Living under fear, Afghan women seek Internetís virtual veil


Women at the Womenís Annex, an online blogging platform that lets women work from their homes to produce content thatís then featured on social-media websites. - Bloomberg News

Kabul: Off a dusty, unpaved street near Kabul University, Roya Mahboob's software company is designing a Web platform to let Afghan women create content from home even if Taleban return to power and curb their rights.

"I just make myself more invisible in the society" while "becoming more visible" on the Internet, Mahboob, 26, a computer science graduate of Herat University, said of her tactic for coping with opposition in a country that faces potential upheaval after international combat troops leave at the end of this year.

Retreating behind the electronic veil of the Internet isn't an option for Zarghuna Sherzad, 46, a partner in Jahan Guldozi, an embroidery factory that employs 20 women about 5km from Mahboob's office in Kabul.

"I grew up in the war, and I've spent a very difficult time in the past," she said through an interpreter at her factory, recalling that when the Taleban ruled Afghanistan before the US invasion in 2001, she endured beatings just for wearing sandals that showed her feet. "I'm always praying that regime should
not be repeated."

At risk of loosing freedom
Women such as Mahboob and Sherzad are at risk of losing the freedoms they've won since the United States and its allies upended the Taleban, who cited their fundamentalist approach to ban girls from attending schools and women from leaving their homes. Those gains already are under stress as international combat forces prepare to leave by the end of this year.

"Insecurity might increase at the provincial level, and that could limit the freedom of women, particularly their movement in terms of their political participation in the provinces and in terms of their businesses," said Nilofar Sakhi, executive director of the International Centre for Afghan Women's Economic Development at the American University of Afghanistan.

Afghan women have gained legal rights and protections in the last decade. Women are now 27 per cent of the country's parliament and have started to join police forces. A decree signed by President Hamid Karzai in 2009 made rape a crime for the first time, while also banning violence against women, child marriage, forced marriage and the denial of rights to education or work.

Those gains are tentative, the International Crisis Group said in an October report, "Women and Conflict in Afghanistan." The decree signed by Karzai has yet to be ratified by the Parliament, where conservative lawmakers have called it un-Islamic, the group said. The country's new electoral law calls for reducing a quota for female parliamentarians to 20 per cent from 25 per cent.

Since Afghan National Security Forces took the lead role from US and other foreign forces in the middle of last year, "insurgent threats to women have increased," according to the Brussels-based group. Women's rights "are also under attack from yesterday's warlords, now power brokers both within and outside government."

While some of the candidates for president have affirmed their support for women's rights, the Taleban say that if they return to rule or share power they will bar women from wearing Western clothes and girls from sharing classrooms with boys.

"A change in the current Afghan constitution is highly required to keep Afghan women's rights low," Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taleban spokesman, said in a phone interview. Women in public roles increasingly have come under attack. On January 2, two gunmen on a motorbike in the western Afghan city of Herat shot to death Yalda Waziri, 25, who worked for the local government, according to the BBC.

In the same province, Lieutenant Negar, 38 a female police official who like many Afghans went by one name, was shot and killed in September, a few months after her female predecessor was killed in a similar fashion, the BBC reported.

"There are real fears of losing the progress that has been made," said Afshan Khan, chief executive officer of Women for Women International, a Washington-based nonprofit group that helps women in war-torn countries rebuild their lives.

In the last decade, Women for Women has trained 46,000 Afghan women, providing them with skills to operate small businesses. The group also has distributed $26 million in stipends and micro-credits, Khan said. Sherzad, who had no schooling and raised two daughters after her husband disappeared, graduated from Women for Women's one-year training programme. She teamed up two years ago with Nesar Ahmad to expand the embroidery business he operated.

Together, they've invested $250,000 in computerised Chinese machines that make decorative embroidered panels. Afghans sew the embroidery onto a shalwar-kameez, a loose-fitting tunic and pant worn by men in the country.

Uncertainty
In addition to the 20 workers at the factory, the company employs 300 women who work from their homes and turn out hand-made embroidery, Sherzad said. The products are sold in Afghanistan as far west and south as Herat and Kandahar, generating a profit of about $5,000 a month, the co-owners said in interviews.

In a country where conservative groups still forbid mixing genders, the partnership between Ahmad, 50, and Sherzad stands out all the more because they belong to tribes that traditionally have clashed.
She's a Pashtun and he's a Hazara.

Amid uncertainty over a presidential election scheduled for April and the departure of most foreign troops by year-end, "There's a fear if Taleban return to power, we'll lose all the progress we've made," Ahmad said. "She will not be able to come work here, and I will not be able to reach her."

In contrast, a select group of Afghan girls and women who've grown up in the last decade, gone to school and are familiar with computers may find online sanctuary if Mahboob's online initiative succeeds.

Internet penetration in Afghanistan has grown to 5.5 Web users per 100 people in 2012 from 1 per 1,000 in 2003, according to World Bank data. By comparison, Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan had 10
Internet users per 100 people in 2012, according to the bank.

Mahboob, whose Afghan Citadel Software Co. was started with the help of the Defense Department's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, has developed an online blogging and film platform called Women's Annex.

It lets women work from their homes to produce content that's then featured on social-media websites. Advertising revenue generated by the sites is shared with the content creators, Mahboob said.

"We have created a technology that shows influence" and a scoring system that indicates the popularity of content that members of the Women's Annex develop, Mahboob said. "Based on that they can make $5 to $100 a day" depending on how popular their blog or story is, she said.

Mahboob's business is based on Film Annex, a technology that her Italian business partner, philanthropist Francesco Rulli, developed to create Web videos.

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