Prominent women attacked as Afghanistan eyes peace


Saba Sahar lies in a hospital bed

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Saba Sahar is recovering in hospital after being shot multiple times

Just minutes after Saba Sahar had left her home in Kabul, her husband heard gunshots ring out. The actress, film director and senior police official had received warnings of threats to her life in the past, so Emal Zaki frantically called his wife.

“She answered the phone and told me to come as soon as possible. She said she had been shot,” Mr Zaki told the BBC.

He was the first person on the scene and found his wife crouched down by a wall where she and her bodyguards had been trying to fend off the attackers. She had been shot multiple times but was still alive. He bundled her into a car and rushed to hospital.

Ms Sahar is one of Afghanistan’s first female film directors. Fiction and real life have interwoven for her at times, as she has starred in and helped produce a TV series about the Afghan police, and also holds a high-level role with the police force and Ministry of Interior.

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Saba Sahar has held both fictional and real-life roles within the Afghan police

She is now recovering in hospital, and is gradually starting to walk again. Her husband believes she was targeted for her work promoting women’s rights.

“Those who raise women’s voices are always at risk of being targeted,” Mr Zaki told the BBC, before adding defiantly, “but I think these attacks will never succeed in silencing the voices of the women of Afghanistan.”

Under Taliban rule in the 1990s women were not allowed to attend school or work. Since the hard-line group were overthrown in 2001, fragile progress has been made in bringing more Afghan women back into public life, though challenges remain.

The Taliban now say they don’t oppose women’s education, or them working. But some remain sceptical.

The attack on Saba Sahar is one of a number of assassination attempts that have taken place in Kabul in recent months, often targeting prominent figures.

In many instances, including the shooting of Ms Sahar, the Taliban has denied being responsible, but no other militant group has admitted involvement either.

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Emal Zaki believes his wife, Saba Sahar, was targeted because of her work promoting women’s rights

The spate of attacks – targeted shootings or blasts caused by small magnetic bombs attached to moving cars – come as other forms of militant violence in the Afghan capital have decreased. Since the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States in February, there have been far fewer large-scale suicide bombings, though violence in more rural areas has continued.

With talks between the Taliban and Afghan officials due to begin in the coming days in Doha, there are fears the attacks are attempts to marginalise vocal figures and intimidate civil society.

Victims include a senior Ministry of Education official who had participated in informal discussions with the Taliban in the past, while on Wednesday, First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, who has been a staunch opponent of the militants, survived a roadside bomb blast that targeted his convoy.

Women have also been repeatedly targeted. The killing of Fatima Khalil, a bright young employee of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in June caused particular outrage and despair.

Last month, politician Fawzia Koofi, who is part of the negotiating team due to meet with the Taliban, was shot whilst returning to Kabul from a neighbouring province. She survived, with injuries to her arm.

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Fawzia Koofi is part of the negotiating team that will meet with the Taliban

She told the BBC the shooting would not deter her from her work or from attending the talks when they begin.

“In fact, it has given me more strength,” she said. “I could see that the whole public stood by me. Even those who have views that are different from my views condemned this attack.”

Ms Koofi, who has been a vocal proponent of women’s rights, believes she may have been targeted both because of her political stance, and in an effort “to spoil the peace talks”.

So far, no-one seems clear exactly who is behind the attacks. Could the Taliban be responsible, and deliberately not claiming them publicly? Or could other militants such the Islamic State group, or even regional intelligence agencies be trying to play a disruptive role?

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The targeting of prominent female figures is also, however, feeding into wider concerns about what the outcome of the peace process will mean for Afghan women, and whether there could be a rolling back of the progress made in the last two decades.

Ms Koofi says she worries in the coming weeks and months that more women will be targeted.

“We will, unfortunately, have to pay a bigger price before peace.”

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