I took this photograph on a walk across a little bridge from Smith Street along Union Street in Brooklyn, NY on my birthday.

There's something tragic in the form. Made me think of a horse or a woman, some living thing that was once majestic and beautiful but has now been broken and discarded.

Alison Morton

Alison Morton is a web designer based in Maine. To view her web designs click on:

Women in Afghanistan - Before and After the Taliban

Nov. 7, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

The status of women in Afghanistan has bounced up and down like a yo-yo during the last century, depending on the leadership, or sometimes the occupying forces. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan with coalition forces, including Canada, there was a lot of rhetoric about the need for women's rights. The pre-911 coziness of US government officials with the Taliban should have been an indication that women's rights were an excuse to justify occupying the beleaguered nation.

Before the Taliban:

The culture of Afghanistan is traditionally nomadic and tribal, the terrain harsh and unforgiving, and the population sparse and diverse. Dissent between warring factions has been the historical pattern, a national consensus nearly impossible to achieve. The interpretation of Islam was varied, but like other nomadic regions in the world the interpretation of Islam was particularly harsh towards women; tribal laws supercede any concessions to women in Islamic law. Marriages were considered to be alliances between tribes, women were pawned into marriage, education was forbidden for women, and women were to be silent, veiled, and absolutely obedient to husband and family.

Reforms were first implemented by Amir Abdur Rahman when he ascended the throne in the 1880's. He tried to change the custom of widows being forced to marry a brother or kin of their deceased husband, a custom stemming from the view that women were property of their husband's family. He also raised the age of marriage and permitted women to divorce in special circumstances.

From l901 to 1919, Amir Habibullah Khan was the ruling monarch, continuing the progressive policies of Abdur Rahman after his death. The wives of Amir Habibullah were seen publicly unveiled and in Western clothing. This was not accepted by tribal leaders and mullahs, who were further distessed by the opening of a school that permitted women. Habibullah was assassinated in l919.

King Amanullah, Habilbullah's son, and Queen Soraya ascended to the throne and began a mission of modernization in Afghanistan. Women could choose not to wear the veil and were encouraged to go to school. Some women were even sent to Europe to study. Queen Soraya and her mother founded the first women's magazine in Afghanistan, and the Women's Protective Association was formed by Amanullah's sister.

During the twenties, conflict between tribal leaders and modernists escalated. Amanullah changed laws in l924, to allow women to choose their partners and eliminated the bride price. By l928, traditionalists were inflamed to the point of protesting these changes for women in Kabul, and when the marriage age was raised to 18 for girls, and polygamy was banned, the Loya Jirga, a group of tribal leaders, put enough pressure on Amanullah that he was forced to reverse the reforms. The veil became mandatory, it was forbidden for women to cut their hair, schools for girls were abolished, and mullahs were given total control. Regardless of these changes, the King was forced to abdicate his throne in l929. No future monarch was brave enough to instigate any reforms for women.

Afghanistan became a close ally of the Soviet Union, and by the late l950's, women's participation in the economy was seen to be essential for Afghanistan's development. The royal family and government were seen with their wives and daughters unveiled in public. Once again, women could choose whether or not to wear the veil, and were encouraged to work outside the home. In the l960's, a socialist reform began, along with further dependency upon the Soviet Union. Many Afghan's studied in the Soviet Union, and a left-wing modernizing elite formed. In l964, women were given the right to vote and to enter government.

In the l970's, many women began to attire themselves in Western clothing. Women were being educated in universities and working as representatives in government. In l973, the monarchy was overthrown by Muhammad Daud who declared himself president. He was overthrown, in l978, by leftist military officers. The new president was Noor Muhammad Taraki, and his lieutenant, Hafizullah Amin, became Prime Minister.

A revolutionary program that included land reform and the emancipation of women began. These reforms were intolerable for traditionalists and armed revolt was instigated by the mullahs and tribal leaders. In l979, Prime Minister Amin created a reign of terror by arresting and killing opponents, ruling Afghanistan while Tarik was off in Moscow, and executing Tarik when he returned to Afghanistan. The rebels controlled most of rural Afghanistan by the summer of 1979, and Amin refused to abide Soviet directives to moderate his policies. The Soviet Union invaded on December 25, l979.

