Dispatch

Leaning Out

How the United States is abandoning Afghanistan's women.

KABUL — In the months leading up to the 1929 overthrow of King Amanullah, the dynamic Afghan reformer whose wife Queen Soraya notoriously tore off her headscarf in public, historians say, the girls and women of Kabul detected change in the air. They shied away from the handful of schools he had painstakingly opened for them, and reluctantly took back the veil, ambitiously declared optional by the king only one year before.

Now, as the protracted NATO-led war rumbles towards its official close, Afghan women are once again pondering their fate. Fearing that the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 might be at least partially filled by the Taliban, Afghan women are following their ancestors and retreating. They are leaving work, government, and, in some instances, abandoning the public sphere.

"Everyone in the country knew my voice, and it got to a point where I wasn't prepared to risk my life anymore," says Aminah Bobak, who in April abruptly ended her successful career as a journalist after a decade of radio and TV work around the country.

She is one of around 200 female reporters from Afghan news outlets who voluntarily left their jobs in 2012, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai -- a drop of 10 percent and by far the largest single-year dip since the U.S.-backed invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Perched in a dimly lit corner of a slanted, mud-brick cafe in central Kabul, 28-year-old Bobak poured out her passion for journalism. She started as a biology student at university, working in her free time for a radio station. She later moved to Rasaa TV, an Afghan news channel set up by global media development organization Internews, eventually becoming its deputy editor. Bobak remembers her time fondly, causing her soft brown eyes to crinkle. "I loved it," she says.

Currently, just short of a fifth of Afghanistan's 11,000 journalists are women. For the first time since the 1970s, Afghan women have become noticeable to their compatriots -- often as an authoritative female voice parachuted into the wilds by airwaves.

"But joining the channel was a good chance for my enemies to recognize me, and I got scared. I mean the Taliban of course," Bobak says. The Taliban have often regarded Afghan reporters as their enemies, and this view intensifies when they are women. Nai's Khalvatgar points to "the thinking that the Taliban are coming back. Men will need to keep women in their homes to avoid insult, and the women themselves are also making these decisions." By the ultra-conservative code that most Afghans still live by, women must seek permission from a male relative or husband for most decisions.

Women have won back hard-fought rights such as voting, education, and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and the last decade produced a league of knowledgeable, determined young women for whom the Taliban's return is anathema. But these women's worrying retreat from the public sphere hints at failure by both the local government and its international backers.

So fragile are the gains that Western diplomats in Kabul privately expressed concern at Hillary Clinton's February departure as secretary of state, wondering how the tenuous progress could be maintained without her commitment, let alone furthered. "Many of us had this feeling of ‘how are we going to keep this up?'" one told me.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly ambivalent on women's rights. He stressed the importance of girls' education in a January speech at Georgetown University, but female lawmakers and rights workers say he changes his tune on home turf. In March 2012 he appeared to back comments by the Ulema Council, a powerful group of Afghan religious scholars, which said women are worth less than men. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual report on the state of rights in the world, warned ominously that "the Afghan government's failure to respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already-perilous state of women's rights." It added that growing global fatigue is "reducing political pressure on the government" to safeguard women.

Increasing anguish over security left Bobak feeling she had no choice but to quit her job."If foreigners were staying, I'd go back to work right away," she says.

This pervasive fear of the unknown means women are making fewer appearances on the dust-coated, rutted roads zigzagging Afghanistan's major cities, observers say. "You hardly see women on the streets nowadays. As a woman, you feel everyone is looking at you. Even going to restaurants has become tense," says the 37-year-old Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from Badakshan province, on Tajikistan's southern border. The widowed mother of two daughters, Koofi campaigns for girls' education, and has launched an idealistic bid to become president next year.

She is riding on the international success of her memoir, The Favored Daughter, detailing her youth as the 19th child of a polygamous father who had seven wives. Koofi was recently forced to change the security policy at her palatial home after receiving more written and verbal threats "than usual" from the Taliban, she says. Several years ago, gunmen riddled her car with bullets when she was in it, but she survived unscathed.

