April 27, 2009 / 12:19 PM / 10 years ago

Rural Afghan women hungry for school

ERAQ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Shi’ite farm women in a remote Afghan valley shrugged off a new law that has created an international uproar about their rights, saying it largely reflects the reality of lives governed by their husbands.

But although they have no interest in legal battles or political liberation, their celebration of freedoms recently won through a women’s literacy course show there is appetite for change and empowerment even in remote corners of the country.

“Before, we couldn’t even go shopping alone because we could not tell the Afghani (currency) notes apart,” said Guljan, the 22-year-old mother of one child, who lives in the Eraq valley.

“After we came to the literacy circles, we became brave enough to speak out,” she added, explaining the women’s willingness, rare among poor Afghans, to sit and talk with strangers including men, without even covering their faces.

The Eraq valley is in Bamiyan province, heartland of the ethnic Hazaras who make up most of Afghanistan’s Shi’ites. Only around 15 percent of Afghanistan’s population are Shi’ites, but a new law for them is seen as a countrywide test of women’s rights.

The law, which President Hamid Karzai has said will be amended after an international outcry, requires a wife to ask her husband’s permission to leave home unless for work, education or medical reasons and obliges her to satisfy his sexual needs.

U.S. President Barack Obama called it “abhorrent.” Women in Kabul braved stone-throwing crowds to march against it.

But news of the legislation had not reached Eraq, and when told about it, the women said they had no objections to the clause allowing men to limit their wives’ freedom of movement.

“Whenever I go anywhere, before I go out, I always ask my husband anyway,” said Soraya, a mother of two who grew up in the valley and rarely leaves it.

The women burst out laughing at another article that allows a man to order his wife to put on makeup, an irrelevance in an area where most families are too poor for cosmetics.

EDUCATION AS FREEDOM

For many educated women however, there is nothing amusing about the law, which critics warn is reminiscent of harsh Taliban-era controls. They fear lack of education will make village women especially vulnerable when it is implemented.

“If the current version of this law is allowed to continue, Shi’ite women are going one step back,” said Batool Mohammadi at the International Legal Foundation in Bamiyan town.

“Men can abuse this law against women, and in the villages most have no knowledge to defend themselves.”

Only 18 percent of Afghan women can read and write, according to the United Nations. But Lutfullah, who runs the British-funded women’s empowerment programme that Soraya and Guljan attended, says the low figures are not due to lack of interest.

More than 3,000 women in nearly 200 villages attended the circles over the last 18 months and demand outstripped supply.

“We have had women who walk for two hours each way to come to our literacy circles,” Lutfullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name, told Reuters.

And although schoolgirls in Bamiyan told Reuters they would put marriage ahead of work and study, mothers in Eraq nurture hopes for their daughters which depend on education, saying they see them as doctors or engineers.

“People round here joke that you shouldn’t invest in daughters because they will just get married and take that investment with them,” said Faiz Begum, a 35 year-old mother of five girls and two boys.

“But I support my daughters to go to school. When I was illiterate, it was like being blind, and I want to save my daughters from this.”

SHI’ITES SEEN AS LESS HARSH

That the literacy group is possible at all is due in part to the relatively liberal treatment of women by the Hazaras, many of whom were surprised to make headlines for oppression in a country where Sunni women generally face tighter controls than Shi’ites.

Women on the programme say their husbands supported them.

New primary schools for boys and girls across Bamiyan, pushed by Afghanistan’s only female governor, have helped reduce opposition to women’s learning, and a sewing class taught at the same time offered practical skills.

“We can save some money and don’t have to spend it on clothes, so my husband is very happy,” said Jamalara, 36.

Even in remote areas like Eraq men generally marry only once unless their first wife is infertile, and girls are at least 16 at the time of the wedding, said Faiz Begum.

She and other women dismissed with disgust the idea of child brides, although a draft of the law allowed for marriage at 9.

And although conservative clerics, a driving force behind the personal status law, sometimes opposed the women’s education courses at first, Lutfullah said all eventually relented after talking to the organisers and teachers.

“I feel lucky to have been born Shi’ite,” said Sughra Atayee, the provincial election officer for the area.

Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Valerie Lee

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