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Sitara is coping with the transition from student to wife/farmer/domestic servant -- she's one of the women from Kandahar interviewed for the Globe and Mail's six-part "Behind The Veil" series.

"My dreams are gone."

"It is already too late for me."

"My life has been destroyed."

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At first, the words pouring from the mouth of the girl with jewel eyes hemmed in kohl sound like a typical teenage lament.

Her tone is plain and without melodrama - she believes what she says. And there are plenty of reasons she should.

In the span of about one year, the 15-year-old, named Sitara, has been yanked out of school, off a path that hinted at promise, and sold by her father for 700,000 Afghanis (about $15,000) into a marriage that, already, she has "nothing left for."

"It seems like men take women as servants, so they can be abusive towards them," she explained in a hushed on-camera interview conducted secretly in Kandahar while her husband was at work. "It's not just the husband, there's also the mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and they all rule over me; … whenever I do something bad, anyone who gets angry with me beats me."

Rather than poring over textbooks, Sitara has spent most of her sophomore year willing herself to feel love for the illiterate, middle-aged Kandahari who is now her husband, learning to look after his family's livestock and reconfiguring her singed plans for the future into a form compatible with her new life as this wife.

"And even now, I don't want my husband," she said. "I come from a very open-minded family, but since I've come to this family, I feel that my life has been destroyed."

Having come of age in a time of great transition and new hope in her country, Sitara is keenly aware of how she was felled by its old traditions. Over the past eight years, Canada alone has spent $10-billion in its effort to rebuild Afghanistan; improving the situation of women in Kandahar - the most fundamentalist of Afghanistan's 34 provinces - was originally an intended byproduct of the mission.

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But lately, deteriorating security has forced Kandahar's women to began forfeiting gains they only recently won: They are quitting jobs instead of seeking them, dropping out of class rather than signing up, slipping on burkas instead of shedding them. And despite constitutional guarantees and legal changes aimed at providing equality to women and ending practices such as bride buying, the status of women these days is little changed from that of their forebears.

With the help of a local female videographer, The Globe and Mail set out to capture the lives of women who live in Kandahar, one of Afghanistan's most conservative, volatile cities. A combination of long-held traditions and poor security have long prevented the city's women from talking freely to journalists. For years, their stories have largely gone untold.

Over five weeks, 10 "average" women, ranging in age from 14 to 50 and in education from well schooled to illiterate, sat for on-camera interviews with an Afghan videographer, allowing The Globe unprecedented access. Each was each asked the same basic slate of questions (which were written by a Globe reporter but posed by an Afghan interviewer without the reporter present), exploring everything from their daily rhythms and hopes for the future to their thoughts on politics and whether they had ever driven a car.

Ten complex portraits emerged, offering a rare glimpse into the mundane - and sometimes disturbing - aspects of daily life in Kandahar. While no two stories are the same, the women all share a suffocating sense that the boundaries of their lives are predetermined and impenetrable.

This is partly a result of the war raging in their country. But it is chiefly because they are women rooted in the country's most conservative place.

Even Kandahar's most progressive females, some educated in the West, have been in retreat, slipping into traditional dress and roles to mute the progressiveness that - emboldened by slow reform in their country - some had begun to display. The reason? A surge in violence in Kandahar highlighted by a chilling series of assassinations of their female colleagues and friends.

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It's difficult to determine whether women in Kandahar are actually being targeted at an increased rate. But the answer is irrelevant to the city's women, who see themselves as more vulnerable now than any time since the collapse of Taliban rule in 2001.

In government buildings, at sewing circles and over meals, they have even begun to draw parallels between the present and the oppression they endured under the Taliban, which, among other restrictions, banned women from leaving the home, from laughing out loud, and which forced them to cover themselves from head to toe.

"I never expected security to deteriorate to the point where … in 2009, I think it's probably the same level or very close to the level … as during the Taliban for women," said Rangina Hamidi, a prominent women's activist who was born in Afghanistan but raised in Pakistan and the United States.

In 2003, Ms. Hamidi abandoned a comfortable life in the United States to return to Kandahar and help women here establish their rights.

Lately, though, she has found herself reflecting on the futility of her quest, which now takes a back seat to simply surviving in this "wild, wild west."

