Afghan women dice with death to work

The Telegraph

She also runs an organisation that helps women become economically self-sufficient, setting up small enterprises such as raisin mills and textile factories, and convincing other businesses to take them on.

Her charity, which is called the Mahjoba Herawi Organisation, has also been threatened and she has had to flee some areas of Afghanistan back to the relative safety of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital.

The threats, she said, come from the Taliban, Islamists who still hold sway across no-go areas of the south, often in tandem with drug traffickers.

“I am very afraid of the situation in Helmand province because despite reports that it is secure, it is not secure, it is not safe.

“I have been warned to stop working, to stop encouraging other women to work,” she said in Lashkar Gah, drawing a pink cotton shawl over her tinted hair and breaking off to take a call on her mobile phone.

Subhanzada’s organisation works with impoverished, widowed and disabled women in 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, mostly on the eastern and southern borders.

It is in these areas, particularly Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar, that the Taliban are strongest and where the plight of Afghan women can be harshest.

In traditional Afghan society, women can be married off very young to men who can take up to four wives, and are kept mostly indoors. Very few of them work.

But things were much worse when the Taliban controlled the country of 26 to 30 million from 1996 until they were overthrown in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

During that time, women were not permitted outside their homes without male relatives, were banned from education and could be beaten in the street for such perceived transgressions as wearing white shoes, which were regarded as offensive because the Taliban’s flag is an austere white.

“There is no comparison between now and during the Taliban times,” said Fawzia Olumi, head of the Helmand government’s women’s department.

“Now we have women involved in everything here, they are police, government workers, run businesses.”

But things are far from perfect, she said.

Not 20 kilometres (12 miles) away on a poppy-producing plain in the central Helmand river valley, 15,000 US, Nato and Afghan soldiers are involved in a major operation to drive the Taliban from one of their strongholds in the province.

Commanders say that the operation has largely succeeded in driving militants out of Marjah and Nad Ali, though pockets of resistance and innumerable crude bombs remain.

“Security is the main challenge in the development of programmes we have planned for women in this province,” said Olumi.

“There are suicide attacks and bombs,” she said, most recently on February 28 when a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban killed 11 civilians, including women and children.

“It’s a threat for all people. We do not have a good situation in most of the districts of Helmand, and it prevents people from leaving their homes. But it also becomes an excuse for men to make their women stay indoors.

“Our first demand from the government is to provide security, and when we have security then we can move forward.”

But while Olumi and Subhanzada worry, the younger generation of Helmand women seem to relish a freedom they take for granted.

Sixteen-year-old Sunila Arzu said she does not even believe that the Taliban still poses a threat to the lives of Afghan women.

“I have never come across it myself and find it hard to believe it is anything more than media reports,” she said as she operated a camera for a programme on International Women’s Day Monday for state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA).

With her friend Lina Raheemi, 17, she works part-time at RTA and says she plans to finish school, go to university and then become a journalist.

“The biggest difference between my mother and me is that right now, she is at home doing nothing and I am here working as a journalist,” said Lina, wielding a microphone and wearing the white high heels that are now the height of fashion in Lashkar Gah.

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