Hung on the walls of Bhost restaurant in Kabul are portraits of 13 first ladies of Afghanistan. Right on top is the iconic picture of Queen Soraya in a sleeveless gown, wife of reformist King Amanullah, who was a vocal opponent of polygamy and veiling, and had started the country’s first school for girls in the 1920s. Below is a recent picture of Rula Ghani, wife of President Ashraf Ghani, an advocate for women’s rights in present-day Afghanistan. Since no one knows what she looks like, the wife of Mulla Omar, Taliban founder and the self-proclaimed emir between 1996 and 2001, is represented with the ubiquitous symbol of the regime’s oppression: the woman in a blue shuttlecock burqa.
The Bhost restaurant is only a few months old, but it encapsulates the brewing storm in the country. Its owner, Mary Akrami, finds a place of pride in the BBC 2016 list of 100 most influential women for having established the country’s first shelter home in 2003 for women survivors. A year ago, she opened the restaurant serviced entirely by female inmates of her shelter home. Attached to the restaurant is a tea house called Tahakhana and a conference hall. The entire premise is reserved exclusively for female customers, making an exception for those who want to come with their families.
“Every restaurant in Kabul is a male-dominated space, which slowly, but surely, have kept women out,” says Akrami. Her attempts to get women to reclaim public spaces is part of the larger struggles of women in Afghanistan’s capital city to re-appropriate spaces once denied to them, both physical and socio-spatial.
The ravages of over three decades of invasions, insurgency, and extremism — the Soviet-Afghan war, the rise of the mujahideen followed by usurping of power by the Taliban, and the subsequent US occupation — have dealt its heaviest blow to basic rights that most women, in other parts of the world, take for granted. While the reconstruction efforts started soon after the overthrow of the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, it is only as recently as 2015 after the US-led NATO forces formally ended combat operations, that the country’s institutions are coming into their own. The decimation of the Taliban, at least from the power centre if not from the country, has meant that women have been able to emerge out of the shadows and make themselves heard, most importantly, in the arena of nation-building.
Women members make up 28 per cent of the Afghan Parliament. There has been a proliferation of newspapers launched by and for women. “There are several women who are owners or chief editors today but women journalists in many of the provinces still face threats if they don’t wear the burqa or if they appear on television,” says Shafiqa Habibi, director of Afghan Women Journalist Union (AWJU). Women who did seminal work for women’s health and education during the Taliban regime today occupy important positions in post-conflict Afghanistan, such as Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghan Human Rights Commission, and Habiba Sarabi, the deputy chairperson of the Afghan High Peace Council. A year after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the total number of students in schools, all boys, was merely 9 lakh. The numbers have now increased 10-fold, with 40 per cent of the students being girls thanks to government efforts and work of women-led organisations.
Zohra Daoud, the chief advisor to First Lady Rula Ghani, points out that women continue to face threats, but that has not stopped the new generation of educated Afghan women. “On her very first day, Rula Ghani had said that her attempt would be to restore the respect of Afghan women, which has been lost due to 40 years of war,” she says, adding that the Ashraf Ghani government is responsible for the reform of the justice department, which now has 280 women judges.
However, many admit that it is still a protracted struggle. Afghanistan is all too familiar with a pattern where any attempt at radical gender reforms has unleashed the worst kind of backlash. The country, even today, ranks a low 171 out of 188 countries on the Gender Inequality Index.“It still is very difficult for elected women representatives to get the required vote from the parliament to become ministers. Female judges face character assassination while women journalists are threatened and killed,” says Mary.
In July 2015, the Afghanistan government launched the Afghan National Action Plan (ANAP) for implementing the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. “The NAP is serving its purpose, but the pace is very slow. Moreover, when it comes to peace talks with the Taliban, women are still excluded,” says Hasina Safi, director of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), which represents 140 women’s organisations across the country. She adds with optimism, though, “in spite of the security issues, women have managed to get a foothold as decision makers.”
Within the confines of Kabul University, 16 women and seven men bear testament to this change in the institute’s 85-year-old history. They are the first batch of students of the gender studies masters programme that was started only last year. During the Taliban regime, women were banned from studying or teaching. Today, in classes conducted in Dari, men and women discuss everything from écriture féminine to anarchist and lesbian feminism.
Like most women in the class, Sajia Sediqi and Wagma Yameen were able to finish their schooling as their family immigrated to Peshawar during the conflict and came back to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. “My personal favourites are Betty Friedan and Simone De Beauvoir,” says Sajia. She finds the latter’s brand of feminist existentialism relevant to her country today. “Decades of war and repression have entrenched themselves deep into the psychology of women in Afghanistan,” she says. This has left a vacuum in the area of academic research on strategies to deal with women’s post-conflict concerns, says Wagma, who also works for the United States Institute for Peace. “Right now, our greatest concern is to ensure that the government should not come under the influence of the mujahideen or Taliban and end up compromising on women’s issues. Most of the peace negotiations have men sitting on the table and deciding what’s best,” says Wagma. A case in point, she says, is the recent peace agreement between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pakhtun warlord whose Hezb-e-Islami militia notoriously threw acid at young women who were spotted without a veil.
Terror and conflict is still a quotidian reality. Military surveillance balloons, known as Aerostats, continue to dot the horizon. In addition to the occasional terror strikes, kidnappings for ransom are not uncommon, a reason why children from well-off families are often home-schooled and women hesitate to venture out after dark. The gate outside Mary’s restaurant has a sign that reads, “No guns allowed”. On a lighter vein is another board with the words: “Fat people are harder to kidnap. Eat more, stay safe.”
“In a country like Afghanistan, even the mere fact that women are in powerful positions is a visible impact of the strides we have taken,” says Mary. Right at the entrance to her restaurant are photographs of women who were slain over the last decade for just braving the odds: Top cop Malalai Kakar, the former head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women, and journalists Sanga Amaaj and Nazifa Zaki. There is also a picture of former child rights commissioner Hamida Barmaki, who was killed along with her family in a suicide attack in 2011. These serve as a sombre reminder of hard-won battles and the legacy that Mary and others have to carry forward.