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Afghanistan: Despite Optimistic Talk, Role Of Women Remains Unclear

UN officials and Western leaders say the plight of women in Afghanistan must be strongly considered by Afghan delegates now in Bonn for talks on an interim government. Only four women are participating in the UN-sponsored conference. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with one of them about what changes the talks may bring for women in Afghanistan.

Bonn, Germany; 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The stakes are high for this week's Afghan conference in Bonn.

Billions of dollars in international aid are riding on whether the four Afghan factions attending the conference can hammer out an agreement on an interim government to succeed the Taliban militia. A development conference is currently underway in Islamabad to discuss the country's rebuilding. A second donor's conference has already been scheduled for next week in Berlin.

But as Afghan delegates hold their talks in a luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River, UN officials and Western leaders are reminding them that any successful interim government must also address the concerns of those in Afghanistan without a voice -- most notably, the country's women.

In his opening address yesterday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the delegates that the international community expects human rights to be a key focus of the new government: "Respect for and protection of human rights -- that includes, first and foremost, guaranteeing the rights and dignity of women. Their active participation in the social and political life of the nation is essential for the country's peaceful future."

Fischer said that a significant portion of the $70 million in aid money pledged by Germany would be geared towards improving education for Afghan women and girls.

But despite such prominent voices of support, it's unclear what role Afghan women will have in their country's future government. Only four women are present in an official capacity at this week's conference, with only two working as actual delegates.

Some 30 Afghan women demonstrated yesterday at the foot of the hill leading up to the conference area in Petersberg, saying the lack of representation at the talks reflects the oppression of women in Afghanistan.

But Fatima Gailani, an adviser to the exile Peshawar group who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, dismissed criticism of the lack of women representatives at the conference. Wearing a loose green scarf over her hair -- attire that had been strictly banned by the Taliban, which flogged women for showing their face in public -- Gailani spoke with our correspondent yesterday on the sidelines of the Petersberg talks.

Gailani -- whose father, former guerrilla commander Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, is the nominal head of the Peshawar group -- said the talks mark the beginning of a new future for women in Afghanistan, one that would approach the standards of life under former Afghan King Zahir Shah, which she described as a time of "democracy" and equal rights.

"I think we [are getting] what we didn't -- I didn't -- dream [of]. I thought we would go through all the process of years and years to get what we had in the time of democracy [under the king]. But now I can see that maybe, inshallah [Allah willing], we will get it much sooner than that."

Women were once a vital presence in Afghanistan's working world. In 1977, some 15 percent of the country's legislators 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. But 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. In addition to enforcing use of the head-to-toe burqa that became the most visible symbol of Taliban tyranny, the hard-line Islamic militia also closed down schools for girls, banned women from working altogether, and severely limited their access to health care.

Gailani said she believes delegates are serious about ensuring women's rights in Afghanistan are restored: "You will see. You will see that it was so specifically and clearly spelled [out] by all. That women will have what they had during democracy, which for me is enough. They will be able to have the equal opportunity of education, equal opportunity of work, equal opportunity of political participation to vote and to be nominated as candidates in the parliament. And I hope I will be one."

Despite her apparent optimism, Gailani knows how difficult it is for Afghan women to be taken seriously on the political stage. Gailani, a former spokeswoman for Afghanistan's National Islamic Front, recalls her human rights work in the early 1990s, saying it was impossible for civilians to find representation among the mujahedin military rulers.

"I remember that when there were only a few hundred thousand refugees in Peshawar, my father was insisting that they should have an election and they should learn how to elect their representatives and those representatives should come and sit with the mujahedin leaders so their will be a link between the people of Afghanistan and the politicians and fighters. Unfortunately, this was also not taken seriously."

For now, the Northern Alliance and other Afghan groups say they will guarantee the rights of women. In his opening talks yesterday, Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni promised the "just" participation of women in Afghanistan's political life.

"We want national unity and the formation of a system in which all different ethnic groups, including women and men, could participate in the political life of Afghanistan in a just manner."

But action for women is not likely to happen fast. Rona Mansoury, a member of the former king's Rome delegation, told journalists that years of oppression have "left their mark in the heads of the men" in Afghanistan, meaning that men are not likely to be comfortable with women sharing equal rights.

Mansoury's words are echoed by life today in Kabul, the capital city now under control of Northern Alliance troops. Last week, the Alliance prevented hundreds of women from marching for their rights, saying they had been given no warning and postponing the march.