The next decade was fraught with violence and destruction, but it was during this time that women's rights reached their pinnacle in Afghanistan's history: 50% of teachers, government employees and students were women, and 40% of doctors were women. When the Soviet Union left in l989, the nation fell into chaos, and women's rights quickly eroded. By 1992, the beginning of civil war, women were precluded from public service, and by 1994 women were only seen in public in the burqa.

The Taliban ruled from l996 - 2001. During their rule, they implemented the strictest form of Sharia law seen in any nation. They banned movies, dancing, music, clapping during sports events, kite flying, beard trimming, television, hanging pictures in homes, satellite dishes, chess, alcohol, anything made from human hair, nail polish, statues, dolls, pictures or photos of any living thing. The "religious police" beat - with long sticks - any man who shaved, or any woman not wearing her burqa properly. Adulterers were stoned to death, and the hands of thieves were amputated.

Women were prohibited from working, and from wearing anything "stimulating," including the Iranian chador, which was considered too revealing. The burqa became mandatory. Women were forbidden to be in public without a close male relative - a mahram. In l998, restrictions became more severe, and the Taliban ordered that windows in Kabul be blackened, so women could not be seen inside their homes from the outside. Women were forbidden to see a male doctor, even though very few women doctors were allowed to work.

Women were not allowed to deal with male shopkeepers, talk or shake hands with non-mahram males, appear on their balconies, be on television or radio or attend public gatherings, laugh loudly or wear high heeled shoes (women should not be heard), gather for religious festivals (or gather at all), wash clothes by a river or in a public place, use cosmetics (fingers with nail polish were sometimes cut off), wear perfume, or wear brightly colored clothes or flared pants under the burqa. Women not clothed "properly" or seen without a mahram were subject to whippings, beatings, and verbal abuse. Women were publicly whipped for having non-covered ankles. Public stoning was the punishment for women for having sex outside of marriage, whether or not adultery was a factor.

Another shocking piece of information is that most of these rules were imposed by the Rabbani-Massoud government in l992, and they now claim to be champions of women's rights.

What's it like for women now?

More than 175 programs affecting women have been implemented, since the Karzai government was put into power following the invasion and ousting of the Taliban. The constitution reserves 25 seats for women, access to education has improved drastically, and many women are now working outside the home. At least in Kabul.

This is one of the major problems: the improvements are difficult to find anywhere outside of the capital. And within Kabul, according to Afghan women, there was a greater feeling of hope and freedom directly following the changeover of government. As the years have passed and the backlash has grown, women are feeling far less hopeful and many are afraid for their lives.

The Taliban government has been replaced by a government that is largely made up of warlords, and so the West has essentially propped up a group of tribesmen who are corrupt beyond the pale and eerily similar to the Taliban in their views toward women. They show little desire to protect women under fire from either extremists or the Taliban. The coalition forces are also negligent in protecting women who are known targets. What these women receive is a letter from the police on a monthly basis informing them of death threats.

The loathing of women's equality is so extreme, that even men who discuss and disseminate women's rights risks their lives. In October, 2007, journalism student Parwez Kambaksh was arrested and given the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam: he had asked questions about women's rights in class, and distributed an article he downloaded off the internet about women's rights and Islam.

The trial lasted five minutes. He was not allowed any legal representation. Afghanistan's judiciary system is still based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law: criticism of Islam is blasphemy and the accused deserves to die. After much international pressure from media watch groups on President Hamid Karzai, the case went to an appeals court, and on Oct. 21, 2008, the sentence was reduced from the death penalty to 20 years in prison.

Women under seige:

Some of the women who were killed or received death threats:

October 13, 2008: a man murders his 18-year-old daughter in law, with 7 blows of an ax, in front of her family when she refuses to return to her husband after visiting her own family for Eid. The head of Women's Affairs for Samangan, Hanisha Afna, has urged punishment for the crime which could be considered an "honor killing."

September 21, 2008: Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan's most senior female police officer is gunned down by Taliban on motorcycles while in her car in Kandahar. Her son, who was her driver, was critically injured in the ambush. She had been receiving death threats for over a year.

July 14, 2008: Two women in blue burqa's are shot and killed by Taliban outside Ghazni city. They were accused of running a prostitution ring.

