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Under the brief reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the country's women bore the brunt of the suffering. Amnesty International calls Afghanistan under the Taliban 'a human rights catastrophe' and many Afghan women who struggled to survive this era describe themselves then as the 'living dead'. The Taliban regime deprived women of their basic human rights. Women were banned from public life, from the education system and from the job market. No man other than her husband was supposed to hear a woman's voice and women even told not appear in the windows or on the balconies of their homes. The Taliban were determined to control every aspect of Afghanistan's women's lives. The prohibition against women appearing in public without a blood relative or without wearing the all enveloping burqa was the final chapter in the zealous drive to confine women to the home.
A generation of women living under the short-lived but brutal 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' became disillusioned and disenfranchised. The stress and fear of constantly being under tight scrutiny has caused widespread depression, mental health problems and family breakups.
Since the toppling of Kabul's extremist rulers by a US led invasion which came about as a consequence of the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, the lot of women has improved somewhat, though a simmering insurgency persists and conservative elements in society remain as strong and dominant as ever in certain parts of the country. Both homegrown and foreign inspired programmes to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan have changed the playing field to some extent and women have once again started to play an active role in the country's civic life. Women can now be found in the national parliament, the police force and the army. Yet fierce resistance to women's empowerment persists in a country that has been in continual turmoil since the late 1970s.
Malalai Kakar, a female Lieutenant Colonel in Kandahar's police force, was murdered in 2008 and Lieutenant Islam Bibi, the highest ranking policewoman in Helmand province, was shot dead in July 2013.
After the fall of the Taliban, an emergency Loya Jirga (or 'grand assembly' of tribal elders) reserved 10% of the 1,600 seats for women. Following on from this, the 2004 constitution reserved seats for women and minorities in both houses of parliament and while there were three women in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet of 2005 the number has now sunk back to one, the Minister of Women's Affairs. Women are disadvantaged from the outset in the political arena due to a much lower levels of literacy and enduring cultural and social restrictions. Despite making up half of the electorate, women's participation in politics is restricted by lack female voter education, lack of qualified staff for female-only voting stations and other factors.
Women's lives remain precarious in many parts of the country and many women and girls risk their lives by going to work and school. Girls continue to be married off by their relatives in their low teens while Afghanistan carries the shameful accolade of having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. A life expectancy of a mere 44 years therefore doesn't come as too much of a surprise. Amnesty International calls Afghanistan one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to be a woman. While the lot of some women has markedly improved after the removal of the Taliban from power it remains to be seen to what extent the new Afghan National Army will be able to control the various insurgencies and sources of conflict in the country and thus give women a better live in a new Afghanistan.