Afghan Women's Uncertain Future

During yesterday's Afghanistan visit, Obama talked of progress. But as Ann Marlowe reports from Mullah Omar's birthplace, many women still suffer under customary law.

Afghan girls listen during class at the Markaz high school October 13, 2010 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

When President Obama arrived in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit on Friday, all eyes were trained on his talk with President Hamid Karzai, and if he might be able to revive the flagging relationship between Washington and Kabul.

At the top of the agenda was a U.S. withdrawal, now scheduled for 2014. In recent months, U.S. officials—including Gen. David Petraeus—have highlighted progress in the country. But for half the population—Afghanistan's women—that's a truth with modifications.

The province of Zabul offers a contradictory—but realistic—window on the problems and opportunities facing the country.

Less than two months ago, a woman from the isolated valley of Arghandab died because her husband refused to allow her to be examined by the only medical provider nearby—a male U.S. Army medic. When the woman went into a labor with complications, Captain Derek Martin tried to convince her husband to allow her to be flown back to the provincial hospital. Although he argued his case for hours, Martin was ultimately unsuccessful. Her family loaded her on a donkey and set out for the provincial capital of Qalat. She died on the way.

The Taliban has deep roots in this south-central Pashtun province, often described as "Afghanistan's Appalachia" by the Americans. Mullah Omar was born here, and many Zabulis have family connections with the insurgency. For most women in Zabul, Pashtunwali—or customary law—is as effective in imprisoning them in their homes as the Taliban were.

Few, if any, of the girls and women in Zabul are able to take advantage of the freedoms nominally guaranteed by the Afghan constitution. In the outlying districts, women have almost no rights, are never seen in the streets, and have little access to medical care. The former provincial minister of women's affairs was a man, and the new minister, a woman named Rajiba, lives in daily danger. At a meeting of prominent Zabul women, she casually mentioned that her office needed a higher fence and concertina wire. Anything to do with women is invariably an insurgent target.

The Afghan government ranks the province 33rd out of 34 according to various economic and social indicators. Governor Naseri, who has a doctorate, told me that perhaps 300 people in the province are truly literate—about 0.1 percent of the population.

"Even without the Taliban, we have a long, long way ahead of us," Ghulab Shah, Zabul's deputy governor, told me.

But having visited Zabul twice before (a year ago and earlier this spring), I've noticed the small and fragile gains. More women and girls can be seen out on the streets, and although there are only 28 schools in the entire province of 300,000 people, it is a big improvement over three years ago, when there were only 12.

Her family loaded her on a donkey and set out for the provincial capital of Qalat. She died on the way.

The best hope for women in Zabul is Bibi Khala Girls' School in downtown Qalat. Bibi Khala, which means something along the lines of "Lady Aunt" in Dari Persian, has 1,400 students, all girls, between the first and 11th grade—12th grade will be added this spring, when the next school year begins—and offers the only secondary education for girls in Zabul.

On a recent visit, I met a brilliant 15-year-old Afghan girl, who has taught herself English. Peri, the top student in the ninth grade, waved off our translator and made it through most of the interview without help. Though the girls at Bibi Khala get just three hours per week of English instruction from a non-native speaker, they have access to computer learning provided by the American Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul. Peri somehow learned the English keyboard and used the program. She wants to be a doctor—her mother is one of the midwives in the local hospital, Karima, and her father a pharmacist. With some luck, she will achieve her ambition.

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Bibi Khala seems a joyful place, though the day I visited, the girls were taking end-of-term exams. There are 45 teachers at Bibi Khala, but the students in grades only go to school three to four hours every day, taking classes in shifts, as the school only has eight classrooms.

Renovated and enlarged by the American Provincial Reconstruction Team last year, it's one of the nicest and cleanest buildings in Qalat. There's actual grass—perhaps the only grass in Qalat —blue playground equipment, though somewhat run down, and a model garden planned by a former U.S. reconstruction official. Only the depressingly high concertina-wired fence with watchtowers is a reminder of the dangers of female education here.

Many girls here are much older than usual for their grades, having been deprived of education during the Taliban years. The head teacher, Mahmouda, who has been a teacher for 20 years, says many of the girls are poor, some coming to school barefoot. But when I visited, during the older students' shift, most of the girls appeared well-dressed. Those I spoke with in the eighth to 10th grades are from families where their father is educated or at least understands the importance of education.

Take 15-year-old Bakhto Azizi, who wants to be a doctor to help women in Zabul. Her dad works for the government; her mother is uneducated. Azizi wants to study medicine at Kabul University, and says her father will let her go, though he didn't attend university himself. Asked if there are books in her house, she says there are. "Your father's?" I ask. "No, mine!" she answers sharply.

Nazeefa Jalalai, a slight, pretty 13-year-old in the ninth grade, already writes Pashtu poetry. Her family hails from Kabul, and she hopes to return to the capital to get a university education. Her dream is to become a journalist, and then return to Zabul to help alleviate illiteracy in the province. Asked whether she expects to be allowed to work after marriage, Nazeefa insists she won't marry a conservative man—to much joshing from her schoolmates surrounding her.

And then there is 15-year-old Shebnam, whose father works for the National Directorate of Security. She, too, dreams of becoming a journalist. Asked about current events and the peace talks with the Taliban, Shebnam quickly says she supports the talks, even though she believes that one of two results are equally possible: an Afghanistan "full of blood" or a "nice and lovely" country at peace. "I know I have to face danger," she says. "In Afghanistan, when you step out of the house, anything can happen."

Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who blogs for World Affairs. She visits Afghanistan frequently.