The United Nations sponsored a panel discussion titled "Women in Afghanistan: Beyond the Media Portrayal to Action" in New York on 20 November. The day's talks revealed that the process of reconciliation between that country's rulers and women will be long and bumpy. But participants agreed that it is time to move away from the media portrayal of Afghan women as passive victims and toward their broad involvement in any decision-making process regarding the country's future. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev reports that the Afghan women's deep lack of trust in not only the Taliban but the Northern Alliance will be hard to overcome.
United Nations, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In 1990, Afghan leaders issued a fatwa decreeing that women should not attend school or become educated. The decree -- signed by some 200 mullahs and political leaders -- was only the first of many restrictions placed on the freedom of Afghan women.
The situation deteriorated further in 1992, when the Northern Alliance seized control of the country and forced women out of a number of jobs and required them to wear the veil. In 1996, the year the Taliban came to power, an already desperate situation became intolerable, with the radical Islamic group institutionalizing the total oppression of women.
Now, with the Taliban defeated in many parts of the country and the power vacuum that has resulted, many women are shedding their head-to-toe burqas and rejoicing at the possibility of returning to work or school. But according to participants in the UN-sponsored panel held in New York, the liberation of Afghan women may be short-lived unless they seek active engagement in the rebuilding of the war-torn country.
Angela King is the UN's special adviser on gender and women's issues. She emphasized how important it is for UN members to ensure that Afghan women are given the right to participate in all areas of life: "Governments can ensure that the question of Afghan women's participation is raised at all levels and is raised consistently, particularly in the areas of the political processes, humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and rebuilding of the country."
Key to such efforts, King says, is not only securing an active role for Afghan women in the process of democratization, but also convincing negotiators and leaders of Afghan factions of the benefits of including women as full partners in the decision-making process around the peace table.
Noeleen Heyzer is the executive director of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNFW). She said that changing the attitudes of male Afghan leaders toward women's participation in society is a prerequisite for the success of the peace process and women's reintegration: "One of the things that we have to do as we identify women leaders is also to identify sympathetic male leaders on that table and to already make sure that these issues are very much [on] their minds."
The UN coordinator for Afghanistan, Michael Sackett, recently told reporters in Islamabad that Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah welcomed the full participation of Afghan women in society and confirmed that there was now no restriction on the employment of Afghan women by UN agencies. Sackett said the Alliance official also agreed that the chador -- a loose-fitting veil that leaves the face visible -- is now acceptable street attire for Afghan women and that the burqa is no longer mandatory.
Although panel members welcomed such developments, they said such concessions are only a small gesture made by the Northern Alliance to appease the U.S. and its Western allies. The Alliance, in fact, has a grim reputation for human rights abuses, particularly against women.
Tahmeena Faryal is a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a Pakistan-based organization. She said that the fate of Afghanistan's women is inextricably tied to the fate of the country itself: "The message of Afghan women is clear and loud -- [that] what women in Afghanistan need is emancipation, that women's emancipation is not possible without a national emancipation, that national emancipation is not possible without democracy, that as long as there's no democracy, human rights and the women's rights are nothing but hooks."
UN special adviser King noted that in 1977, some 15 percent of all legislators in Afghanistan were women. Up to the early 1990s, women comprised 70 percent of all teachers, 50 percent of government workers, and 40 percent of medical doctors. More than half of the Afghan population (55 percent) today are women. For the last decade, King said, they have been largely excluded from the participation in society.
Heyzer of UNWF said this exclusion must be brought to an end: "Afghanistan is at a crossroad. And if there is one message that we all have learned, [it] is that the cost of excluding women, both from the peace process and from the reconstruction, is too high. And that cycle of exclusion must be broken."
Participants in the panel noted the important role the media have played in recent months in highlighting the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. While the exposure of women's rights abuses by the Taliban has increased world awareness of the problem, panel participants said it is now time to move away from portraying Afghan women as voiceless victims, and move toward their active engagement in all areas of civil life.
Jessica Neuwirth is the president of Equality Now, a New York-based women's rights organization. She said that only the equal participation of women in the democratic process will determine the future of Afghanistan: "The story that has come through the media needs to be changed, as has the reality. We have to move the media from seeing women as victims to seeing women as equal participants in a political and democratic process that will determine the future of Afghanistan."
Heyzer of UNFW stopped short of saying whether women's equal participation in Afghanistan's future would be possible at this point. But she said it is important for the UN to take into account the recommendations on the subject from various UN-sponsored conferences: "It is extremely important that the UN takes the recommendations from the UN conferences seriously. One of the recommendations that has come out of Beijing is that it should be at least 30 percent [female] participation in decision-making in all forms. And I think we need to at least press for that in this meeting in Berlin." (The location of the meeting has since been moved to Bonn, Germany.)
Representatives of the Northern Alliance and several other Afghan factions will meet in Bonn, Germany, beginning on 26 November to try to set up an interim administration for Afghanistan. Both the Alliance and the exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, have said their delegations at the conference will include women.