"Even I have started wearing the burka," she said in a recent interview after a tea-time chat with nearly 20 local women gathered in her office to discuss the situation.

"They were saying we would rather have the Taliban's time," Ms. Hamidi recounted. "A lot of them are not coming out of the house. A lot of them are fearful. They said that at least during the Taliban's time we were not being killed left and right, for no reason. When women were killed or beaten, there was a reason behind it. Right now, you don't need any reason to be killed or to be abused or to be abducted. … So women are saying, 'Forget it.'"

She added: "There are plenty of women I know who were working three or four years ago, and now they're just like, 'Why? Why risk it?'"

The sense of resignation comes despite the massive influx of aid and military support flooding the country. Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban comprising largely ultra-conservative Pashtuns, is no exception. Now a key hub of the U.S.-led international force in the country, the province has sucked up most of Canada's $10-billion effort in Afghanistan over the past eight years, and claimed a vast majority of the 131 Canadian soldiers who have died in the country.

That security problems still plague the province in spite of that investment - making it perhaps the most troubled area in this turbulent nation - has been well documented. Their subtle effects on the city's women have not.

In fact, the international spotlight, which focused in the early years of the war on the effort to have equal rights enshrined in the Afghan constitution and to rein in the country's harsher treatments of women has rarely focused on the women in Kandahar.

Then, last spring, the subject of women's rights in Afghanistan was shaken from dormancy when NATO leaders at a summit in Europe lit up international headlines with their condemnation of a new Afghan bill that appeared to impose Taliban-style restrictions on some women. Signed secretively by President Hamid Karzai, who won praise of some hard-line clerics for circumventing the parliamentary process to do so, the Shiite Personal Status Law banned women refusing sex with their husbands, for example, or leaving the home without his permission.

Outcry over the bill - including uproarious protests by women in Kabul - prompted Mr. Karzai to place it under review. Over the course of the summer it was revised (much of its controversial language watered down). It officially became law just before the presidential elections in August.

The spirit of the law raised fresh questions about what it's really like to live as a woman in Afghanistan's current climate.

While there have been small signs of progress in Kandahar - something Canada's Governor-General noted personally after visiting a classroom of women earlier this month - there has been little notice that, compared with some other parts of the country, the military intervention and subsequent inflow of development aid have had scant impact on the daily life of the average woman.

"Currently in Afghanistan, the lives of men and women are very different," said Sitara, the sparkly eyed teen, who grew up in the historic western city of Herat. Having gone to school until the age of 14, she lived a relatively progressive life until she was unceremoniously sold by her family to a Kandahari 20 years her senior. It's an act that is not uncommon among progressive-seeming fathers who allow young girls to attend school. In many cases, bride prices provide critical income that the families count on from the time of a daughter's birth.

Still, Sitara knows enough about women's rights to realize that on some level, she is owed them. But living in Kandahar - a backward town for her, compared with Herat - she has little hope her rights will be acknowledged.

"Male domination is very strong here," she said, hinting at the weight of her year-old marriage. "Women are under the influence of men, and men think of themselves as God.

"If the circumstances continue, I think the women's situation will get worse, because the rights of women are not respected, especially in Kandahar city."

By "circumstances," she means the war, but also the fear campaign that insurgents have targeted at women. Several high-profile women have been publicly assassinated.

Last April, Sitara Achakzai, a prominent politician in Kandahar, was shot dead by a pair of gunmen while she was riding home in a rickshaw after a meeting. Her killing shocked the bravest and most outspoken women of the city into various degrees of hiding. Among them were other female councillors who were advised by political elders to stay out of Kandahar if they wanted to stay alive. It also tempered the small, grassroots women's movement that has hung on in the city even as non-governmental organizations have shuttered their offices in favour of more habitable parts of the country.

"She was sweet and very lovely and nice to everybody," Ms. Hamidi said of Ms. Achakzai. The two were close friends. "Her attack, it's a more strategic attack [to create]fear, fear for the whole woman's population," she reasoned.

It worked. Not only did it at first silence Ms. Hamidi herself - a surprising feat, considering she is an outspoken activist who has allowed Western news organizations to portray her as a poster child for the emancipation of Kandahar's women - the fear trickled down into the city's poorest households.

