KABUL, Afghanistan -- Women and girls are still suffering severe abuse, harassment and repression at the hands of Afghanistan's post-Taliban leaders, particularly in the west of the country, a human rights group said Tuesday.
In a 52-page report titled, "We Want to Live as Humans," Human Rights Watch said life has improved marginally for some women and not at all for others since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime, which barred women from any role in public life.
"Many people outside the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their rights restored" after the collapse of the Taliban last year, said Zama Coursen-Neff, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"It's just not true. Women and girls are still being abused, harassed and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops and officials."
The gains that have been made have been limited, especially in western Afghanistan, the report said.
"While conditions are undoubtedly better than under the Taliban -- girls and women have better access to education and are not beaten by authorities in the streets -- many Taliban-era restrictions remain in place," the report said.
Even in the relatively liberal capital of Kabul, where the central government holds sway, a team of 90 women from the Ministry of Religious Affairs "harasses women in Kabul's streets for 'un-Islamic behavior,' such as wearing makeup, and, in some instances, follows them home to castigate their parents or spouses."
Human Rights Watch said the situation was particularly dire in the western province of Herat -- an area largely under the control of U.S.-backed warlord Ismail Khan.
"Under the rule of the local governor Ismail Khan, women's and girls' freedom of expression, association, movement and rights to equality, work, education and bodily integrity steadily deteriorated throughout 2002," the report said.
'We reject it completely'
The Herat government dismissed the report.
"We reject it completely," said Nasir Ahmed Alawi, spokesman for Ismail Khan. "We have women working with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and with women's groups. We have schools for girls."
Human Rights Watch said authorities prohibited women in Herat from walking or riding in vehicles alone with men who are not close relatives. With little public transport available -- they cannot even ride alone with a male taxi driver -- women have "few ways to get to school, work or the market, or to seek medical care."
Breaking the rules can mean arrest, or worse.
"A police task force now patrols Herat city, arresting men and women who are seen together and suspected of being unrelated or unmarried," the report said. "Men are taken to jail; women and girls are taken to a hospital to undergo forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse."
Human Rights Watch accused Khan's government of discriminating against the right of women to work, saying few jobs were open to women -- particularly in the government -- and others came only with "significant limitations."
The report said Khan had pressured women not to work with international aid groups and said at least one woman was arrested "because of her contact with foreign men during the course of her work with an international organization."
At home, women have almost no way to contest a male family member's decisions about whom she will marry or whether she can attend school or work, the report said. And those subjected to abuse or violence have no recourse.
"As in most parts of the country, fleeing from her home may result in her arrest and prosecution," the report said.
"Women and girls who have challenged these policies have been publicly and privately castigated by government officials and called 'un-Islamic,' a serious charge in a climate of returning fundamentalism," the report said.
"They have also been prohibited from speaking publicly or to journalists about women's rights, and fired from their jobs or threatened with being fired."
Though the situation for women in Herat was bad, conditions in rural areas were "likely worse," the report said.