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Afghanistan: Tajwar Kakar -- Fighting For Women And Freedom (Part 4)

By Farah Hiwad Tajwar Kakar. In December 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 8 March as a commemorative day honoring women's rights and international peace. The tradition of marking a special women's day stretches back nearly a century, and continues to unite women across the world regardless of ethnic and political boundaries. Women are largely lost in the tumult and chaos of Afghanistan's recent history. Their victimization over the past 25 years of war and conflict -- particularly under the Taliban -- has been well-documented. But their roles as patriots, fighters, teachers, and survivors are often overlooked. Tajwar Kakar is one such woman. The mother of seven has spent the past quarter-century working for the freedom of her country and fellow Afghan women. She defied the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in fighting for the right for girls to attend school, and continues to stand up to a system dominated by warlords and political cronies who she says have destroyed the country -- not saved it. After 25 years, Kakar says, the fight for women's rights is only just beginning.

Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is a bitter irony for many Afghan women. Fighting alongside the mujahedin during the decade-long Soviet occupation, women did everything from organizing protests to smuggling ammunition to Afghan fighters -- sometimes even fighting on the frontlines themselves.

"It is very disappointing that no one mentions that women have also struggled."
But this chapter in Afghan history is rarely remembered. Women are not typically honored as part of the anti-Soviet resistance. Sidelined from the military struggle against communist occupation, they have remained on the sidelines ever since -- victimized, repressed, and isolated from the political process.

But women like Tajwar Kakar continue to fight. Born in 1948, she has been a witness to and participant in Afghanistan's tumultuous 25-year struggle for freedom. She is among Afghanistan's most prominent rights activists, and a former member of the interim government. But then as now, she says, the fight remains.

Kakar was a teacher in Kabul when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. She still remembers proudly her role in the resistance, for which she spent a year in jail. "Twenty-five thousand political prisoners were jailed at that time, and all of them disappeared," she says. "But I don't regret being in prison. Most of the women I met were proud of themselves for being imprisoned for the cause of freedom."

Still, she says, the cruelties she and her fellow inmates endured are something she will never forget.

"They kicked us, punched us, beat us with wooden sticks. There was also a girl there who was accused of aiding the mujahedin. The prison staff buried her under the snow on one of the coldest winter nights. Another woman, who told me she was a police officer, was also accused of [aiding the mujahedin], so they tied her feet to an electric heater. Her feet were completely burned as a result," Kakar said.

Kakar says she emerged from prison more determined than ever to fight the occupation. But her activities as an activist put her life in danger, and in the early 1980s, she and her husband fled from Afghanistan with their seven children, traveling mainly on foot from Kunduz to Peshawar, Pakistan. Their youngest child, Maihan, was just eight days old when they left.

Kakar quickly went to work building schools for children living in Pakistan's refugee camps. "I saw there were no schools or textbooks, especially for girls," she says. "I thought the children of our freedom fighters deserved an education."

In the end, she and her family spent six years in Pakistan, and then moved again to Australia when her life was once again in danger. But all that time, she was fighting for a role for women in the interim government after the Northern Alliance took power in 1992.

It was a time of optimism for many Afghans, who hoped the country would finally be free to determine its own fate. Kakar was among the women activists calling for a significant role for women in building an interim government and calling for the authorities to resist political cronyism and nepotism.

But her hopes were shattered. "The mujahedin were very selfish," she says. "Everybody wanted to be either president or prime minister."

"When the mujahedin took power -- that was the worst time for women. Women were raped, kidnapped, and killed. The mujahedin issued a decree that prohibited women from attending university because the universities could not provide separate classes for men and women. This decree effectively blocked women from getting a higher education. Later, when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, they issued an order that girls over the age of 9 should attend religious school, not regular school. During the Taliban regime, I came back to Kabul [from Australia] and worked at a school that was run by a Swedish organization, and I also worked with some other aid agencies helping people with disabilities. It's true the Taliban did not allow girls to go to school. But they brought law and order. They stopped what was happening with women under the Northern Alliance. They were not killing or raping or kidnapping women. For the past 25 years, women have suffered with each government. The communists claimed that women and men were equal. They claimed they were democratic. The reality was that educated women were put in prison," Kakar said.

Maihan, the eight-day-old infant Kakar carried into Pakistan, is now in her early 20s, and a journalism student in Australia. She says she has few childhood memories of her mother, who often left her in the care of older brothers and sisters as she attended conferences and directed the refugee schools for girls. But she says if she and her siblings have learned one thing from her mother, it is that education is everything.

"My mother has always supported education as being the most important thing. Even now, she still says your education is the most important thing in life. If you don't have an education, you cannot stand on your own two feet, because that is what is going to liberate you and teach you a lot in life," Maihan said.

Maihan has spent nearly all of her life outside Afghanistan. But she has clearly inherited her mother's fierce love of her homeland.

"I would like to go back, especially now that it's a time where Afghanistan is very much in need of educated people to come back and rebuild the country. And I'd like to go back and help, especially where women and children are concerned, especially with women's rights and helping children receive an education," Maihan said.

Kakar has since served briefly as a deputy in the interim government's Women's Affairs Ministry, but stepped down, saying she was frustrated by how little she was able to accomplish.

To the international community, Kakar is an integral figure in Afghanistan's resurrection. Her lobbying work has seen concrete results -- new schools and textbooks for the country's young girls, and a growing rights movement for its women. Afghan women in Kabul will mark International Women's Day 8 March with public demonstrations calling for change. Kakar says it is just the latest step in a 25-year fight.

"It is very disappointing that no one mentions that women have also struggled," she says. "We are waiting for the government and the mujahedin to recognize women's rights."

Click here to read Part 1 of this series, "Uzbekistan: Ozoda Eshmuradova -- 'Selling Her Hands' And Waiting For A Better Future."

Click here to read Part 2 of this series, "Kazakhstan: Top Businesswoman Raushan Sarsembayeva Sets Her Sights On Parliament."

Click here to read Part 3 of this series, "Iran: Simin Behbehani, A Poet For The Ages, Captures Nation's Suffering And Joys."