May Jeong

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.

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