It's a slow revolution for Afghanistan's women

KABUL, Afghanistan — Humira Saqeb does not look like a fighter. The diminutive 20-something, with her calm demeanor and serene smile, could be anything from a young housewife to a graduate student. But the somber black dress and embroidered scarf hide the heart of a revolutionary, intent on changing society, albeit in slow, measured steps.

Saqeb is the editor of a new magazine, Negah-e-Zan (A Vision of Women), whose mission, as she puts it, is to “tell women that we have great ideas, and the ability to make those ideas a reality.”

For this radical thought, she is already facing death threats. She has closed the magazine’s offices, and for now is working mostly out of her home.

Negah-e-Zan, which contains interviews with prominent women both in Afghanistan and abroad, does not look like a ticking bomb. It is printed mostly in black and white, on newsprint paper, and borrows heavily from the internet. One of the first two issues contains a biography and photo essay on Hillary Clinton; another contains the story of Princess Diana.

There are also snippets from Afghan history, such as the tale of Queen Soraya, who in the 1920s appeared unveiled in public, leading to a brief period of greater freedom for Afghan women and the eventual deposing of her husband, King Amanullah Khan.

Pretty tame stuff, it would appear.

The magazine, which has been running for five months, has managed to publish just two issues. Due to budget constraints, they print only 3,000 copies, which are distributed free of charge at universities and government offices that deal with women's issues, such as the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Advertising covers only about one-third of the magazine’s expenses, according to Saqeb.

Negah-e-Zan is directed at the small minority of Afghan women who can read — estimated at less than 20 percent, according to the United Nations. Outside of Kabul, the publication would be unlikely to find much of a market.

Nevertheless, even in the relatively progressive streets of the capital, many see the magazine as a menace, attacking the very basis of the country’s male-dominated society.

Saqeb began receiving threatening telephone calls after running a back cover containing a photo of a woman’s hands. On one palm is written “woman,” on the other “man,” with an equal sign on the thumbs.

“They would call and tell me ‘stop this magazine or we will stop you,’” Saqeb, a mother of three, said. “They said ‘stay home with your children, running a magazine is not a fit job for a woman.’”

Few issues stir emotions in Afghanistan as fiercely as the topic of women’s rights, which runs counter to cultural and, in some cases, religious norms.

Saqeb is not the first journalist to face repression because of her commitment to greater opportunities for women.

Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, who edited a magazine called Huquq-e-Zan (Women’s Rights), was imprisoned for several months in 2005 because he dared to question the religious and legal restrictions on women. In Islam, for example, a woman’s testimony in court is given only half the weight of a man’s, which Nasab deemed unfair.

Questioning these laws is more than frowned upon — it is considered heretical. Nasab was charged with blasphemy, which is a capital offense. He was eventually freed, following sustained protests by journalists and international human rights groups.

Parwez Kambakhsh, a young journalism student in Mazar-e-Sharif, spent two years in jail, narrowly escaping the death penalty, for allegedly downloading materials from the internet that criticized Quranic injunctions on women.

For many Afghans, “men and women are equal” is not a slogan, it is a challenge to the most fundamental beliefs of the society.

While women have made gains since the fall of the Taliban, progress has been slow. Girls are now able to attend school, although they make up a much lower percentage of classes than boys. According to United Nations surveys, only 30 percent of girls reach the fifth grade, versus more than 55 percent of boys. Only a very small minority of girls makes it to secondary and higher education.

Child marriage is also common; the United Nations estimates that more than 40 percent of all marriages involve girls under the legal age limit of 16.

Saqeb herself was a child bride, given away by her parents when she was a young teen. Still in her mid-20s, she has a 10-year-old daughter, as well as another daughter age 8 and a newborn baby girl.

But she is the rare exception to the rule — she has been able to complete her education, holding a degree in psychology from Kabul University. Her husband, she said, has been a great help and support.

“I was married very young,” she smiles. “I was not old enough to formulate what I wanted in life. But in general I am happy with the choice my parents made for me.”

While Saqeb considers herself lucky, she understands the problem that many other girls and women face in her country.

“Afghanistan is a very patriarchal society,” she said. “In a family, boys are given preference. They will be sent to private schools, perhaps, while the girl is given little or no education. We need to make people understand that children should be treated equally, regardless of gender.”

But deep-seeded cultural attitudes cannot be changed by law or by fast-track programs. Saqeb smiles indulgently at those who think that the situation of Afghan women will radically improve any time soon.

“We are trying to change a society, a culture,” she said. “This is a slow movement. You have to work with families, with both men and women. Nothing is going to happen overnight.”

But she bristles a bit at a recent cover of TIME magazine showing Bibi Aisha, a young woman whose husband cut off her nose and ears to punish her for running away from an abusive marriage. This is not the face of Afghan women she would like to show the world.

“On the one hand, we have to cover issues like this, or these practices will never stop,” she said. “The man who did this did not think he was committing a crime — he did not even think of her as a person. We have to show how inhuman these actions are. But we have women professors as well. That is not reflected here.”

Saqeb is all for negotiations with the Taliban, as long as women’s rights are not sacrificed for politics. But when asked whether she thinks that the Taliban would respect the gains, however modest, that women have made over the past nine years, she shakes her head a bit sadly.

“No, it is impossible,” she said.

Many women’s groups have spoken out against the growing calls for negotiations with the Taliban, fearing that a deal with the fundamentalists will mean a return to the nightmare years when women could not work, attend school, or even leave the house unaccompanied.

Now that the United States has begun to support calls for peace talks, the prospect of some kind of political accommodation with the fundamentalists is gaining more weight.

One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity in an earlier interview, agreed that women in Afghanistan are right to be concerned, despite assurances from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and a host of others that human rights will be a top priority in any negotiations.

“The United States will never go to the wall on women’s rights,” she said. “The talk is for the domestic audience. If it is in [their] political interests they will cave in.”

Saqeb looks with some trepidation at the future, but insists she is not afraid.

“I am careful,” she said. “I am not reckless. But if I were afraid I would never be able to continue.”