Assaults on women add to fears that what few gains Afghan women have made since the US toppled the Taliban government in 2001 could be erased once foreign troops finish withdrawing next year.
Lawmaker: Taliban abduction left her ‘even braver’
KABUL // The Taliban kidnappers moved her to at least 13 homes, made her sleep on the ground, and kept asking where she’d been, what she’d done and whom she knew. Every few days, she would be given a chance to call her family.
Still, the militants would push her only so far – they knew they needed to keep their bargaining chip in good shape.
Fariba Ahmadi Kakar’s four-week ordeal ended this month after the Afghan government gave in to her captors’ demands to free some prisoners. In an interview the 39-year-old member of parliament gave a rare account of what it’s like for a woman to be held captive by the Islamist insurgents.
“I wasn’t tortured. I wasn’t under constant stress. But I wasn’t free,” Ms Kakar said.
She’s also lucky to be alive.
Since July, several prominent women have been attacked in Afghanistan. Among them: two police officers who were killed in the south, an Indian author living in eastern Afghanistan who was killed years after her memoir about 1990s life under Taliban rule became a Bollywood film; and a senator who was wounded in an ambush.
These and other attacks on female leaders in recent years have generally been blamed on the Taliban, though the Afghan militant group, mindful of cultural sensitivities, usually does not admit to targeting women. The assaults have added to growing fears that what few gains Afghan women have made since the US toppled the Taliban government in 2001 could be erased once American-led foreign troops finish withdrawing next year.
The spotlight can be a shield, making men think twice about mistreating a woman and perhaps even guaranteeing that she’ll be assigned a bodyguard. At the same time, it can make a woman a more attractive target for insurgents hoping to spread fear and weaken confidence in the Afghan government.
Ms Kakar is one of 69 female members in the 249-seat lower house of parliament, and she’s never been naive about the danger she and other prominent Afghan women face. Still, her initial encounter with her kidnappers was so swift and shocking it’s still something of a blur today.
Ms Kakar, her four children, her bodyguard and her driver were travelling from southern Kandahar province to Kabul, the Afghan capital, when a handful of armed militants on motorbikes appeared ahead of them on the outskirts of Ghazni city. The gunmen made the driver turn off the highway onto a bumpy, dirt road that led to a small village.
The militants put the group in the home of an Afghan Taliban family, separating the men from the women and saying little. Ms Kakar, though, quickly began pleading with the captors to free her three daughters and son, ages 2 to 20.
She tried to calm her children but did not downplay what was happening. “I told them, ‘This is the situation in this country. I will try to make sure you are safe,’” she said.
The Taliban fighters let her call her family. Within a couple of days her children were released to her mother and brother. Ms Kakar, though, was shifted from place to place and kept separate from her driver and bodyguard.
Just days before the kidnapping, a fellow female legislator was wounded in an ambush by suspected Taliban gunmen not far from where Ms Kakar was seized. Senator Rouh Gul Khairzad’s young daughter was killed, as was a bodyguard, while other family members also were wounded.
The militants who kidnapped Ms Kakar had a different goal: they wanted the government to release some prisoners, and Ms Kakar was their leverage.
In recounting her ordeal, Ms Kakar wavered from calm to anger to wariness, and wouldn’t always delve into details. At times she looked faint, but then she’d break into a sudden grin. When asked what she did all day in the various homes in which she was held captive, she smirked and said, “Nothing!”
She had only a vague idea of what was happening between her captors and authorities seeking to free her.
Ms Kakar had a couple of female minders, whom she called “the doctor’s mother” and “Zolaikha,” but she wouldn’t go into specifics about them. She said, however, that most of the women she encountered would tell her, “We have no power or authority to talk to you.”
The men, like many Taliban, were extremely conservative and avoid interacting with women outside their families. They would tell her their commanders were dealing with the details of her case.
Now and then, Ms Kakar would be interrogated by the militants – usually three or four of them, and they didn’t hide their faces. They’d ask her questions about her travels, her political activities and if she had met President Hamid Karzai. Nonetheless, they always treated her with “full respect,” she said, even cutting short the questioning if they saw she was getting tired.
Ms Kakar leads a privileged life compared to most Afghans, and she was deeply troubled by the poverty and ignorance around her. There were no beds to sleep on, the food was often “inedible,” and there was no sense of any government presence. When she needed medicine, she’d give the militants some of her own money so they could buy it for her.
“The people in these villages don’t even know what vaccines are,” said Ms Kakar, a former development worker whose constituency is in Kandahar city.
In early September, the captors told Ms Kakar it would be just days before she’d be free. That same week, militants dragged Indian author Sushmita Banerjee out of the home she shared with her Afghan husband in eastern Afghanistan and fatally shot her. Ms Banerjee’s 1990s tale of life under the Taliban was the basis for the 2003 movie Escape from Taliban.
Ms Kakar was freed on September 7. Her bodyguard and driver were released separately. But there are conflicting accounts about whom the government freed in exchange.
Zholina Faizi, secretary of the Ghazni provincial council and one of the few in the government willing to discuss the matter, said that seven male insurgents and one woman were released.
But the Taliban, in a statement announcing Ms Kakar’s release, said the prisoners were “four innocent women and two children.” The militants also emphasized they had treated Ms Kakar “in a very Islamic and humane way.”
Ms Kakar said government officials told her four women and 10 children from Taliban families were let go, including babies born in prison. She said she was told the women’s husbands made them transport explosive materials, but that the women were unaware what it was they were carrying and were taken into custody.
The ordeal has left Ms Kakar even more determined to pursue her political activism, especially in light of next year’s presidential election, which she says will be a “lie” when so many Afghans lack access to government services or basic information.
“I am even braver than before,” she said. “I will defend Afghanistan, especially the women, until the last drop of my blood.”
As Ms Kakar spoke, the news was rapidly spreading that suspected Taliban gunmen in southern Helmand province had shot and killed one of Afghanistan’s top policewomen, some two months after a fellow female officer was slain.
* Associated Press