliament, but their voices are rarely heard.

And when women here talk about women's rights it is more akin to what would be called plain human rights in the West.

They are not arguing for equal pay, for example, or the right to live on their own, to go to a bar, or wear a mini-skirt. It is far more basic than that.

The mantra is - education, access to healthcare, the right to work and (if you are going out on a limb) the right to choose your husband.

Concerns for freedom

Apart from a few high-profile examples, women continue to be left on the margins here.

President Karzai's wife, Zienat, has never been seen in public. He is a Pashtun leader and to do so would bring shame on him and his family.

Afghan girls in school
About 35% of girls now go to school

In the rural areas of the country, where you rarely if ever see women, they are simply shut off from the outside world, socialising only with their husbands, fathers and brothers.

I did meet one woman in the village attending a pottery class.

She was wearing the all-enveloping burka but said that she was lucky that her husband let her come to the class. By Afghan rural standards he was liberal.

There is now concern among some Afghan women, human rights activists and the West that women's rights could be traded away if the Afghan government makes any deal with the Taliban to end the conflict here.

But there is one aspect, one change, that could not be undone, that cannot be taken back. And which will ensure that women continue to make progress.

It is the image many of us have seen on our TVs - young girls, many wearing white hijabs, eagerly reading their textbooks in schools across the country.

Education for girls was effectively banned under the Taliban.

This would be an inspiring sight anywhere in the developing world, but in Afghanistan where schooling has been a right so long denied to half the population, it takes on an added resonance.

It will take time, a generation, perhaps generations, but there is one thing that both men and women agree upon that education for girls will change this society.

It is just that not everyone in Afghanistan thinks that those changes will necessarily be for the better.

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SEE ALSO
Afghanistan - Country profile
15 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
Quick guide: Afghanistan
20 May 09 |  South Asia

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