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Is the Time Finally Ripe For Afghan Women's Rights?

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Is the Time Finally Ripe for Afghan Women's Rights?

by D.M. Yankowski 1:19pm Mon Dec 17 '01


WOMEN'S RIGHTS are not exactly a new idea in Afghanistan. The same year the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or sex, Afghanistan adopted a new constitution granting women full suffrage and access to political institutions.

Is the Time Finally Ripe for Afghan Women's Rights?

by D.M. Yankowski


WOMEN'S RIGHTS are not exactly a new idea in Afghanistan. The same year the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or sex, Afghanistan adopted a new constitution granting women full suffrage and access to political institutions. As a result, four women were elected to parliament and one woman was given the cabinet position of health minister in Afghanistan. The new constitution and expanded rights followed on the heels of more than fifty years of various attempts at modernization by the Afghan monarchy.

After a bloody-coup and subsequent Soviet meddling; however, the Soviet-Afghan War began in 1979, heralding the era of Kalishnikov-politics and the U.S.-backed mujahideen's rise to power.

The last Soviet troops left in 1989, and in 1992 the mujahideen fundamentalists gained control. Previously held women's rights were eviscerated. Women were left shrouded not only in a burka, but also in an environment of fear and submission. The mujahideen, led by a coalition of tribal leaders known as the Northern Alliance (now officially known as the United Front), raped, killed and pillaged at will.

Enter the Taliban. By 1996, the Taliban had chased the Northern Alliance out of Kabul and any marginal rights women still possessed were repealed. It seems fear and submission were not enough for the Taliban, nothing short of practical incarceration would do. When women did go outside the home, always accompanied by a male relative unless they were widowed, Taliban religious police from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice chased down every unveiled body part and squeaking shoe in range and hit them with sticks or switches.

While the Northern Alliance licked their wounds in northern Afghanistan, they continued their appalling record of human rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. But things were better for women in Northern Alliance territories than in those run by the Taliban, or so it seems. Some Afghan women question the sincerity of the Northern Alliance's commitment to women's rights.

A Spotted Record

Afghan women's advocate Sahar Sabar told an Australian reporter, "Both sides have the same mentality, the same ideology, and we cannot forget the Northern Alliance were the first who called democracy its 'infidel' [and] who called the doors of schools 'gateways to hell'"

Sabar is a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA has struggled for women's rights since 1977 and joined the battle to overthrow bureaucratic communism in 1979, never deferring to the fundamentalists. Meena, the founder of RAWA, was assassinated by a cooperative effort of Soviet and fundamentalist forces, but RAWA carries on its struggle for women's rights through secret schools and health clinics and by bringing attention to human rights abuses and calling for full women's participation in governance.

RAWA remains principally opposed to all fundamentalisms, even those that permit kite-flying and listening to music. A statement from the group warns, "Some European countries want to give a 'democratic' aura to the Rabbani-Masoud gang and impose it on Afghanistan, heedless of the fact that our people have seen such days full of blood and treachery from the Jehadis [Northern Alliance, and other mujahideen], that they consider such oppressors as meriting only contempt and damnation, no matter what clothes they cover themselves with."

Not all Afghan women agree with RAWA. Fevziye Barlas, a journalist and poet currently living in the United States while studying for her doctorate in Near East and Middle East Studies at the University of Washington, argues the Northern Alliance is capable of change: "I believe each faction and tribe who were involved in the war did unforgivable mistakes. Now is the time for...reconciliation."

Zohra Saed, a New York-based poet and Afghan women's advocate who left Afghanistan as a child, said, "[The year] 2001...is a very different time and a very different Northern Alliance." She cites as an example the willingness of the Northern Alliance to submit to the UN process. The Northern Alliance is one of four groups that met in Bonn to forge an interim government under UN and international supervision.

While others are hopeful that the new and improved Northern Alliance will serve only as a liberation force and leave space in the political landscape for a broad ruling coalition, RAWA has no qualms about labeling the coalition as traitors and liars. In her testimony on October 31, before the Subcommittee of the U.S. House on International Operations and Human Rights, RAWA member Tahmeena Faryal said:

Currently, RAWA and many other Afghans fear that the "Northern Alliance" groups now lie in ambush, waiting to ride the guns of the U.S. into Kabul and working to gain Western backing to establish their second "emirate." They have yet to prove, or even offer, a single shred of reason or credible evidence suggesting that they would not repeat their prior atrocities.

