Afghan women: Fighting for the right to sing

BBC News
, July 4, 2003

Although the rule of the Taleban in Afghanistan ended 18 months ago, women in the country are still faced with a huge number of restrictions in their everyday life.

Included among them is a ban on singing in public, on the radio or on television.

"I'm deeply affected by what's going on," singer Najiba Samin told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"I don't understand why we can't record our songs and hear them on radio and on television."

Although Ms Samin is allowed to sing in the Kabul music school, a gunman has to sit at the doorway just in case extremists decide to deliver judgment.

"I think what's happened is that the people who were responsible for the atrocities of the past are in control of this, and they're doing it all over again," she said.

"But I tell myself the fight has to continue, even though there are people determined to stop us."

'Prisoners in own homes'

Ms Samin's situation is indicative of the problems facing women in the new Afghanistan.

Although TV screens around the world were filled with images of women taking off the burqa as the Taleban fell, women's rights agencies are still trying to realise the idea of emancipation in Afghanistan.

They concede there had not been much change. "You can see that there's an obvious increase of women going to school, or having access to higher education, and there are some professional women who have been able to go back to being lawyers or teachers - but I think that is a very, very small step," said Rachel Wareham, who works for the German agency Medica Mondial.

"The majority of women are still more or less prisoners in their own homes.

"The legal system is not functioning in any area or any way that protects them or advances them."

Trading in women

And further out of Kabul and beyond the reach of government, restrictions deteriorate into outright abuse of women's rights.

The province of Shinwari, near the Pakistan boarder, is notorious for opium smuggling - and also for the sale of women.

"I was sold 10 years ago - at the time I'd had three children from my first husband - but when he took a second wife, he sold me," one woman said.

"He and I grew up together, but after I was sold he prevented me from seeing the children.

"My son died. I think his heart broke after I was forced to leave. I'm not allowed to see my daughter.

"When I left my breast used to leak milk. They tore my baby from me."

In Shinwari women are sold for around $3,000 each - either as punishment or purely to earn money for their families or first husbands.

"We are innocent in this - we are just like chickens kept and tied," another told Everywoman.

"Wherever you send us, we go."

Punishments

Activist Pawina Heila has tried to raise the issue with local authorities, but said they have done nothing.

"There is no difference between now and when the Taleban were in control," she told Everywoman.

One woman she knew of fled the home she had been sold to and returned to her brother's house.

But there she was punished. She was first scalded with hot water, then tied behind a car with a cable, dragged into the desert, and shot.

"These are the lessons women are taught so they go quietly when they're sold," she said.

The women's ministry in Afghanistan is - like the rest of the government - short on authority. The minister Habibi Serabi is under pressure from both international donors and Afghan women themselves to deliver.

"I'm often faced with this problem... people, particularly men, say that it's custom and culture." Ms Serabi acknowledged.

"But this is not impossible. We can change the culture and custom but of course it takes time."

"We have to work very hard, and also not very quickly. We have to take care with each of our steps."

She added that it was not only Afghanistan's women who needed to be made aware of women's rights, but also the country's men.

"Not only women, but we have to educate the men too," she stressed.

"The men should know about the rights of women, about human rights, about everything. After that, maybe they can give women the opportunity to take part in society."



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