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12. July 2005

Saliha © Martina Handler

Saliha, the director of our centre.

Teacher © Martina Handler/WwB

Our Country My Role Workshop © Martina Handler/WwB

Women at a workshop with the Women without Borders handbook "Our Country My Role".

Martina Handler in Nimruz © Martina Handler/WwB

Teacher © Martina Handler/WwB

Afghan woman © Martina Handler/WwB

Nimruz © Martina Handler/WwB

english course © Martina Handler/WwB

Women participating in the English course in our women´s center in the Nimruz province, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan - "No Future" or never give up.

Martina Handler travelled to Afghanistan in June to visit our women´s center in Zaranj, Nimruz province.

In numerous interviews with teachers and women attending the courses, she had the possibility to evaluate and document this project and to be informed at first hand about the current situation, the daily life of women in the region.
Please read a background story.

Zaranj, Afghanistan. The capital of the province Nimruz in the south-west is 10 minutes by car from the Iranian border.This city with a population of between 70 and 100, 000 is considered to be an important location for black marketing for Iran and Pakistan. On the local market bazaar the Iranian Toman is exclusively used. Nobody is aware of the direct exchange rate for the Afghani. US dollars are most appreciated.

Zaranj is a desert city. On a windier day, the hectic hustle in the streets, which are now being covered with cement one after the other, dies down to nothing, although this day in my perception may not vary much from any other day on which occasional gusts of wind will cocoon everything in a cloud of sand, dust and dirt.
“Today there is a ‘sand-storm-day’,” I’m being told, “nobody steps out the house on such a day, unless you really have to”. Naturally- while I’m being driven by a chauffeur, most of the Zaranjis, the women, have to cross the city by foot. Alone the 45 degrees and the blazing sun will make your journey quite uncomfortable, however, if there is an imminent cloud of sand every few metres the journey becomes almost impossible to continue.

Wais, my chauffeur, a 14-year-old nevertheless does not lack savoir vivre, he speaks English and considers himself to be a computer genius. Saliha is his mother. “If your 14 year old son can drive a car, then why can’t you?” I ask her. “I would like to, but I do not have any time.” she responds. Despite the family’s progressiveness everything remains the same. Everything? „Here in Zaranj there are three women who drive their cars themselves.“ Saliha tells me. I am ardent. At the end of term party at the girls school I get to meet one of the three brave female drivers, a young girl in fact, she still attends school.

In the middle of the city centre, in the courtyard of the Naswan Girls High School, the only girls high school institution in the city, our ‘Women’s Education Centre” is located. The central and protected location (the high walls all around the school area protects the girls from unwanted male ‘fence-visitors) is praised everywhere. Saliha, the director of the girls school is also in charge of our project.

Saliha is also a politician. She sees herself as the most progressive and active woman in the province. When one listens to her there is no doubt that she is. The visit at the province governor on the first day is obligatory. I am a bit astound that he receives us immediately. Saliha announced our visit. He sits in front of us in a huge fauteuil, which resembles more a throne than a chair and which communicates a feeling of audience to this meeting (the splendid marble, gold and Persian- rug equipped room only adds to this feeling). Saliha however, talks to him like one would with a good old acquaintance. In an unwatched moment I ask her why he puts on this collegiality, if they are really friends? Laughingly she tells me “He is scared of me, because I am strong. Many people here say I am a witch. They have respect for me.”

Since the fall of the Taliban Saliha represented her province with both Loya Jirgas as a delegate. She is confident that she will achieve a seat in parliament. All parties consider her to have good chances. Nimruz will send one female and one male delegate into parliament. Due to the fact that there are only four female candidates, the women have a proportionally bigger chance than the men. Only at the ‘Graduation Party’ of the High school graduates do I realize that Saliha is something of a star. Everyone wants to shake her hand or get their photo taken with her. In this kind of environment she is sure to receive the popular vote...

During the days of my arrival the summer holidays begin, they will last for three months. In the upcoming months the heat is projected to rise by a considerable amount and the Helmand River, which forms the border to Iran, will dry out completely. In light of this we decide to buy air-conditioning for the big classroom and ventilators for the computer-room and the bureau. This should ensure that work can be done by our centre during the very hot summer months. In comparison to many other provinces the supply of electricity in Zaranj is very good. The electricity comes from the neighbouring Iran. However, this also increases the dependency on Iran, to the annoyance of many here. I hear that sometimes, Iran simply cuts the electricity supply to Zaranj. Sometimes there will not be any electricity for days. Nobody can answer my question as to why this happens. There are no reasons I hear, it is purely arbitrary.

