Where Are the Women?
As Sorabi pointed out, even this diverse group of women represented primarily the elite of the nation. "Wealthy, educated women have the ability to express themselves, to demand their rights," she said. "But I would like to emphasize the rights of rural women. Nobody is asking how a constitution could back their needs. They are deprived of so many basic rights and cannot even express themselves. Basically they are being treated like animals."
Interactions among the women were energetic and sisterly; at dinner, conversation bubbled in every language and delegates broke spontaneously into Afghan songs and dances. But Enayat-Seraj says that during their closed-door meetings, "Immediately you could see the group split along the lines of ethnicity. We spent the whole first day trying to iron out those differences."
Afghan women's cultural differences translated into sharply different views on how to rebuild Afghanistan, notably the form the planned permanent government should take: secular democracy, an Islamic republic based on the Iran model or something in between, perhaps based on the 1964 Afghan Constitution. Given still-fresh memories of Northern Alliance atrocities in the mid-nineties, everybody agreed on the need for a peacekeeping force to protect women from violence; its composition and scope, however, were matters of dispute. And there were myriad strategies and priorities proposed for delivering international aid--both who should administer the money and to which of the nation's countless pressing needs it should be directed.
Looming largest in Brussels were fundamental differences about the pace of modernizing women's roles in Afghanistan. Groups more strongly allied with Western feminists, such as RAWA and the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (WAPHA), based in Washington, DC, reportedly pushed for the Brussels meeting to produce a manifesto of women's rights based on the language of international law--the Geneva Convention, the Beijing Accord, the UN Declaration of Women's Rights and similar resolutions. "Democracy is not just for Westerners, it is for human beings," said Saba.
Others resisted that effort, which they perceived as an overly risky and ambitious strategy. The exile Enayat-Seraj describes the conflict: "How do we apply those rights in our society? The Afghan women who have lived there and are aware of traditional, Islamic culture understand how hard that is. We are a traditional, backward, patriarchal and conservative country. The younger generation has grown up in a totally foreign culture."
Thus some argued that Afghan women should not push immediately for change on issues that are hot buttons for fundamentalists--for instance, coeducation, the wearing of the burqa or other Muslim dress, or granting women family rights like divorce, inheritance, reproductive freedom and the right to refuse an arranged marriage. As Zohra Yusuf Daoud, a former Miss Afghanistan who is a radio talk-show host based in Malibu, California, put it a week before the conference: "We must start slowly: the right to work, to education, to healthcare. If a woman has to wear a burqa head to toe but can go to school, then that is something I approve of."