In the villages, too?
In the cities, we were wearing jeans or skirts and tights. The sleeves went up to here. (She points at her upper arm.) We went to work without a headscarf, and no one asked us: ‘Why do you dress like this?’ And this was the case despite the fact that Afghanistan was a very backward country, most women illiterate, not knowing anything about the modern world. Yes, in the villages the women wore the chador, but this was tradition and not imposed – not like today. In the Soviets’ time, there were the same freedoms as in Europe.
In those years, I spent some months at Kabul University, and many female students pulled over the chador when they left for home in the afternoon…
Yes, but why? Because the government already had no power anymore in the suburbs, but the mujahedin. And the mujahedin forced them to wear it. When the mujahedin were in power, even high-heel shoes were banned [because they made noises which could distract the men]. Under the Taleban, then, the women lost all their rights, social, economic and cultural rights. Even their being human was denied. They were confined to their homes.
Under the Taleban it was worse than under the mujahedin?
Exactly. Under the mujahedin, women were still allowed to work, but they were forced to wear the chadri [also known as burqa]. There were more and more limitations. It was war, and this did not leave the women space. Since the Taleban were toppled, the situation changed completely. We have achieved much, no one can close their eyes to this: our constitution, the growth of civil society, the support of the international community, the development in the private sector, the re-opening of the schools and universities, even positive discrimination, the role of women in the electoral process, in parliament and even the cabinet. We as civil society have access to the President, we were able even to influence draft laws, like the one about Shiite family law. We have successfully lobbied for a ban on violence against women by law. There are even shelters for women. Article 22 of the constitution stipulates that men and women are equal before the law. But we are not satisfied that things have become better compared to before; things are still not where they should be.
Why is that?
This has to do with the play of political forces: In government there are people who are not really convinced about democracy and equality. They only have been forced to pretend, when facing the international community, that they support gender politics. As long as the government is weak, as long as there is no good governance, as long as corruption is rampant, as long as warlords and commanders stand at the top of the state, as long as the culture of impunity continues to exist – parliament even has issued an amnesty for itself – and as long as transitional justice, a government duty, is given to oblivion, as long as outside Kabul neither security nor government authority exist, as long as girls are not able to attend school, as long as women and children are trafficked, forced marriages flourish, sexual harassment peaks and the number of self-immolations and suicides is growing and the future looks very bleak, women’s rights also will be neglected. Yes, we have laws, but only on paper, they are implemented.
When I travel to Khost or Uruzgan, I barely see women in the bazaar, even those wearing the burqa. Even if politically progressive people invite me, I am not introduced to their wives. Is this a result of war or the reflection of the Afghan society’s conservative character?
I think, we still have the same society as before the war. But much was imposed on the population. If you look at the women sitting in parliament, even from the province you mentioned – who has supported them? Their husbands, brothers – their families. From Nimruz, there are only women representatives! What I mean is: Society has changed. Its mentality now accepts political participation of women. When a woman sits next to a fundamentalist in parliament, this alone is progress. Sure, those are the educated women, teachers, engineers, doctors. But for those women, their families are no problem anymore. When an illiterate woman is beaten by her husband at home, she would say: This diminishes my sins. Who is illiterate does not have many demands.
When western governments intervened in Afghanistan, they justified this with the protection of women’s rights, amongst other things. Now, they want to negotiate with the Taleban, and there is the fear that they might be ready to sacrifice women’s rights in this process. Was the West honest in 2001?
Yes, of course, we are worried when were hear about talks, indirectly or through the High Peace Council – and that there might be political games played with our achievements, our values of human rights and our constitution. It is our expectation from the international community that this does not happen. When the foreigners intervened in Afghanistan, it was really the first time in all our history that the Afghans supported this – because they came in the name of democracy, freedom and security – and in the name of women’s rights. Now, when they withdraw again, we will see what was achieved. But much of it, as said, only exists on paper, and we are not able to predict whether this will be safeguarded. At the same time, our situation has incredibly deteriorated. The people are demoralised, and when people lose their hope for the future, this is very dangerous.
Does this already have repercussions on western support for the defence of women’s rights in Afghanistan?
Yes, the West’s interest in women’s rights has weakened. One example is that we have not received funding from the UN for our shelters. What does this show? Women’s rights are not a priority on the West’s agenda anymore. When politicians are talking about Afghanistan today, women’s rights are mentioned less and less, and less than before. We are not against peace and reconciliation. But what kind of peace? We do not need a despotic calm. We do not agree with those who say that we will bring peace to Afghanistan, but at the cost of despotism and our rights.
What will the future of civil society organisations look like after the western withdrawal in 2014?
The withdrawal is a problem: When donor countries leave, many organisations will be forced to close. All their budgets come from external sources. The West’s support also was not sustainable but rather project-oriented. I do not believe, though, that support for the AIHRC will be slashed – but Afghanistan need further support also after 2014. By the way, the support of civil society is also one of the UN’s duties.
Another achievement often mentioned in political speeches is the figure of six million children back at school…
Yes, but they do not mention how many children do not attend school because of the worsening security situation. We hear from many provinces that girls are prevented from attending schools, that schools are burnt down, that there are threats against girl students. And look at the situation of the schools themselves! How many of these six million students will finish school? Most of them only make it to class 4, maybe one million to class 12. Most girls stay only up to class 6 because there are no secondary girls’ schools in many areas. And if there are, they are too far away from the girls’ homes. Because of insecurity and poverty many families also try to marry of their daughters in an early age. The victims of such circumstances are primarily girls.
Also government is becoming more conservative. Is this the influence of the Taleban already?
Even the democrats speak more carefully now. They do not know whether they, if they expose themselves, get home alive. There is the impression that the enemies of democracy are already waiting and that one needs to self-censor oneself. This affects all our politicians. They have lost their hope and became very conservative. This also drives corruption forward: Because no one knows how the situation will continue, everybody just thinks about himself and how to loot and fill one’s own pockets. Hopelessness spreads amongst the population; often families sell their property to send sons or daughters abroad. We have our past experience and are afraid that this can be repeated.
A shorter version of this interview was published in the September issue of Berlin-based developmental magazine Südwind (in German).
* Dr Sobhrang was born in Herat. She studied medicine in Kabul and Moscow. During the Taleban regime, she lived in exile in Pakistan and then for three years in Germany. From 2002 to 2006 she was Vice Minister for Women’s Affairs, then she was turned down by the Wolesi Jirga as President Karzai’s candidate for the ministership in the same portfolio. After this, she joined the AIHRC where she is responsible for women’s and children’s rights.