More Recent Violations

As the Northern Alliance moves on the Taliban stronghold Kandahar, they have left a series of red flags marking questions about their intentions and commitment to international standards of human rights.

The Northern Alliance captured Kabul despite opposition from international forces, including the United States. Some 400 foreign volunteers to the Taliban cause, mostly from Pakistan, were slaughtered in a prison uprising near Mazar-i-Sharif in late November. The exact nature of the uprising and the resultant mass killings remains highly suspect since 50 pro-Taliban soldiers were found shot even though their hands were bound, according to Isabel Hilton, reporting for the London Guardian.

With that said, it remains crucial that women are involved in monitoring the situation and are in a position to affect change in Afghanistan.

So far, their presence has been far less than proportional. Three women were included in the UN-sponsored Bonn talks out of some 40 delegates, hardly representative of a country where it is believed women comprise 60 percent of the population. The Bonn agreement resulted in the creation of a new transitional government which, so far, includes two women.

Internal Politics

According to a report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released earlier this year, "More than 90% of Afghan women and men sampled...claimed to strongly support the rights of women to have equal access to education and work opportunities, freedom of expression, legal protection for women's human rights and participation in government." The report was based on a population-based assessment which surveyed 746 Afghan men and women. The population sampled was in both Taliban-controlled and non-Taliban controlled areas, urban and rural. Forty-two percent sampled were from Pashtun tribes and forty-four percent were from Tajik tribes. Of the women surveyed, 84 percent were poorly educated.

Last year In Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Afghan women drafted a declaration of women's rights. Women on the Road for Afghanistan (WORFA), an international feminist group, sponsored the conference that preceded the drafting session. Representatives to the drafting session included Afghan women from various backgrounds, including housewives, doctors, lawyers, teachers, administrators, and activists.

The declaration, which established ten "essential rights" [see below] that Afghan women should demand, was drawn from various Afghan and international documents, including the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the 1964 Afghan constitution.

One might wonder about popular support for such a declaration in a primarily tribal society. Dr. Maliha Zulfacar, a draft signatory and professor of sociology at the California Polytechnic State University, wrote in Omaid Weekly, "What was most astonishing was that these Afghan women dealt with the issue beyond tribal or ethnic alignment."

The PHR report and Dushanbe declaration indicate that beyond the Afghan educated class and international opinion there is a mandate for women's rights in Afghanistan. Why then are more women not being including in the negotiations in Bonn considering there is both a qualified group of women's advocates and popular support?

Here we can only guess, but RAWA may be on to something by citing the Northern Alliance's misogynist past. Clearly, the Northern Alliance is the most organized and powerful player in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Perhaps within the ranks of the Northern Alliance there is still considerable opposition to women's rights despite a few leaders who embrace women's rights and modernization.

A senior leader in the Northern Alliance, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, is known for his strict adherence to separation of the sexes, according to Toronto Star reporter Thomas Walkom. Other leaders, including former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani are ideological fundamentalists. At the very least, we can imagine the women's rights in Afghanistan are still a sore spot for Northern Alliance leaders

So the question of whether the Northern Alliance is committed to women's rights—full women's rights—remains just that, a question. No doubt some things have changed and a strict fundamentalist view of women will not be tolerated. Nevertheless, there are many shades in between fundamentalism and feminism. The only real assurance that women's rights will prevail is if women have unimpeded access to political institutions. Anything short of that is a farce, and nothing at all substantial will have changed. [ L i P ]


Section III of the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women lists ten "essential" rights:

1.) The right to equality between men and women and the right to the elimination of all forms of discrimination and segregation, based on gender, race or religion.

2.) The right to personal safety and to freedom from torture or inhumane or degrading treatment.

3.) The right to physical and mental health for women and their children.

4.) The right to equal protection under the law.

5.) The right to institutional education in all the intellectual and physical disciplines.

6.) The right to just and favorable conditions of work.

7.) The right to move about freely and independently.

8.) The right to freedom of thought, speech, assembly and political participation

9.) The right to wear or not to wear the veil or the scarf.

10.) The right to participate in cultural activities including theatre, music and sports.


Author: D.M. Yankowski is a freelance writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to Clamor and Friction magazine.


L i P : Media Dissidence & Uncivil Discourse Since 1996

CONTACT US: info@lipmagazine.org


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