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Where Are the Women? | The Nation

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Where Are the Women?

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Brussels

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.

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."

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.

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