Photo Essay by Lana Šlezić
The plight of women under the Taliban regime provided the United States with a tidy moral justification for its invasion of Afghanistan—a talking point that Laura Bush took the lead in driving home. "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," Bush said after the 2001 invasion, adding that thanks to America, women were "no longer imprisoned in their homes." Six years later, the burka is more common than before, an "overwhelming majority" of Afghan women suffer domestic violence, according to aid group Womankind, and honor killings are on the rise. Health care is so threadbare that every 28 minutes a mother dies in childbirth—the secondhighest maternal mortality rate in the world. Girls attend school at half the rate boys do, and in 2006 at least 40 teachers were killed by the Taliban. For two years, Canadian photojournalist Lana Šlezić crisscrossed Afghanistan—from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to Kandahar in the south—to document these largely hidden realities.
Afghanistan has more than 2 million widows, and these and
other desperately poor women often turn to prostitution,
despite the risk of being killed by their families if they
are discovered. So they remain in the shadows, beneath a
double veil of tradition and shame. This woman’s husband is
too old to work. She sold her daughter into marriage before
the girl was 10, and now she sells herself.
Malalai Kakar became a police officer before the rise of the Taliban.
It helped, she says, that her father and brother were also police
officers, and her grandfather a tribal elder. When the Taliban rose
to power, she fled to Pakistan. When she returned to work after
they were ousted, she received death threats. To "protect her honor"
and her family, the mother of six patrolled with her brother and
wore a burka in the field. But she goes uncovered now, so as to
"tell women about their rights."
Self-immolation has long been the preferred method of suicide
in Afghanistan, but "the trend is upward," says Ancil Adrian-Paul
of the women's nonprofit Medica Mondiale. Girls as young as nine
set themselves ablaze, typically with cooking oil. In Herat Province,
where last year 90 women lit themselves on fire, Zahra spent 93
days in the burn unit. Her husband beat her regularly, told her she
was worthless and should just light a match. So she did. She is, by
some accounts, lucky: More than 70 percent of victims of
self-immolation do not survive.
Inside a Kabul home, a heavy curtain is all that separates a
prostitute's work from her family life. Her 15-year-old
daughter also sells herself, but not in the house. Too many
men going in and out would alert the neighbors, and that
could prove fatal.
On the day of a young boy's circumcision, these girls don lipstick
and their very best dresses. If the odds hold, only a couple of them
will receive an education. Just one in five Afghan schools are
designated as girls' schools; coed schools are banned. A third
of Afghanistan's school districts have no girls' schools at all,
and the schools that do exist are under constant threat of attack.
The streets of Afghanistan are pocked with divots and gaping
potholes, and there is hardly any pavement to speak of. Still,
heels are the norm, and beneath their burkas many women
wear bright, beautiful dresses.
October 9, 2004, saw the first free, democratic presidential
election in Afghanistan. In the months prior, the Taliban
peppered villages and cities with "night letters" warning
women not to vote. In June 2004 a bomb exploded on a bus
full of female election workers in Jalalabad, killing three.
Still, these four women at a Kabul polling station-and 40
percent of women nationwide-asserted their new right.
But, as a Womankind report summarized, "paper rights have
not equaled rights in practice."