On the morning​ of 25 September 2006, Safia, the first head of the women’s affairs department in Kandahar, was climbing into a rickshaw to go to work when two men on a motorcycle drove by and shot her three times. Safia’s death was the first I heard about, but I soon learned of twelve other women who had been murdered since the Nato invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It was pomegranate season when I arrived in Kandahar to investigate the murders in October last year, and the roads were lined with pyramids of crimson fruit.

After Safia, there was Hossai, a 19-year-old worker for a private military contractor, who also died on her morning commute. In September 2008, Setara, a provincial council member, and Malalai, a police officer, were both shot in front of their homes. Then Zarghona, a doctor, was murdered; and in 2013 another Zarghona, a police officer, was killed on duty. The murder rate accelerated in 2015: Raheela, another police officer, was gunned down on the job; Torpikai, a political affairs assistant for a local United Nations office, was assassinated while driving to work.

Nargis, a health worker, was shot and killed while giving out vaccines. In March 2016, Fawzia, an administrative clerk for the provincial passport office, was shot in the head and died. In May, Nasrin, a police officer, was shot but survived. A week later, Leila, a 25-year-old student, was kidnapped while walking to school, supposedly because her sister, a well-known poet, was ‘too loud’. It was rumoured that Leila had also been raped. Half of her body was found 15 days later; the other half had been eaten by dogs.

In Afghanistan, men go to work and women stay at home with the children; lachrymose Indian soaps are the soundtrack to their quiet lives. This is where they remain, unless an escape is arranged by a progressive father or husband, or, since 2001, is made possible by the estimated $100 billion that came into the country after the invasion, millions of which were spent on gender initiatives. USAID alone allocated $62 million to train community midwives; $35.8 million to a small-grant programme; $364,254 to education and social services in women’s prisons; $12,866 to an internet café for women in Herat. However, the agencies didn’t tend to track what they had spent – gender initiatives were most often folded into bigger projects – or co-ordinate their efforts.

The money encouraged some women, mostly the daughters of already enlightened families, to go out into the world. A quarter of parliamentary seats were reserved for women. The police and the army recruited women officers, at the prompting of Western countries who insisted on gender parity as a prerequisite for funding. (Between 2005 and 2013, the number of policewomen rose from 180 to 1551.) Women became mayors, then ministers, then presidential candidates. Abroad, this was hailed as progress. Meanwhile, less powerful women were being assassinated. The Taliban was blamed. But the people I spoke to in Kandahar saw things differently. Many of the women appeared to have been killed not by the Taliban, but by their own relatives.

When Safia died, one of the first condolence letters to arrive was from Laura Bush, who wrote that she shared in the family’s sadness. ‘We keep the letter hidden in a drawer,’ Arifa, Safia’s niece, said. Safia had spoken about her work at conferences across the world. ‘When she went abroad, her picture became known. She became more popular, and she received more threats.’ On the first anniversary of her death, President Hamid Karzai posthumously awarded her a medal. Safia’s other niece, Mehrafzon, travelled to Kabul for the ceremony. After that, Mehrafzon too began receiving threats. In March 2011 she was attacked by a man with the butt of a Kalashnikov, fell into a coma and died. A mid-level Taliban commander claimed he had done it in a phone call to the Associated Press, but the family suspected a distant uncle and nephew, who later confessed to the crime. That wasn’t reported. The story had already been written: niece of women’s rights activist silenced by the Taliban.

‘We have a joke that we blame everything on the idiot cousin,’ Rangina Hamidi told me. ‘The Taliban is that idiot cousin.’ Hamidi runs, with her husband, a social enterprise that has helped revive an ancient technique of stitching called khamak, which involves making precise numbers of flat stitches on a base fabric to create geometric shapes. More than 60 per cent of her sales had been to foreign soldiers, and now that many of them had gone home, she was struggling to pay the rent.

‘This whole fiasco around women’s rights, it’s more an international effort than an Afghan-born one,’ Hamidi said. She kept her headscarf close and drew it across her chest every so often as we spoke. ‘It didn’t spring from the bottom up. It is something that was imposed from the outside.’ The changes had put in danger the lives of the very women they were intended to empower – the four women who sit on the provincial council, for example. In the eyes of polite Kandahar society, these young, unmarried women, who take tea and ride in bulletproof vehicles with men, are little more than molls. ‘Even if they are angels, society will make them out to be monsters,’ Hamidi said.

The targeted killings, she went on, were part of a backlash against modernisation and foreign influence, and though she didn’t want to blame foreigners for everything, ‘they definitely had a hand in this.’ She thought power had become concentrated in the hands of a very few, and was often abused. Strongmen had always ruled Kandahar, but according to Hamidi, in the past they were ‘at least responsible for looking after those they governed’. Back then ‘there were checks and balances to control any potential abuse of power.’ But the foreign funds that flooded into Afghanistan after the war distorted this relationship, creating an elite class divorced from the rest of the people.

That the international community continued to back these strongmen mystified her. Hamidi was reluctant to name names, but I thought she must be referring to such men as General Abdul Raziq, who had amassed enormous influence across southern Afghanistan since becoming police commander in 2011. Raziq was celebrated by the town-dwellers he protected, and feared by the rural population he was said to detain and torture. His victims were often Pashtun men from Taliban strongholds – in the Kandahar version of the war on terror, you were guilty by virtue of geography. ‘There are assumptions. Nothing has been proven,’ a UN officer told me when I asked him about Raziq’s alleged rights abuses. ‘One human rights violation can save thousands.’ Simon Hermes, head of the local UN office, told me that the UN worked hard to ‘discourage’ violations, but this was as much as they could do, as any issues concerning Raziq were a ‘matter for the Afghan government’.