"We're more at risk, and I think as we get closer to 2014 the risk of being targeted and attacked will increase," Koofi says.

The ubiquitous feeling of oppression returned in 2012, when the "double whammy" of the 2014 troop withdrawal and presidential election reduced the ability of politicians and activists to fight for women's rights, says Erica Gaston of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "It is not surprising that given this shrinking political space on all progressive issues, women activists are the first to feel it."

Last year proved exceptionally violent for women, including a wave of high-profile killings, such as the car bomb attack on Hanifa Safi, head of women's affairs in eastern Laghman province. Months later, her successor Nadia Sediqqi was shot dead. According to the United Nations, 301 women and girls were killed last year, a 20 percent increase from 2011, with deliberate targeting by insurgents rising threefold.

In January, the head of women's affairs in northern Balkh province, Fariba Majid, fled to Finland, where she reportedly claimed asylum. "They wanted to kill her," the department's caretaker Miriam Muradi whispered down a crackly phone line.

Koofi says the damaging effects of targeting high-profile women are far-reaching: "This can silence the whole women's movement, leading sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to think twice before they allow women out of their homes."

Educated Afghan women often evoke history when evaluating their status, capturing the tug of war between urban female emancipators and the rural conservatives. One of the first orders the illiterate bandit Habibullah Kalakani gave after deposing Amanullah in 1929 was to shut girls' schools. In the early 1930s, after Kalakani was deposed, his successor reopened them. Afghanistan's gender policy continued to swing like a pendulum for the rest of the twentieth century. The 1950s saw the arrival of female doctors; a decade later women joined government for the first time, followed by years of mass literacy campaigns. The Soviet war of the 1980s, and the civil war that began in 1992 increasingly excluded women from the public. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they banned women from talking to men who were not a relative or husband, and ordered the windows of homes be painted so that women could not be seen inside.

At the back of a shoddily painted police station in Kabul, 47-year-old First Lieutenant Zakiya Mohammadi is unwavering in her assessment of the future. "Once the Americans go we'll have to sit at home again, bored," she told me in the office where she has intermittingly worked for decades-depending on who was running the country.

Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Clown Prince Across the Water

Could Boris Johnson actually end up as Britain's prime minister?

LONDON — There are many ways by which you may measure the depth of the hole in which David Cameron finds himself. For one, the British economy remains stagnant: this week's budget halved the forecast for economic growth this year to just 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Long-term government debt is forecast to rise to 85 percent of GDP. Five years on from the financial crisis, more than 2.5 million Britons remain unemployed. And Cameron's party has been humiliated in a string of special elections; the Conservatives remain 10 points behind Labour in the polls.

None of this can be considered good news. But perhaps the greatest symptom of Cameron's difficulties is the recent chatter about his own future as leader of the Conservative Party. Once secure, Cameron's position is no longer a subject of backroom, clandestine discussions. It is a matter of open speculation that is by no means confined to those MPs who have long loathed the prime minister. Backbench discontent is the price of power in gloomy times but now senior cabinet ministers -- such as Home Secretary Teresa May and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond -- are perceived to be maneuvering, jostling for position in the race to succeed Cameron. 

Neither May, Hammond, nor any of the other contenders who presently sit around the cabinet table, however, excite or titillate pundits like another pretender to the throne. Yes, Boris Johnson is back in the news and, as is his wont, making mischief. 

The shambles-haired mayor of London is incapable of not making "news." This week he was at it again, admitting in a forthcoming television documentary that, dash it, all things being equal he'd really quite fancy being prime minister. Beneath that bumbling exterior lurks a politician whose ambition has only been marginally downgraded from childhood days when, as he told his sister, he aspired to be "world king."

Though he offered the pro forma caveat that "it's not going to happen," the mayor's suggestion he would like to "have a crack" at the job -- if, using a rugby metaphor, "the ball came loose from the back of a scrum" -- is a more candid admission of ambition than he has previously offered.