"Every time I leave my home to go buy food, I ask God, 'Will I come back home or not?'" said Shukria, a struggling, 32-year-old mother of six who lives apart from her husband, an Afghan National Police officer.

Although she spends her days crocheting hats with aching fingers - she has taught her children to sew so the family can make more money - she is aware of the high-profile deaths. "Some of our sisters who are educated want to help the people, they want to support and guide us … ," she said. "They just kill them here, kill them in [the]street, beat them there."

For Ms. Hamidi, "a woman working for women," as she likes to describe herself, Ms. Achakzai's death hit even closer to home than an assassination attempt on her father, Ghulam Hayder Hamidi, staged last spring. Now the city's mayor, and thus a target of militants, Mr. Hamidi moved back to Kandahar after his daughter did, propelled by her early optimism.

Rangina Hamidi returned to Afghanistan in 2003, when the country was ripe with possibility after the end of Taliban reign. With a degree in women's studies and religion under her belt - she switched out of pre-med midway through university - she tried for more than a year to orchestrate a move from Virginia to war-torn Kandahar, which had tugged at her ever since a sightseeing trip she took with her father in 2002.

"The first time we drove here [in 2002] it was amazing. I mean, it felt good to be home. But there was so much devastation: no roads, no infrastructure, signs of warfare," she recalled. It was the worst situation Ms. Hamidi, who characterizes herself during that time as a "naïve, young, idealist, American," had ever seen.

"I just looked at it and said, 'My God. How much help … does this region need? That's when I made the decision [to return]" she remembers.

After landing a contract position with the aid group Afghans for Civil Society, Ms. Hamidi packed her bags.

"When I came, I thought maybe six months was a long enough time to give to my country … and teach all the women their rights and send them to school… ," she said, laughing.

"I think it was in a month and a half to two months that I realized, how much am I stupid for thinking that way. It's going to be a long battle."

And so Ms. Hamidi dug in, throwing herself into her work and into private projects, searching out opportunities to collaborate with international aid groups. In those times, even though the region's culturally imposed restrictions remained in place for most average women (such as those that dictate appropriate dress and female interaction with non-male relatives, for example), there were positive signs.

"The doors of education opened, so for those women who had permission, those girls who could have the support of their families, they could easily go to school in Kandahar city," she recalled. "Any woman who wanted to work outside of her home, there was no fear of coming out and working. By 2005 to late 2005, I saw women slowly taking the burka off in Kandahar city. They would still come out covered in long scarves, and the face still very closely covered, but that was still a sign of progress," she said.

This gradual unveiling was stunted in late 2006 by four bullets militants pumped into the burka-covered head of Kandahar's best-known woman in a style of killing that has since become formulaic.

Sixty-three-year-old Safia Amajan - her last name is a nickname she adopted, which translates to "dear aunt" - was killed in view of her husband and teenage son by militants on a motorbike as she set out for work. Head of the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar, she was internationally known as a leader of Pashtun women's emancipation. A former schoolteacher, she had held secret classes for women during Taliban times. Former U.S. president George W. Bush even issued a statement after her death, which some argue marked the city's first contract killing of a senior woman.

Then, last fall, high-profile policewoman Malalai Kakar, an internationally recognized but locally controversial figure and symbol of female empowerment, was similarly killed. On her way to work in the morning, she and her chauffeur son were showered with bullets as militants zoomed by.

After her, militants shot down Sitara Achakzai.

Who will be next? The question plays constantly on Ms. Hamidi, who has dialled back her work and implemented several security strategies aimed at avoiding finding herself in the crosshairs.



"To be honest, right now, even though I'm a very hard-core feminist … right now for Kandahar, women's rights … is my last priority. Right now my Number 1 priority is security - safety and security," she said.

"If I can't live to do the work that I'm doing, and if I have to live every second of my life in fear, knowing that I could be killed the next second, how can I possibly think of my rights? How can I possibly think of anybody's rights?"

Without women like Ms. Hamidi to push the agenda, there is no promise anyone else will take up the cause.

"Many women in public life have been forced to curtail their activities or abandon their jobs, lacking confidence that the authorities are able or willing to provide them with protection," declared a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released earlier this year.

"The Government is failing to adequately protect the rights of women in Afghanistan despite constitutional guarantees and its international obligations," the high commissioner charged, warning, "Important gains made recently by women in the public sphere are in danger of receding."

