A Place at the Table

Afghan Women Debate Their Future

Meanwhile Gloria Steinem, dressed in a sheer brown shirt, spoke on a panel alongside Riffat Hassan, who was wrapped in traditional robes. Steinem shied away from suggesting how exactly Afghan women should proceed in their own country, instead encouraging American women to point out misogynist policies within the U.S. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, agreed. The Bush administration "needs to construct a foreign policy as if women mattered," said Smeal.

Smeal's group was the first to identify Taliban atrocities and pressure the U.S. government to remove the regime. Now that this goal is in reach, women are on the threshold of uncharted territory, complete with new challenges. How will a new Afghan government regard women—some of whom may want to wear high heels, while others will continue to wear the burka even when they have a choice? How well can the Northern Alliance, which had the biggest delegation in Bonn, be expected to treat women when it has been responsible for mass rape and forced marriage in the past?

Farida, a mother of two who asked that her last name not be used because she doesn't want to endanger her family in exile, was one of the Afghan women who recently met with Laura Bush. She foresees many practical dilemmas in Afghanistan's future. How will fathers be convinced to let their daughters go to school? How should teachers approach 14-year-old girls who have never been educated?

Farida: "The women who suffered a lot want to be able to decide what happens."
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Farida: "The women who suffered a lot want to be able to decide what happens."

Even before all this, says Farida, there is an immediate and perhaps more daunting problem: how to get women into the ongoing negotiations about their own future. "The women who suffered a lot want to be able to decide what happens," says Farida. If not, she says, "the woman will be as a server. She will just clean the table, she will not be at the table."

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