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Afghan Women Struggle for Basic Rights - 2001-10-24

The status of women living in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan is well known. But Irris Makler found that in parts of the north of the country controlled by the opposition to the Taleban, women also find their lives restricted by a strict interpretation of Islam.

Facilities are simple at a state girls' school in Khodja Bahoudin in northern Afghanistan. There are six mud brick classrooms, with girls from 5-15 years old sitting on mats on the floor. But these girls are the lucky ones. Unlike most young women in Afghanistan, they are receiving an education.

They learn their tables, the old fashioned way, in a country where it is estimated that only 15 percent of women can read and write. Since the Taleban came to power and closed girls' schools in parts of the country under its control, that low level of literacy is falling further.

The girls at this school know they are fortunate and they have aspirations. Fourteen-year-old Nachitsa says she wants to continue her education. "I want to study literature and math," she says. "I want the war to come to an end and then I want more rights for women to study."

Women's lives and opportunities are severely restricted in this region. First by economics - Khodja Bahaudin is a desert village, suffering through Afghanistan's worst drought in more than 70 years, with the region's poverty exacerbated by ongoing civil war.

There are also the strict local Islamic customs. Khodja Bahaoudin's regional commander is a traditionalist, who enforces the customs rigidly.

Women's faces are never seen in public. They wear a head to foot cloak, a burka, at all times, with only a small mesh screen enabling them to see. They are not permitted to go to the local market or even to some local hospitals.

"Our society has a very small mind for women. They [think a] woman is like a material. They can sell [them], they can buy [them], they can beat [them], they can hit them," says Faranoz Nasir, an Afghan health worker employed by international aid agency Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

Her life story is typically Afghan, one of relocation and flight, moving her family over and over again often just ahead of Taleban troops. She was university educated in Soviet times, and chooses not to wear the burka, though she does wear a scarf at all times.

But when she moved to this northern region six months ago, and tried to establish a women's group to teach local women English and hygiene she received death threats.

NASIR: "Because of that we become careful, we do not want to push women to die, because of that we become slowly by slowly."

MAKLER: Did you take those threats seriously?

NASIR: Yes, I take those threats seriously because I have children and a husband and for them I am afraid always.

Regional commander Qosi Kobir refused her permission to teach local women to read and write, or to hold baby health classes. Instead, Faranoz set up these classes under the umbrella of Doctors Without Borders for refugee women in the camps that ring Khodja Bahaoudin.

"We start from the Koran, and now they are reading very well," she explains. "We also give health education and in this group no one is sick, and nobody have thin babies."

But these achievements do not influence the local authorities. Faranoz is still not permitted to hold similar classes for women in the town.

She hopes this will not become standard treatment for women, by any new government in Afghanistan, but she is not optimistic. She believes that the West may have to step in to protect the rights of women in Afghanistan.