Women Who Took On the Taliban -- and Lost

Human Rights

It was another murder among so many in the bloody conflict in Afghanistan -- a senior police officer gunned down by the Taliban. But the death of Malalai Kakar this week has removed a brave and dedicated champion of oppressed women; it has raised the fears of other women in public life that they too have, in effect, been sentenced to death.

Of five prominent women interviewed three years ago by The Independent for an article on post-Taliban female emancipation, three, including Ms. Kakar, are dead and a fourth has had to flee after narrowly escaping assassination in an ambush in which her husband was killed.

Religious fundamentalists are waging a ruthless campaign to eliminate women who have taken up high-profile jobs. Parliamentarians, schoolteachers, civil servants, security officials and women journalists have been selected for attacks by the jihadists. Countless others have been maimed and murdered in villages where the vengeful Taliban have returned to impose the old order.

In the case of Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in Afghanistan, an additional "crime" which sealed her fate was that she was a determined and effective campaigner for women's rights. Commander Kakar, 40, knew her work made her a Taliban target. She led a unit of 10 policewomen specialising in domestic violence cases. She was uncompromising with suspected abusers, men who in the past had relied on male police officers to turn a blind eye.

"I've been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives" she said. "But I'm angry, we try to apply the law in the right way and the constitution is supposed to protect women's rights."

Kakar liked to cook breakfast for her husband and six children before going to work, she told me. She would spend a long time saying her farewell because, she said, she could never be sure what would happen. Her 15-year-old son was with her when she was killed last weekend. She carried a pistol under the burqa she wore to work, so as not to be recognized, before changing into uniform. But she had no chance to defend herself, or him, against the two motorcycle assassins.

Like Kakar, Shaima Rezayee was one of those who believed in a brave new world for Afghan women. After five years of burqa-wearing under Taliban rule, the bubbly 24-year-old presented a popular music show called Hop on the independent channel Tolo TV and helped run schemes to promote women in the media. When I asked for her help in preparing the article, however, she was already pessimistic. "Things are not getting better," she cautioned. "We made some gains, but there are a lot of people who want to take it all back. They are not even the Taliban, they are here in Kabul."

She was having her own problems, the station was being condemned for allowing her, a female in Western clothes and make-up to talk freely to men on the program. Eventually she was dismissed after pressure from conservative clerics of the National Ulema Council who accused Tolo of "broadcasting music, naked dance and foreign films". In particular, they picked out Shaima's programme for criticism. There was no support from the police who declared that they may not be able to protect her.

Shaima was angry. "The bad days are coming back, we'll have to go into exile again," she said. Soon afterwards rumors began to appear that she had been killed. Tolo offered to broadcast an interview. "But they wanted to do it on radio, not TV," she laughed. "The religious people might get offended even if they saw me for five minutes."

Shaima was gunned down at her home near Kabul's diplomatic quarters. Her killers, said the police, appeared to have been people she had known as they did not have to force their way into the house.

Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is the scene of particular brutality towards women. "It is much worse down there than it is for us here [in Kabul], you must go down there," Shaima had said previously. One woman who worked tirelessly for women in Kandahar was Safia Amajan, 65, who stayed behind during the dark days of Taliban rule to teach girls in lessons held in secret. After the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, she volunteered to work for the new government with great success, opening schools and workshops where at least 1,000 women learned to make and sell their goods at the market.

Amajan, or "dear aunt" as the girls she taught called her, survived the Taliban by learning the Koran by heart. But she was always independent, refusing a marriage arranged by her father and then eventually choosing her own husband, an educated and wholly supportive colonel in the army.

The couple lived on the outskirts of Kandahar, where she described, without any drama, the struggle of life for women under the Taliban. "Those of us who are around now are very lucky," she said. "There were others, very brave, who also tried to make things better for young girls through education and teaching them skills. They were caught and they suffered."

Amajan was killed in September 2006. Her husband had walked her to the main road where she was to be picked up by a taxi to be taken to work. Two young men approached on a motorcycle and one of them opened fire with a Kalashnikov. A Taliban commander, Mullah Hayat Khan, announced that she had been "executed" for defying orders to stop working.

I met the two men arrested for her murder last year at the Sarposa prison in Kandahar. They were in their early 20s, dishevelled and craven, repeatedly claiming that they were in danger from their own side as well as the authorities. They had killed Safia, they said, in return for $5,000 offered by a mullah in Pakistan. The men were caught when the mullah wanted proof that they had carried out their task and they attempted, by night, to dig up the body for a lock of hair.

Kakar had long been a friend of Amajan and threw herself into the hunt for her killers. "They would not have been caught if they had not tried to disturb Safia's body," she said at her office in the central police station. "I do not trust myself to be in the same cell as those men. They murdered someone who was old enough to be their grandmother. They murdered someone who has done so much for Kandaharis … so much for Afghanistan."

"She was this wonderful person we heard about growing up in Kandahar," she said. "I made a point of meeting her and I took guidance from her."

Amajan and Kakar used to work closely with a woman MP in Kandahar, Zarghuna Kakar (no relation). Ms Kakar, 36, has now fled her home after she and her family were attacked in a market. Her husband, Mohammed Nasir, was killed in the attack.

Before the shooting, Ms. Kakar had repeatedly pleaded for security. At one point she turned in desperation to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan President and a prominent figure in Kandahar. "He told me there was nothing he could do," she recalled. "He also said that I should have thought about what may happen before I stood for election. But it was his brother, the Americans and the British who told us that we women should get involved in political life. Of course, now I wish I hadn't. If only I knew what would happen."

Ms. Kakar fled to Kabul with her family. We met in a cold, dark hotel room. She worries constantly about the dangers. "I eventually managed to meet President Karzai. He told me to go back to Kandahar and he would make sure the governor provided us with bodyguards. But the governor has no men to spare." The lack of official protection for women from either the Afghan government or Western forces is a source of bitter complaint among those who now find themselves under threat from Islamist zealots.

Now, with the Taliban mounting audacious attacks just on the outskirts of Kabul and President Karzai's government engaged in negotiations with the Taliban and other Islamist groups, women who have the means to get away are planning possible escape routes. Foreign embassies report an increase in visa applications from educated, professional women.

Captain Jamilla Mujahid Barzai is staying on with Kandahar police to continue her murdered boss's work. She left the police force after witnessing an infamous Taliban execution of a woman at Kabul's football stadium, a judicial killing which was filmed and shown later around the world as an example of the savagery of the time. "I knew the prisoner, I shall never forget the way she died … There was nothing I could do, so I left the police. It is most important that now women try to get to positions of power to stop things like that happening again. It is dangerous. But we cannot go back to those days again."

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