A decade ago, Boris suggested he had "as much chance of becoming prime minister as of being decapitated by a Frisbee or of finding Elvis." A year later, those odds, by Boris's own estimation, had lengthened still further. Then it was as probable as "finding Elvis on Mars" or of Boris himself being "reincarnated as an olive." This is no longer as far-fetched as once it seemed.

Boris -- the only British politician universally known by his forename -- is the most reliably entertaining character in British politics. Part vaudeville-shaman, part P.G. Wodehouse character, the mayor of London is the antithesis of the identikit, on-message modern politician. Despite not being a member of Parliament, he remains the bookmakers' favorite to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative party.

Right on cue, one veteran Conservative parliamentarian announced this month that he is "keeping his seat warm for Boris" and would be prepared to vacate his place in Parliament if the mayor wished to take it. According to Sir Peter Tapsell, Boris would make an "excellent" leader of the opposition.

And in that key word lies the rub -- and Cameron's worst nightmare. The rise in prices on the Boris Index is a sign that many Tories are resigned to losing the next general election. The right, which has never wholly trusted Cameron's attempt to "detoxify" the party's image, is disgruntled; the center worried that a panicky "lurch to the right" spells electoral calamity. It remains rather easier to imagine Boris as leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition than as prime minister. Indeed, even Tapsell only ventured that "perhaps" Boris could be a credible prime minister.

Boris is fun. But political prime-time is not the same as light entertainment. 

So a large part of the pro-Boris bandwagon is predicated upon Cameron being ejected from office after a humiliating election defeat in 2015. Boris, back in parliament by then (even though his second mayoral term does not end until 2016) would then be swept into the leader's office by depressed Tory members who want nothing more than to be cheered-up. 

It takes no great powers of political analysis to perceive that this would be a high-risk adventure. For instance, the idea of Boris ever -- even accidentally -- having responsibility for Britain's nuclear missiles is not a soothing one. But nor is it an idea that can be dismissed as evident nonsense. 

For the time being, Boris is urging some measure of loyalty. "After 2016 who knows what will happen" he says. "But I'm very, very happy with the job of mayor of London." Discontented Tories -- i.e., his putative rivals -- should "cool their porridge" and "save their breath." They need to "put their shoulders to the wheel, all hands to the mast, and all shoot from the same trench -- to mix my metaphors."

And yet none of this quite convinces. Boris's relationship with Cameron has long been uneasy. Cameron was two years Boris's junior at Eton (and Oxford) and, befitting the time-honored conventions of the British boarding school, the older boy has never quite lost the sense of superiority first ingrained by seniority when the pair were teenagers. 

It certainly seems that way. In an interview with a French radio station this month, Boris suggested, in his typical style, that he and David Cameron were "like Wallace and Gromit" though, as the Guardian observed, "he didn't say which was the absent-minded inventor and which his far brainier dog." 

Be that as it may, many Tories still consider Boris the Clown Prince Across the Water. This despite a record of achievement that is, by objective standards, negligible. Boris has performed adequately as mayor of the capital city, but even his staunchest admirers are hard-pressed to produce any lengthy list of achievements he has to his name. London's mayor has relatively few powers. Like being governor of Texas, it sounds a weightier position than it really is. There is a fear that, just as the United States was lumbered with George W. Bush, so Britain could be stuck with Boris. Like Bush -- whom Boris once described as a "cross-eyed Texan warmonger" -- Johnson's appeal is as much a matter of style as substance. He talks "Real Tory." From his euroscepticism to his enthusiasm for lower taxes, Boris tickles the Tory party's erogenous zones. And he does so in a fashion that seems to entertain the public.

Perhaps it is a feature of these rancorous and gloomy times that Boris is no longer as preposterous a notion as he once seemed. He is not a "serious" politician but, as election results in Italy and Israel have shown recently, non-serious, populist, politicians are able to capitalize upon public discontent. 

Before he became mayor of London, Boris briefly served as shadow arts minister in 2004. Upon his appointment he told one interviewer, that "Look the point is ... er, what is the point? It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it."

We may yet hear a variation on that refrain once again. Being leader of the Conservative Party is a tough job that someone has to do. So why not Boris?

The mind, as Boris might admit himself, boggles. 

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images