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Afghan woman killed amid growing campaign of fear

Climate harsh for those working, going to school

Students did their homework between classes at Afghan Canadian Center in Kandahar, Afghanistan yesterday. Thugs are increasingly harassing women who want an education. Students did their homework between classes at Afghan Canadian Center in Kandahar, Afghanistan yesterday. Thugs are increasingly harassing women who want an education. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)
By Kathy Gannon
Associated Press / April 14, 2010

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A gunman lying in wait shot and killed an 18-year-old woman as she left her job at a US-based development company yesterday, casting a spotlight on a stepped-up campaign of Taliban intimidation against women in this southern city where US troops plan a major operation in the coming weeks.

Although there was no claim of responsibility and police said the motive for the attack was unclear, Taliban militants have been particularly harsh with women who work for foreign organizations or attend school. Bands of thugs are increasingly harassing women who want jobs, education, and their own style of clothing, women and aid workers say.

In yesterday’s attack, the gunman emerged from a hiding place and shot the woman, whose first name was Hossai, after she stepped out of her office building, said Deputy Police Chief Fazle Ahmed Shehzad. Hossai died at the hospital, and the assailant escaped.

Hossai worked for Development Alternatives Inc., a Washington-based global consulting firm that “provides social and economic development solutions to business, government, and civil society in developing and transitioning countries,’’ according to its website.

Eight years after the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power, fear again dominates the lives of many young women and girls in the violent south, the stronghold of a revived Islamist insurgency that curbed women’s rights when it ruled most of the country.

“Every day the security situation gets worse and worse,’’ said Ehsanullah Ehsan, a clean-shaven man who has devoted the last 16 years to educating girls, first in the remote border regions of Pakistan and since 2002 in Kandahar.

Ehsan is head of the Afghan Canadian Community Center, which provides vocational training and schooling to men and women. Each day brings another story of threats against his female students, he says. While many of the threats come from the Taliban, others are from criminals and even police.

Harassment of women is occurring against the backdrop of a general deterioration of law and order in Kandahar, a city of nearly a half million people.

The aim of the upcoming operation by NATO and Afghan troops is to clear Kandahar of Taliban fighters, who threaten and intimidate those who do not follow their strict interpretation of Islam, and to bolster the local police force, which appears incapable of stopping petty crime, which is rampant in the city.

In the best of times, the lives of women in conservative Afghanistan are far more restricted than in the West, especially in rural areas where a woman’s place is considered to be in the home and beneath the burqa. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, however, women in urban areas like Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad have more choices — with some in Parliament, government, and business.

Even in Kandahar, the major city of the ultraconservative south, women say restrictions eased in the first years after the Taliban were gone. But as the Islamist movement began to rebound in 2003, pressure on women to adhere to strict Islamist and Afghan traditions increased — with little protection from the ineffectual and corrupt Afghan police.

Ehsan told of one student whose family was warned by a shopkeeper to keep their daughters indoors and to let them leave only if they are wearing a burqa.

“The shopkeeper knocked on her parents’ door and said, ‘If you let her go out with her face showing and something happens to her, you have been warned, and it will be her own fault,’ ’’ recalled Ehsan.

Sara, 34, said her family is demanding that she quit her $1,300-a-month job with an international organization because the risks are too great, even though her salary is about six times what a policeman in the city earns. She refused to allow her surname or employer to be identified because of fears for their safety.

Ironically, Sara had been one of the few women allowed to work in Kandahar when the Taliban ruled. She taught at one of the handful of girls’ schools the Taliban permitted. The school trained nurses for the city’s Mir Wais Hospital.

Now Sara thinks her job as an office worker is just too dangerous.

She and other women interviewed at Afghan Canadian Community Center were largely skeptical that the coming NATO-Afghan offensive in Kandahar would succeed where eight years of military operations against the insurgents had largely failed to bring a lasting peace.

“In eight years they have done nothing. How is it that they couldn’t find [the Taliban] with all their equipment? I heard they had equipment that could see people in a room but they can’t find the Taliban,’’ said Gila Bibi, a business management student. “Corruption is in every group, and every group is our enemy — the Taliban, the government, the police.’’

Hella Popal, a 20-year-old who studies English at the center and dreams of becoming a doctor, says she has been threatened but she doesn’t know whom to blame.

Saqina Sikanderi, a teenager taking online courses at the center, criticizes the government, NATO, and the Taliban.

“This situation is bad because we have corruption in our government and teachers don’t get paid enough. The police need more salary so they aren’t corrupt. But we still say they are better than the Taliban,’’ she said. “I am here. It is dangerous, but I am here and I am getting an education. I couldn’t before. The Taliban wanted women only to stay inside their home and get married.’’