It's a dangerous tipping point for a country with nearly 24 million people, almost half of whom are women, given the already cloudy outlook. In 2004, the UN Gender Development Index, a measure used to make international comparisons of women's equality, rated Afghanistan second last in the world.

"Gender [equality]is so important because, especially in a country that's in a developing stage - which maybe is being generous in the case of Afghanistan - gender [equality]means having all 100 per cent of your human resources available," said Karen Christie, a senior development officer for the Canadian International Development Agency. She recently finished a one-year posting at Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team outpost inside Kandahar city.

In parts of Afghanistan, including in Kabul, recognition has set in that women's participation will help the country advance beyond its critical development stage.

But in Kandahar, as violence has escalated - male government, army and police officials are routinely assassinated; suicide bombers have blown up both the provincial council offices and the gates of the governor's mansion this year - gender issues have been reduced to a footnote on the broader agenda.

The city has witnessed the shuttering, over the past couple of years, of "three big offices and big donors" who had provided female-specific aid and training, said Rona Tareen, the current director of the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar. With the amount of government money earmarked for women's issues melting away, the donors' retreat has severely hamstrung the department, Ms. Tareen said.

"We have many women in remote districts. We can't go there to speak with them or find the work for them, to find a job for them," she said, adding, "I am in this office like a prisoner."

Nasrine Gross is an Afghan-American feminist and professor at Kabul University who won a grant during the country's first election to hold rights and democracy-related training sessions for female parliamentarians and provincial councillors from 16 provinces. But concern for her life has kept her from Kandahar.

"The Pashtun belt slowly but surely has been closed to the rest of the country," she explained. "I hardly ever hear anybody saying, 'Oh, I went and had a trip to Kandahar.' It's almost like a different country. Nobody goes to it, and very few people come from it."

Kandaharis "must feel really abandoned by the rest of us Afghans," she said.

They certainly don't have much expectation of being helped. Women with public profiles are lying low for now, travelling by night to avoid being seen and taking their husbands to meetings to play down any suspicion they might be conducting business. Others seem resigned to drift wherever fate carries them, including Sitara, who insists, at 15, her life is "over."

Compared with the beginning of the war, when the rush was on to establish timetables to end forced marriage (by 2008, a date long passed), to equalize men and women under the law (written into the constitution in 2004) and to increase female participation in government (targeted for 2010), her prospects do seem less promising.

Ms. Gross, the Kabul academic, said she believes that including the equal-rights clause in the constitution had the opposite of its intended effect - it caused women's rights groups to turn away from Afghan women, believing their problems were solved.

"The feminist movement has totally stopped worrying about Afghan women," she said, adding that without their tough scrutiny, the patriarchal traditions have been allowed to endure. "Afghanistan [in general]has become more patriarchal, less open to women in its establishment. Kandahar is even worse," she said.

Suhaila, the 39-year-old chief of economics at the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar interviewed by The Globe, insists the subordination of women "has become like a law." This is strengthened by an unwritten tribal code of honour called pashtunwali, which many ethnic Pashtuns adhere to more closely than the law. The code revolves around men's ability to protect and control women's bodies and behaviour.

"If a man leaves the house, no one pays attention to him. But if a woman leaves the house, everyone looks down upon her," lamented Suhaila, who said she is allowed to work because her "husband is educated and his family is open minded."

"This law will only be abolished when there is more security," she said, adding: "When there is better security, women's situation improves, their problems get solved. When security is bad, and they can't leave their houses, their problems and miseries remain the same."

Waiting to see whether the pendulum will shift back in Kandahar, Ms. Hamidi is mentally wrestling over whether to stick to her figurative guns or get out before she becomes a bull's eye.

"I'm juggling two things. On the one hand, it's my passion to be here and work here and support the people I'm working with," she said. "But on the other hand, it's only logical thinking that I'm questioning for the first time, is it worth my life?"

If only she could ask the women who really know that answer.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Before taking on the global food beat, Jessica reported extensively from Haiti to document the nation's recovery from a catastrophic earthquake that struck in January, 2010. The resulting multimedia series, Project Jacmel, won a National Newspaper Award. Jessica has also reported from Afghanistan. More

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