The war against terrorism is being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq through conventional means, led by the United States after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington. Analysts who support and oppose the war are unanimous in thinking that war in these two countries has not ended the threat of terrorism. More importantly, the people in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially the women, are once again caught up in the trauma of combat zones, caught in the crossfire of the local militias and the US-led Western forces.
Women Without Borders (WWB), a Vienna-based advocacy for women, recently organized a meeting of women from Afghanistan and Iraq to hear the feelings and views of those directly affected by the war.
Speakers from both countries admitted that life is unpredictable today and women never know when they might be kidnapped, murdered or raped. Incidents of violence against women have escalated in recent times although statistics are not available to prove that women are victimized more than men. Crimes against women in remote parts of the country often go unreported, and honor killings and domestic violence continue especially at a time when law and order has collapsed.
Dr. Edit Schlaffer, founder of WWB, said that the American administration used the "women's ticket" to get international support to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and promised to restore women's rights. In Iraq, the women's agenda was again pushed to the forefront dramatically. But three years after the American military intervention women in both countries are no longer a symbol of freedom but the target of terror. In a presentation titled, "Women as Target-Targeting Women in Afghanistan and Iraq", Schaffler said that educated women are, particularly, in the line of fire. Apart from political violence, women face new levels of trafficking, prostitution, rape and domestic violence.
That female parliamentarians have become targets suggests that the hits are not a random fallout of war but a deliberate and diabolical strategy designed to weaken the voice of women. "It is mostly professional women who are targeted by assassins in Baghdad," said Dr. Rajaa al-Khuzai, 60, parliamentarian, medical practitioner and founder of the Iraqi Widows Organization. She added that hundreds of schoolteachers and doctors have disappeared in recent times and thousands have fled the country.
As many as 3,000 civilians die every day in Iraq. The number of widows is skyrocketing; many are very often young, unemployed and responsible for feeding small children. Rajaa, who played a leading role in making sure that the new constitution of the country included a 25 per cent quota for women in parliament, says that her life's mission is to get as many girls as possible back into school, and women out of poverty.
Saliha Mehrzad, 48, member of parliament and director of a women's school in the Nimruz province in Afghanistan, said that the worst time for women in her country was during the Taliban rule when violence against women increased and millions were widowed because of war. In Afghanistan today, the biggest disadvantage faced by women is poverty - women in Afghanistan are perhaps the poorest in the world. "The key to our problem is education," said Saliha, a member of the Afghan National Tribal Solidarity Party. Saliha spent six years as a refugee in Pakistan.
Daliya Falah Shawkat, 24, graduated as a pharmacist in 2005 from Baghdad University. Ever since she has remained at home waiting for an opportunity to practice her profession and to earn a living. In her first year at the university it took Daliya half-an-hour to get to the campus but in subsequent years, she spent endless hours on roads that were either blocked for security reasons or had been destroyed.
"Taking a taxi, shopping, meeting friends and planning for the future is normal for young people elsewhere in the world, but for us in Iraq it is a dream," Daliya said. She studied by candlelight, continues to live through long hours of power cuts and water shortages, and is confined most of the time to the four walls of the home.
"I risked my life to educate myself. Now I want other girls to somehow continue their studies," she said. Daliya suggested that European educators could connect with students in Iraq and share knowledge with them online. She said that campuses around Baghdad are deserted, and there is real danger that an entire generation of Iraqis may grow up illiterate.
According to a United Nations report released in November 2006, 65 per cent of all killings in Baghdad were executions. Militias kidnap, kill and throw away corpses at a rate higher than suicide bombers. And more and more of these bodies are found to be those of women. It is a terrible transformation of a once-secular Iraqi society where women held high office and worked as professors, doctors, engineers and economists.
Huma Naseri, 24, was a year old when her family fled the Taliban regime for Pakistan. She has now returned to Afghanistan and she graduated this year in political science through a course in distance learning. Huma is the WWB project coordinator in Afghanistan and she works in the Kabul office of the European Union's special representative to her country. Her dream is to lead her country out of poverty.
"We are much better off today when compared to life under the Taliban," Huma said, adding that the biggest hurdle to getting on with life in Afghanistan is lawlessness. "It is no longer illegal but it's still dangerous for women to travel. I do visit my village to talk to women about their rights and how we can educate our girls and boys within the home," she said.