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People & Power
Afghanistan: Girl Power
People & Power follows the young Afghan women taking the battle for gender equality onto the streets of Kabul.
Last Modified: 17 May 2012 13:24

NOTE: We have taken this edition of People & Power down from our website in response to a request from one of its central characters, Noorjahan Akbar. Following its broadcast on Al Jazeera she received threats from people objecting to her efforts to improve the human rights of women in Afghanistan. As viewers who have already seen the film will know, Noorjahan is a courageous young woman who has been campaigning imaginatively to advance gender equality in her country, where many women still routinely endure misogyny, prejudice, discrimination and violence. However we do not wish to add to the risks she faces and so out of respect for her wishes and in the interests of her safety we are suspending the screening facility that viewers would normally be able to access on this page. We will be monitoring the situation in the hope that it improves and we can restore normal service.

A film by Trevor Bormann, Wayne McAllister and ABC

More than a decade after the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan, the plight of the country's women remains dire, with threats and attacks by insurgents on women leaders, schoolgirls, and girls' schools, and harassment of women for "moral crimes" such as running away from forced marriages or domestic violence.

Despite the best efforts of the international community and some of the more 'enlightened' elements of the current Afghan government, the kind of aggressive ultra-misogyny that marked the Taliban years (when religious police forced all women off the streets of Kabul, and ordered people to blacken their windows so that women would not be visible from the outside) is still evident in parts of the country.

"I think when you are born a woman in Afghanistan you are taught every day to hate yourself .... We don’t know how to respect women, neither men nor women, no one knows it. Women don't respect themselves. This is how everyone is treated, every woman, any woman who dares to take off her burqa and walk like a human being is treated like this."

- Noorjahan Akbar, an activist and founder of Young Women for Change

But earlier this year the case of a 15-year-old girl named Sahar Gul was particularly shocking. There was international outrage when television pictures of her bruised and battered body being wheeled down a hospital corridor were shown around the world. She had just been rescued from weeks of imprisonment and torture at the hands of her husband's family.

Sold to the family to pay off a debt, Sahar Gul had refused to become a prostitute to bring in more money. Her 'punishment' was to be cut, burned with cigarettes, beaten to a pulp and have many of her fingernails ripped out. She was barely alive when police found her.

The tragedy, say campaigners, is that her story may be far from unique, it just happened to come to light. Women are mostly illiterate in this impoverished country, and they still do not enjoy anything near the freedom accorded to men.

Indeed their human rights are under constant pressure. Although these are supposedly enshrined in the Afghan constitution, as recently as 2009 a bill passed by the Afghan parliament sought to make it illegal for a woman from the country's Shia community to resist her husband's sexual advances. Another provision required a husband's permission for a woman to work outside the home or go to school. And a third proposed to make it illegal for a woman to refuse to "make herself up" or "dress up" if that is what her husband wanted.

The government later rowed back on some of these provisions, violence against women was made a criminal offence that same year, and there have since been improvements in education, maternal mortality, employment, and the role of women in public life and governance.

But for many Afghan women, especially those who challenge the status quo, deep-seated prejudice and discrimination are a fact of life. As a report from the NGO Human Rights Watch in March 2012 made clear: "Women … have suffered harassment, threats, and sometimes murder. Forced marriage, underage marriage, and domestic violence are widespread and too widely accepted."

The battle for gender equality

The fear is that with the 2014 departure of NATO troops drawing ever closer, the plight of Afghan women could actually worsen rather than improve. Whatever else they may be held responsible for, those forces have tried to use their leverage to promote and protect women's rights. When they go, any gains made could be reversed. Also likely to decrease is the foreign aid that pays for schools and clinics that have changed many lives. Afghan women dread being abandoned again by the rest of the world, as they were during the Taliban era.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the case of Sahar Gul was taken up by those seeking to advance women's rights. But what is unusual is just how powerful a motivating force her story has been to one of the more extraordinary and progressive of those campaigners.

"I see now a generation of amazing young women who are so progressive and smart and determined to make a change and to sustain change within society. There's this other extreme where I just see that in some ways men are going a bit backwards."

- Trudi-Ann Tierney, the head of drama at Tolo TV

Like Sahar Gul, Noorjahan Akbar is a teenager who grew especially close to Sahar Gul in the weeks following her rescue. But as this film from Australian journalist Trevor Bormann reveals, there is far more to the articulate 19-year-old Noorjahan Akbar than just being a kindly 'big sister' to a vulnerable younger girl recovering in hospital.

She set up a group called Young Women for Change which has been taking the battle for gender equality out onto the streets of the capital - eager to understand why Afghan men are still so uneasy with the notion of women's rights but determined to change those attitudes by persuasion, debate and example.

She says: "Almost every woman you ask in Afghanistan if she would rather be a man, she would say yes. I wouldn't, because now I realise that even though I am a woman in Afghanistan, there are many things I can do."

Can Norah and her group make a difference? Maybe, maybe not, but they will not give up trying.

There have been some very positive developments since the film was made, at least as far as Sahar Gul herself is concerned. She has now left hospital and is completing her recovery at a women's refuge. She has resumed her education and hopes one day to become a doctor and a women's leader. On May 1, 2012 a court in Kabul sentenced her father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law to 10 years in prison. Her husband and brother-in-law are still being sought by the police.

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