Where Are the Women? | The Nation


Where Are the Women?

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Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Sara Austin
Sara Austin is a New York-based writer on women's issues and philanthropy and a former senior editor of Marie Claire...

Sima Wali, president and CEO of Refugee Women in Development and driving force behind the Afghan Women's Summit, originally envisioned the event as a way to promote women's involvement in the peace process in Afghanistan--an ambitious strategy session for fifty Afghan women activists supported by Western feminists, UN and European Union officials, and women peacemakers from war-torn nations all over the world. But with the Taliban crumbling faster than anyone had imagined, by the time the Summit opened here on December 4, the peace process was already wrapping up in Bonn--and the Brussels contingent found to their amazement that their original agenda was, in essence, moot.

Wali herself was at the table in Bonn, alongside Seddighe Balkhi, leader of the Afghan Women's Political and Cultural Activities Center in Iran, and Northern Alliance representative Amina Afzali, an Iran-based activist whose husband was murdered by the KGB. As the three shuttled back and forth between Bonn and Brussels, word spread that the interim authority had appointed a moderate chair, Hamid Karzai, filled three of thirty Cabinet positions with women (it later turned out to be only two) and agreed to include more in the Loya Jirga, or general assembly. To the delight of many, Suhaila Seddiqi, a Tajik surgeon from Kabul, was named health minister in the new interim government. And while some continued to lambaste the male-dominated peace proceedings and the troubling human rights record and misogyny of an emboldened Northern Alliance, most were thrilled with the selection of Sima Samar--an activist for women as well as the persecuted Hazara minority--as minister of women's affairs.

For the predominantly Western feminist organizations that convened the Brussels meeting--Equality Now, V-Day, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Center for Strategic Initiatives of Women and the European Women's Lobby, assisted by Angela King, gender adviser to Kofi Annan at the UN, and Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM--it capped an extraordinary two months that had delivered them to the center of the international stage after years of toiling on the margins. Wali underscored the influence of Western feminists when she described her experience in Bonn. "I know I had a strong voice; I was very vocal. There were moments I felt completely alone, but I kept in constant contact with my US and international sisters." While the Afghan women met at a separate site, the conveners hatched a vision of a global movement that would make women key players in conflict resolution, nation-building and economic development around the world. "I truly believe those who are the most wounded have the greatest power to show us new directions," V-Day founder Eve Ensler told the Brussels delegates. "You have the future of Afghanistan in your hands, but also the future of the women of the world."

With their peace process agenda at least partially accomplished, the Afghan women were freed to strategize about the daunting challenges of governance and rebuilding. But first they had to confront their own deep-rooted differences. The oft-repeated call for "the voice of Afghan women" implies a monolith, but as Rina Amiri, senior associate for research and outreach at Harvard's Women Waging Peace initiative, has noted, "The polarization of ethnic groups has been much higher in the past five years, making collaboration difficult. And the type of gender consciousness that exists in the West does not exist in Afghanistan. It's the veiled versus the semi-veiled versus the unveiled."

Women in Afghanistan speak different languages, fall prey to the same ethnic and religious tensions that have fed twenty-two years of horrific war and follow radically different traditions depending on whether they live in cities (particularly Kabul) or in rural areas. Moreover, beginning with the Soviet-backed coup in 1978 and culminating in 1996 with the Taliban's ascendance, a diaspora has scattered Afghan women to every corner of the globe. As they came together in Brussels it was clear they brought starkly different backgrounds and worldviews to the table.

American, Canadian and European exiles like Sima Wali, Leila Enayat-Seraj and Zieba Shorish-Shamley came clad in expensive business suits and designer neck scarves (and in the case of glamorous Britain-based exile Alisha Mohamedzay, leather pants and four-inch heels). They joined Afghans living in Iran, Russia and the Central Asian republics, many wearing patterned head scarves and richly colored, floor-length dresses. Then there were the women who stayed behind, working in the slums and refugee camps of Pakistan and from within Afghanistan's borders. At barely 25 years old, cherub-faced Hena Efat and fierce, tiny Sahar Saba, 28, of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have both risked death to run secret schools for girls and women. They wore plain black head scarves in public spaces, shielding their entire faces for political protection. Their elders, like Shafiqa Habibi and Habiba Sorabi, were defiant behind weather-beaten faces and plain clothes in shades of black and brown.

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