News & Politics

A Place at the Table


While the overwhelmingly male Afghan tribal delegations were arguing in Bonn over their share of power in a post-Taliban government, Afghan women in New York were envisioning their own future—and bemoaning their minimal access to that planning meeting in Germany. With so many Afghan men killed in fighting, women now make up 54 percent of the population, though only three women are among the 38 or so delegates in Bonn.

The disproportion wasn’t lost on anyone attending last week’s two-day conference hosted by the New York-based group Women for Afghan Women. The voices speaking out about women’s political inequality ranged from outraged to what many here called “realistic.” Some urged patience, while Afghan activist Fahima Vorgetts angrily repeated the refrain “Three women can’t represent 11 million women” and the UN’s special adviser on gender issues, Angela King, raised the possibility of Afghan women forming their own tribal group to get government representation (a strategy used successfully by Somali women).

The conference at once provided an alternative for women who would have preferred to be included in the Bonn negotiations and a platform for supporting those who were. Many of the exiled Afghan women traded news of their seven representatives—three delegates and four advisers—and cheered at the mention of Sima Wali, an advocate who had been slated to give the keynote address in New York, but was instead serving as a member of the exiled Afghan king’s delegation in Germany. More women’s talks are scheduled, the next beginning this week in Brussels. But without official UN recognition, these meetings serve less to shape international policy than to demand the future power to do so.

Religion is at the heart of the tension over Afghan women’s future. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose members have worked in and out of Afghanistan to document Taliban atrocities, is pushing for secular Afghan leadership, though none of its members were invited to participate in the Bonn talks. But many in New York insisted that an Islamic government is the only serious option for the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Riffat Hassan, an Islamic feminist scholar, warned that non-religious efforts to help women can be counterproductive: “Women are going to have to fight for their lives in Islamic terms.”

Indeed, Zohra Yusuf Daoud, since 1972 the reigning Miss Afghanistan, went so far as to argue against challenging the stoning of women, which she said is called for as punishment for certain crimes by the Islamic law, the sharia. “This is something that is better to leave it alone,” says Daoud. “The society is not ready for that.” But even though she voiced conservative views, Daoud’s past gives a sense of the broad possibilities some Afghan women had before the Taliban. Daoud won her title in the first and last Miss Afghanistan pageant held (without a swimsuit competition) the year before the Soviet invasion. Afterward, she was an anchorwoman and news producer and wore blue jeans and sunglasses in her hometown of Kabul. In 1980, she fled Afghanistan for California, where she has found work mopping floors in a bakery and hosting a program on the 24 Hour Voice of Afghanistan radio station.

Many Afghan women have led lives constrained by both ancient customs and poverty (the female literacy rate is less than 5 percent). But before the country was devoured by violence, others, like Daoud, enjoyed mounting rights. Afghan women were granted the vote in a constitutional monarchy back in 1929. The Afghan king made the head scarf sometimes known as a burka optional in 1959. In 1964, the country’s constitution, drafted in part by women, institutionalized women’s right to education; by 1979, some 50 percent of college students in Kabul were female. Before the mujahideen took over the country in 1992, women accounted for 70 percent of teachers, 50 percent of government workers, and 40 percent of medical doctors, according to the UN.

The full effects of the reversal of these rights—which began under the mujahideen and continued, with public executions of women and restrictions of their most basic freedoms, under the Taliban—are still being revealed. Afghan women have the world’s second highest rate of maternal mortality and a life expectancy of a mere 44 years. In 1998, Zohra Rasekh, an Afghan- born epidemiologist, found that women’s physical health had seriously deteriorated under the Taliban. But according to Rasekh’s study, 97 percent of Afghan women are also seriously depressed: “I would ask them about their physical ailments and they would all point at their head and say, ‘I’m going crazy. Is there anything you can give me for my head?’ ”

The 300 conference participants seemed to agree on the first steps for relieving women’s suffering under the insane Taliban regime: securing health care, food, and the freedom to work and move about in public without male chaperones. But what should come next was a matter of contention. “We are not talking about a feminist movement,” warned Sister Sanaa Nadim, a Muslim chaplain from SUNY Stonybrook. “If we try to impose Western values, it will backfire!”

The question of values seemed to lurk beneath several conversations. Daoud, the former news anchor, worried over a pamphlet aimed at Afghans that showed a boy and a girl holding hands. “We don’t do that!” she said. For her part, Vorgetts, who earned a graduate degree in chemistry from the University of Kabul before fleeing to California, dismissed the focus on Western women’s ways as the influence of religious extremists. “They lie, they cheat, they kill, and it’s all OK as long as women don’t show off their boobs like Westerners,” said Vorgetts.

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?

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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