Nazari, an Afghan parliamentarian, is the driving force behind the country's first political party dedicated to women's rights and issues. She launched National Need on February 19 at a ceremony in Kabul, saying the party hopes to put women's rights at the forefront of the national political debate. It intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, likely in three years' time.
"I believe women understand their own problems better than men would," she says, adding that National Need will seek to increase women's participation in politics and business. "We want to campaign for democracy, not only talk about democracy. In this way, we want to work with our brothers and the rest of Afghan society."
Some of Nazari's fellow deputies and officials in Kabul welcomed the creation of the country's first-ever women's political party. Some called it a step forward toward greater democracy and recognition of women's rights.
Because of quotas stipulated in the internationally backed Afghan Constitution, the Afghan parliament has a relatively high representation of women -- 23 of the 100 members of the upper house and 68 of the 249 deputies in the lower house are women.
But in a deeply conservative Islamic country devastated by decades of war, poverty, and a lack of education, that's not enough. "I have already dealt with women's issues as a deputy," Nazari tells RFE/RL. "But I eventually felt that we Afghans needed a special party entirely focused on women to raise their profile."
Tradition Of Exclusion, Abuse
Not everyone is so optimistic. Nazari says the party already boasts 22,500 registered members, men and women, not only in Kabul but also conservative areas such as Paktika, Maidan Wardak, and Helmand. Yet can a neophyte political party hope to change traditional views about the role of women in a place like Afghanistan?
Maryam Panjsheri has her doubts. A female activist in the northern Panjsher Valley, she says she is "highly skeptical" about National Need's potential to forge change beyond the capital and a few bigger cities, such as Mazar-e Sharif or Herat.
"It's all for show," Panjsheri tells RFE/RL. "The party leaders will give speeches, interviews, set up seminars -- and that's all they'll do. I don't think women's organizations play a significant role in Afghan women's lives. I don't believe there is such a group that fights for their economic well-being, rights, or health care. I'm just being realistic."
Besides all the war and poverty, Afghan women are also systematically excluded from social, political, and public life, and are often victims of domestic violence. Even Afghan officials admit that while women have improved job and educational opportunities since the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence against women is unchanged. It might be even more common than before. According to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, over the last year more than 2,000 cases of violence against women have been registered. Yet most abuse goes unreported.
Often, very young Afghan girls are also victims of fixed marriages. Some parents force their daughters -- sometimes as young as 8-years-old -- into marriage to settle debts or family feuds.
Moreover, women usually cannot leave their families or seek a divorce, because in many parts of Afghanistan divorce is considered dishonorable. A divorced woman cannot return to her parents' family and, in an impoverished country with widespread unemployment, she cannot rebuild her life on her own, either.
Some women seek escape by self-immolation, resulting in death or disfigurement. Last year, at least 30 women committed suicide in the western Farah Province alone, most of them by setting themselves on fire, according to Afghan media reports.
One Step At a Time
Panjsheri acknowledges her hopes may seem unrealistic. "We know our goals won't be easy to implement, but they are realistic," she says. "We know it won't happen overnight. It may take many years." Panjsheri adds that the biggest challenge will be to reach the women in the most conservative families.
For now, that's a tall order. "Parents who deny education for their daughters, force their young girls into marriage, or a husband who abuses his wife, definitely would not allow rights activists to meet their daughters and wives to educate them about their rights and invite them into politics and business," she says.
But you've got to start somewhere, says Malolai Rushandil Osmani, a women's rights activist in the northern Balkh Province. Speaking to RFE/RL, Osmani acknowledges the challenges facing both women and women's rights activists. "It's a difficult task, especially in the conservative southern and eastern provinces. But one way or another, you have to try."
Osmani, who runs the women's NGO Foundation to Defend Afghan Women's Rights, has her own tactics for promoting women's rights in sensitive areas. "When we go to a village, first of all we talk to the local elderly and the local religious leader," she says. "With their approval, we can then meet with their families. Everybody accepts the fact that it would be better if women dealt with women's issues."
Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, millions of Afghan girls have returned to school all over the country. Many women now have access to jobs and medical care. In the past five years, in the southern city of Kandahar alone, some 5,000 women have graduated from special literacy courses where they were taught to read and write as well as skills such as dressmaking or computer knowledge. And recently, the government announced a strategy to give nearly one-third of state jobs to women by 2012.
"Let's just hope the new party's leaders really seek to improve Afghan women's lives, and that they include every woman everywhere -- from Kabul to the most remote villages," Osmani says.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
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