Where Are the Women?
Of course, many of these issues are hot buttons for the West as well, none more than the veil, which has been seized upon as a symbol of women's oppression--to Muslim women's dismay. Although very few Afghan women support the compulsory burqa, they seem equally fearful of new laws that might restrict the wearing of traditional Muslim garb, as has happened under Turkey's secular government. "Our culture says that women should be modest, should not provoke strangers," says Enayat-Seraj. "If Islam says that is what a woman should be, the government cannot contradict that. It would be an atomic bomb."
Given their various disagreements, both delegates and conveners seemed surprised at how much they were able to achieve in three days in Brussels. The final document produced by the Afghans, dubbed "The Brussels Proclamation," stops short of embracing Western-style secular democracy but is nonetheless an impressively specific list of sixty-two demands, calling, for example, for an emergency plan to reopen schools by March 2002 for boys and girls; the provision of birth control in refugee camps; a comprehensive and sustained focus on disarmament and removal of landmines; the channeling of donor funds through local Afghan NGOs; and the rebuilding of hospitals, medical training facilities and vaccination programs. Sidestepping the most divisive issues for now, they presented the European Parliament with feasible strategies for immediately improving education, healthcare, basic human rights and personal safety for everyone in Afghanistan and the surrounding refugee camps. In late December they expect to deliver the same ideas to Colin Powell in Washington and the UN Security Council in New York.
Meanwhile, the summit conveners issued their own list of commitments, including the creation of an international task force of women's rights lawyers to serve as a resource in drafting the new constitution and the provision of political support to the new Ministry of Women created in Bonn. They also underscored their global ambitions by declaring a theme for International Women's Day, March 8, 2002: "Afghanistan Is Everywhere," a phrase coined by Ensler. "Misogyny has reached its purest form in Afghanistan, but misogyny is everywhere," she said. "All the things that we are fighting for in Afghanistan are everywhere, and the freeing of Afghanistan will free us all."
Going forward, the international community's enthusiasm has obvious advantages for the Afghan NGOs represented in Brussels: Afghan women find themselves with unprecedented leverage in their fight to get control of dispensing international aid and to tie US, UN and EU money to progress on women's rights. On the other hand, some here expressed wariness that the potency of Afghan women as a symbol would tempt outsiders to exploit the cause for their own ends--and not just the Bush Administration, the most obvious offender.
"Do not use us to further your agenda," Zieba Shorish-Shamley, executive director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, warned her allies in Brussels. "We have Western sisters, Eastern sisters and the international community. To those who have helped us unconditionally, we thank you and welcome your help. To those who would use us, we say it will come back to you."
Whether the summit was a moment or the birth of a movement won't be known for months or even years. Wali said she hoped that a loose political coalition would endure, with new connections both among the Afghan women and between Afghans and the rest of the world. The hurdles are great. But Somali activist Hibaaq Osman, president of the Center for Strategic Initiatives of Women, told a hopeful story from her experience. When clansmen in Somalia shut women out of the peace process there, the women formed a new clan--the Sister Clan. "No nation is more divisive than Somalia," she told the Afghan delegates. "But we found out that in conflict, we were sisters. We don't expect you to embrace each other, but just to see beyond your differences. What you have in common is the misery."
The formidable women in Brussels seemed for the most part to have taken that message to heart. By simply showing up they gave the world a concrete picture of what women can bring to the table when they are invited--each one here, after all, represented a network of hundreds of capable, motivated Afghan women. That should dispel forever the notion that Afghan women's talents and spirits are too depleted by abuse and diaspora for them to play a leading role in their own government.