Raziq was a symbol of the trade-off the country had made – peace in exchange for justice. Peace extended only to those living in the right neighbourhood, belonging to the right tribe and having the right political convictions. A few days before Leila, the 25-year-old student, was kidnapped, her house was raided by the police. Her sister Meena, the poet, wrote a Facebook post excoriating the police to her twenty thousand followers, and then, in a TV interview, railed against Jajo, the district police commander and a deputy of Raziq’s. At a press conference after Leila’s body was discovered, Meena was asked whether she believed the death of her sister was connected to her criticisms of the police. She dismissed the question: she had been ‘very emotional’.

In a subterranean room lined with sofas covered with antimacassars, Abdul Qadir Noorzai, the head of Kandahar’s Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, told me that the Western presence had produced a generation of educated women society had no use for. His community ‘wasn’t ready for this’, he said. On my way to his office, traders at a nearby market had clicked their tongues at the sight of my bare face (the rest of me was covered in a black chadori). Later, my translator told me what they’d been saying: ‘Look at her, she has no shame! Walking around with her face uncovered.’

Two and a half million girls had been sent to school since 2001, but now they were ‘sitting at home’, Noorzai said. The years of foreign interest and funding were over. Promoting Afghan women to a greater degree than their society was willing to absorb, Noorzai thought, had ended in a witchhunt of those who had responded positively to this incursion of Western feminism. I asked him about the UN worker Torpikai’s murder. He said he had heard she was ‘active’, with ‘many connections’. I took this as code for moral impropriety.

When I spoke to Fatima, Kandahar’s highest-ranking woman police officer, about the death of her colleague Zarghona, she too blamed the victim. What was Zarghona doing in the insecure neighbourhood where she died? She must have been up to no good: ‘She shouldn’t have been out. She should have been careful.’ Only a hundred of Kandahar’s 12,000 police officers were women, but there was little solidarity among them. They weren’t working for love of country or for a feminist cause; they weren’t interested in ‘progress’. They simply wanted to provide for their families.

The police headquarters, where most of the files on the murders are kept, was moved three times in five years before the building caught fire one day during a suicide attack and much of the paperwork was destroyed. The files that survived were loose sheets of handwritten testimony held together by dressmaker’s pins and crammed into manila envelopes. In my conversations with police about the murders, I had the impression I had spoken to more witnesses and done more investigation than they had. Gul Makai Sultanzada, the only woman prosecutor in Kandahar, told me she felt that ‘no one cared.’ In some cases suspects had been arrested, trials held and sentences given, but she didn’t believe that meant the perpetrator had been caught. ‘The real killers are unknown,’ she said.

At Mirwais Hospital, death records were kept in handwritten registries. I looked on as workers leafed through what they called the death book; perhaps ten women had been murdered in any given month. In September 2016, a woman named Babo had been shot in the right shoulder. Hazifa died from a gunshot to the head. Another – ‘no name, female’ – was said to have been drowned in a river; her body was recovered after 12 days in the water. She was probably a victim of a scuppered marriage or an honour killing. No one knew, and no one had come to claim her remains. In May, Ghotai had set fire to herself. Another caught a stray bullet. Another was blown up by a mine. On 16 December a van carrying a group of women to work at the airport – a well-paid job that requires a command of English – was fired at by two men on motorcycles; five of the women died.

In the spring, my friend Ehsan Ehsan, who runs a girls’ school in Kandahar, moved his family to the comparative safety of Kabul. Working with women had brought him many death threats over the years; he felt that he could no longer jeopardise his three daughters and two sons because of his work. On 21 August, Donald Trump gave a speech recommitting the US to its presence in Afghanistan. ‘We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,’ he said. Women’s rights, cited again and again over the years as the reason for maintaining that presence, was not mentioned.

Before I left Kandahar I met with Meena, the poet whose sister, Leila, had been murdered. She was dressed in mourning and smelled of sweet tobacco. We spoke through a translator. She denied ever having made comments about Jajo or Raziq. When we said goodbye, she pulled me in for the conventional three kisses on the cheek. After the third, she paused and whispered in my ear: ‘Call me, OK?’ I told her I would. She gave me two more kisses, one on each cheek, before leaving. I called a few days later, but she didn’t answer.

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Vol. 39 No. 20 · 19 October 2017

May Jeong interviews a woman entrepreneur in Kandahar, who tells her that the ‘fiasco around women’s rights’ did not ‘spring from the bottom up. It is something that was imposed from the outside’ (LRB, 7 September). That is not true of the women who were fighting for women’s rights under the Taliban before the American invasion and are now running women’s NGOs in Afghanistan. The Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan (SAWA-Australia) works with two of them and can vouch that they are grassroots organisations. They run literacy centres offering classes in English and computing in several cities, and educational centres in havens for orphans and girls brought to them by their families. In March a Kabul-based women’s NGO celebrated International Women’s Day in remote Farah province for the first time, in a health centre run by the NGO.

There is no doubt that attacks against initiatives to improve the situation of women are on the increase. Fundamentalist elements in Afghanistan now attack not only women but also those who support them. This is only partly the result of the Taliban’s having gained control in some provinces; the blame lies mainly with the government for not enforcing existing legislation and turning a blind eye to atrocities. But none of this will shake the determination of Afghan women’s grassroots organisations and their supporters to work for a new society in the cities, in the hope that eventually change will take hold in the rest of the country.

Matthias Tomczak
SAWA-Australia, Adelaide

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