June, 2008: Bibi Hoor, policewoman, is gunned down by men on motorcycles in Herat. She is the first policewoman to be assassinated.

May 15, 2008: Nelofar Habibi, television presenter in Herat, is dragged into a car and cut several times on the arm by a razor blade, the men telling her she will be killed if she doesn't quit her job. She was previously stabbed in the abdomen in her home.

April, 2008: Grenades are thrown into the Herat home of radio talk show host Khadija Ahad.

May 21, 2008: Taliban fighters slit the throat and kill a woman in the valley of Kumar they accused of spying.

June 6, 2007: Zakia Zaki, journalist, owner and manager of Peace Radio, is gunned down inside her house in front of her 8 year old son. She had been critical of the warlords.

June 26, 2007: Farida Nekzad, editor of independent news agency Pajhwok, receives death threats over her cell phone while she attends Zakia Zaki's funeral.

June 1, 2007: Shokiba Sanga Amaaj, newscaster for private Shamdhad TV, is gunned down inside her house in Kabul.

May 21, 2007: MP Malalai Joya, is ousted from the lower house of parliament for comparing the war lords with a stable of animals. She can not keep track of the death threats she has received since her first speech to the council in 2003. She has survived 4 assassination attempts. Her situation is rare in that she actually has some security, bodyguards, to help protect her.

Dec. 9, 2006: Two female teachers, sisters, and 3 other family members, are shot and killed in their home by Taliban militants. 20 female teachers had been murdered up to that point.

Sept. 25, 2006: Safia Ama Jan, the head of Kandahar's Women's Affairs Department, is shot and killed while walking to her office. She was a teacher for 3 decades who fought for women's rights; during the Taliban rule she ran an underground school for girls.

July 3, 2006: 8 female college students are wounded in an explosion in a women's English class at Herat University.

June 23, 2005: A girl's school, south of Kabul, is set on fire by armed men.

May 18, 2005: Shaima Rezayee, host of an MTV style music show, is shot in the head in her Kabul home.

June 26, 2004: 2 women are killed and 13 wounded, from a bomb exploding on a bus carrying female election workers on their way to register women voters.

A full 87% of women are illiterate, and only 30% of girls have access to education; this access is diminishing due to security reasons. A women dies in childbirth every 30 minutes, almost 80% of women are forced into arranged marriages, and the life expectancy for women is 44 years. Truly horrifying, is the ugly fact that self-immolation is the suicide method of choice for women who are trapped in abusive marriages. This choice is based on the belief that they won't die with pills, but will die for certain if they light themselves on fire. But they don't always die, and live to suffer unthinkable pain. 90 women committed self-immolation, during 2006, in Herat alone.

The U.S. government is spending 100 million dollars a day on the war in Afghanistan. About 5% of this money is spent on aid. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief has found that a whopping 40% of aid is returned to donor countries in the form of corporate profits and salaries. On October 9, 2008, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada will have spent 14 to 18 billion dollars in Afghanistan by 2011.

On November 5, just a couple of days ago, 37 civilians were killed in a US led air strike that hit a wedding party in Southern Afghanistan. The attack was meant to kill Taliban militants. 10 women, 23 children, and 4 men were killed. This is what is called "collateral damage."

The U.S. now has a new leader in Barak Obama, a man that has inspired people around the globe to hope for positive change in the world. Change can come through even the smallest steps. One change would be to assign protection to women who are targets for assassination, another would be to insist on a judiciary system that is far more progressive, and another would be to avoid killing civilians in their pursuit of the Taliban. The problems in Afghanistan are blindingly difficult to resolve, but changes in policy might help.

I highly recommend the following news clips and brief docs:

This excellent report that investigates self-immolation in Herat is well worth watching, but only viewable by clicking onto this link to the YouTube page: Burning Hearts - Afghanistan

Rape Case in Afghanistan Sparks Controversy - Aljazeera English Sept 28, 2008

Beyond Belief - Loss of Family Told by Afghan Women

Afghan Women Embrace New Opportunites

RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) is a political organization that has been fighting for the rights of women since 1977. They still do not operate openly. The RAWA website:

UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) has been promoting positive change for women in Afghanistan since 2002. To read about some of the positive programs and changes for women, go to this website: UNIFEM Afghanistan