For a Generation of Afghan Women, US Foreign Policy Changed Everything

By Sitara Sadaat, PRI

Since 2001, the US has spent an estimated $1.5 billion on improving women's lives in Afghanistan.

What has it been like to be on the receiving end of this attention? More Afghan women are in school and employed in jobs. Maternal mortality has decreased. Yet others say the funds were wasteful and mismanaged, and a patriarchal culture remains. More needs to change.

I remember when the Taliban arrived in Kabul. The girls' schools were closed and women were not allowed to go outside without a man from their family. Home turned into prison for women, and only a bunch of men with black and white turbans could free these imprisoned birds from the cage.

We lived in Block, Macroyan, Kabul and were not even allowed to look out of the window. I still remember I was taking my sister to the doctor, and two other girls were walking next to us. They wore burquas and pants, but their ankles and feet were visible. I recall their feet were covered with henna, which are tattoos to celebrate weddings.

A car appeared and from inside men shouted — "you girls stop walking." We thought they might be calling us and walked faster. Suddenly, I heard a shout and I look around to see men in black turbans jump from the back of the vehicle and beat on the shoulder of the girls with a cable.

He kept saying "lower your pants" to cover her ankles. A teenage boy standing nearby took the girls away to protect them. “Cousin," I overheard him say kindly. “Come here. They are always barking like dog."

Even under the Taliban, people listened to music and watched films secretly. They drew curtains and kept tight the windows and doors. Despite these precautions, many times informants told the Taliban, and they would rush into people's homes to break the TVs, and detain the men.

The most barbaric act I experienced was when they blackened people's faces with charcoal and cycled them around the city to shame them. One day, I was reading a criminal novel by an Iranian writer when I heard a noise. We all ran and looked out the window. A man's face was blackened with charcoal and a crowd of folk were after him. The Taliban lashed him and made him say, "whoever does adultery will also be in my situation."

The man kept repeating this, and all the people were laughing.

The people got tired of the Taliban brutality and became frustrated with the world's apathy. We were especially frustrated with the inaction of the US and its allies, so-called saviors of democracy and humanity. Many Afghans didn't see a future and fled the country. Suddenly 9/11 happened and Afghanistan caught the attention of the world.

The attacks of September 2001 were a disaster. Many Americans lost loved ones. But, for Afghans it was an opportunity. It opened a new chapter in history. Since the US invasion and the accompanying surge in US aid, schools have opened and women have had the chance to participate in society without wearing burqas. They've been able to get involved in politics and social activities.

I was a young teenager in 2001 and my life has opened up since then. I have achieved so much. I finished school and got my first degree in social science; I'm pursuing a second degree in politics. Many of my dreams have come true — I published my poems and stories and also took painting course. Now I am a poet, a painter, I have a degree and I'm optimistic I will publish my first novel and obtain my masters in the very near future.

Other things changed after the US arrived: I am able to walk around the city and travel without a man. I have access to a wide range of communication via internet, and I have many friends abroad.

I am able to email — use new technology like Facebook and Twitter. Before, I didn't know any of my relatives lived aboard. Nor did they know me. Now, it looks like we live in the same house, because we are in regular touch via Skype. We celebrate Eid and the New Year together. They even help me with my studies.

Many of my friends are active in society. They pursue master's degrees and socialize freely. They work in media and civil society, and speak different languages. They attend different international conferences and training. Women are able to prove themselves — that they are not lesser then men and are capable of anything.

My neighbors throw parties without fear of dancing and singing. It cheers me up when I see they are happy and have a normal life.

Some of my neighbors are very conservative and only allow their daughters to go to school until fifth grade. One of my neighbors is a very traditional and conservative Pashtun man. His daughter finished school and she was admitted to medical school. She and her mother have been able to convince her father to let her become a doctor. This is a big step and huge change.

Though, these benefits are not distributed evenly throughout Afghanistan. While life in the city is better, for the majority of women in the countryside, life has not changed. And I can become disappointed too, because I am still not always treated fairly. Women have high expectations now, and they are not always met.

The US policy on women has provided many opportunities to youth, including projects to empower women like the Fulbright program, which provides education opportunities for thousands of Afghan youth. The US has also increased social and political involvement for women and there's American University of Afghanistan, which provides quality education and offers scholarships to poor families.

One successful woman is 26-year-old mother and feminist Zubaida Akbar. She working to get a law degree while working for Save the Children. She's also the found of an NGO, Hadia, that promotes women's issues.

"I have a voice; I can partake in the social and political life of my country. I was able to continue my education. I can work. But it is not the same for all Afghan women. Women living in remote areas of the country are not able to enjoy these rights," she says. "The legal system is still very weak and male dominant. Women are not supported by the legal system. Justice does not prevail when women face violence and abuse. Even the laws are unfair towards women."

For example, she says, women can be married at age 16, which is child marriage.

It's unfortunate that all women do not have the same opportunities as me.

Women in remote area still suffer from domestic violence and poverty. Violence against women has escalated.

Forced marriage, wide-spread sexual harassment and child abuse are still common. There's more. Many women who are victims of violence are helpless because of the corrupt judicial and male dominated system. There is no doubt the country is far from being a model of gender equality.

Afghanistan missed many opportunities because of unqualified leadership and mismanagement by both Afghans and their international allies. None of them were truly committed to what they promised.

A bunch of corrupt and incapable warlords and those who have lived abroad seized power and have only thought to line their pockets. The international community hasn't done its duty.

Millions of dollars were spent on short-term projects, ostensibly to change women's lives. But, much of the money went to NGOs, powerful people in the government and even back to donor countries. No one is accountable for where all the money went. President Bush promised to help Afghanistan, but after invading Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan was forgotten.

Since 2010, we've seen some of our gains deteriorate. A rising number of suicide attacks and unemployed leave me disappointed. People, especially youth, have left the country.

But, when I see women in parliament and the workplace, girls going to school and Afghan athletes bringing honor to the country, it makes me extremely optimistic about the future.

Afghanistan is in a transition period. Many countries across the world have experienced the same situation, but now they are peaceful and stable. I hope to see Afghanistan among the peaceful and advanced countries one day.

Afghan journalist Sitara Sadaat is a member of The Fuller Project for International Reporting and Sahar Speaks.