I am driving to the Iranian border. Although the Helmand River today is not at its greatest height it is still impressive, in the middle of the desert, so much water! The Afghan riverbanks contain numerous sand-dunes, while in stark contrast, the Iranian side appears in all shades of green. I ask how this came about.

Maryam, a 19 year old participant of our English and Computer course, represents the young female potential. Her answer is critical: “I am sceptical towards any change and so called help from which comes from abroad. There should not be any interference from outside, like from Pakistan, when they sent the Taliban or the USA, who send their soldiers. For example, we have a river in Nimruz however, the water goes to Iran, we may receive one or two drops. This is why our farmers cannot cultivate crops. And instead of doing something about their situation they wait for help from abroad.” I ask Maryam how Afghanistan could change this situation, how they should face their powerful neighbour, Iran. As though completely self-evident she explains. “The government could do something. There was a contract between Daud Shab, the former King of Afghanistan and the Iran. When the king died this contract lost its validity. They should give us out land and they should not interfere. The take all our water and much more, just like that, for free, and we don’t have any drinking water, no green trees, nothing. If the people would get together, they could possibly start new negotiations. But the people don’t want to do anything and the government also doesn’t want to work for their country.”

Nimruz is one of the most progressive and modern provinces in Afghanistan, I learn. I would like to believe this and the many educated young women who come to our center support this fact. Most of them lived in Pakistan or Iran just a few years ago. They are happy to be back in their country, they tell me. Especially the women returning from Iran can gain something from the desert city in the middle of nowhere. The statement “In Iran we could not do anything” irritated me. Isn’t the Iran a developed country, equipped with modern comforts? Instead Zaranj appears to me like the end of the world. In Zaranj there are no telephones, no internet and television only via satellite.

In Iran they were only tolerated but not supported, the young women tell me. Some of them could not even go to school because they had to leave behind all their papers during their flight. The argument “There we could not take part in electoral processes, in Afghanistan our voice counts. Here we can vote and along with everyone else decide upon the future of our country.”, I get to hear a couple of times in Zaranj. I ask two sixteen year old girls what they mean - voting age in Afghanistan is eighteen. They both giggle and Sahar, my interpreter explains, “On the voting card they marked their age as eighteen so that they could vote.” I am happy for them, for their little prank.

The picture of the women in Zaranj remains an ambivalent one. Nobody, at school or at the women’s center, wants to talk about the women who do not have any rights and who are not being educated. They exist, that is for certain and I am told that time is needed until the attitude of the men and old traditions change. Violence against women? “This is a modern society. The freedom for women increased over the past years, especially through the positive influence of the many returning families.”, I get to hear. That women have rights appears to be the basic consensus in Nimruz. Proudly Saliha brings forth the argument that Nimruz at the presidential elections last fall had the greatest percentage of female voters in comparison to the other countries.

Naturally, they also exist here, robbed of their rights, the suppressed women. We visit a Pashtun family. The women are happy to see us. They are not allowed to leave the house by themselves. They are illiterate because the men do not allow them to go to school. This also applies to the younger generation, the young girls, nothing should change for them either. I am concerned and impressed by these strong personalities who vociferously and frankly tell me about their problems, which seem so insolvable that I could not find any words. Without ever to have had the chance to get to know the world, they know exactly what they want. To learn how to read and write is their greatest wish. They would also like to participate at the votes. Najeeba, the health-adviser from our project, who visits all families to teach them about hygiene matters, promises them that on the election day she will come to them personally and get them to the polling station. Their eyes are glowing. I ask them whether it would make them proud to be able to vote. Yes, they will be the happiest and proudest people, being able to decide with everyone else on the future of their country. One of the women responds “once we get out of here, we will not return to this hell.” She laughs but her voice sounds firm and decided.

I leave this house with mixed feelings along with ambivalent impressions of Nimruz. I am overwhelmed by the inner strength of the women I have met. Be it the sixteen year old schoolgirls who want to learn everything and as fast as possible, since there is no certainty that, what they “Inshallah” want to prevent will occur: That a man will ask her to marry him and they will not be able to say “no”. Allah alone knows whether he will let them continue their studies at school. Nevertheless, they hold on to their hope that one day they will be able to study at the University in Kabul, even if many of the obstacles in their way are impossible to overcome. Equally impressive were the uneducated, from their men suppressed women. Their situation often seem without a solution a so called ‘lost case’. However, even they have not given-up and they still fight on all fronts for every cm of freedom.

Women without Borders will not leave their side.


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