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Afghanistan: Soviet History Provides Lessons -- Good And Bad -- For Women

The Soviet campaign in Central Asia of unveiling women -- known as the hudjum -- provides lessons, both good and bad, for Afghanistan today as its interim government seeks to improve conditions for women. RFE/RL reports on a recent panel discussion at Harvard University that explored the parallels.

Cambridge, Massachusetts; 10 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Like their Central Asia counterparts in the pre-Soviet period, Afghan women today largely remain veiled and continue to practice traditional Islamic customs.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001 stripped the Taliban regime of power and also liberated the women who were oppressed under its strict Islamic rule. Now, the government of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai favors social change for women. But most women still choose to remain veiled -- many in the all-enveloping burqa -- leaving policymakers to debate how best to encourage women to feel free to remove their wraps.

Central Asia in the 1920s and '30s offers an interesting historical parallel to Afghanistan today, according to a panel of regional experts who met recently at Harvard University.

Daria Fane is a U.S. State Department official who was stationed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. She told the panel that seclusion, veiling, and nearly 100 percent illiteracy was the norm for women in pre-Soviet Central Asia.

The Soviets saw these women as oppressed by Islamic customs and proceeded to "emancipate" them in the "hudjum" campaign of 1927 and 1928. The program was marked by mass unveilings. On one day alone, 10,000 women cast off their veils, followed by another 70,000 shortly after.

But a backlash soon followed. Unveiled women became targets of terror and violence, with hundreds killed between 1927 and 1929.

Fane said the problem is rooted in the tradition of purdah, the practice of keeping women hidden from men outside of their own families. "The wearing of the veil is not really the issue. But the veil is part of the purdah system, and this symbolizes the whole system of relegation of women to a secluded world that doesn't allow their participation in public affairs," she said.

In Central Asia, many women expressed public support for the unveiling policy but continued their old traditions in private. At one point, up to 80 percent of women who cast off their veils eventually wore them again. Fane's research shows that veiling in Tajikistan continued into the 1950s.

Fane said the Soviet experiment proves that social change is possible for Muslim women but that the process must be given time. A society can go from one where women are secluded and illiterate, Fane said, to one where women are universally literate and actively participate in economic and political life.

"In contrast to the conditions in Central Asia before the 1920s, today women are universally unveiled, and literacy statistics from UNESCO for the year 2000 show that in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, women's literacy is at 99 percent. So just because a culture has traditionally embraced purdah, one should not expect that this cultural expression will continue forever," Fane said.

She said centralized power from above can achieve rapid results. Afghan leader Karzai does not have the coercive powers of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, but the government in Kabul can promote social change through its policies.

In the 1920s, the hudjum process involved revolutionary change by breaking down the old order and destroying it. But in Afghanistan today, Fane advocates what she called "evolutionary legalism," which involves passing laws allowing the changes to occur without coercing them by force.

As in Central Asia in the 1920s, however, conservative forces in Afghanistan today object to changing women's and girls' roles in society. They have been responsible for distributing "sahbanet" -- night letters warning parents not to send their girls to school. A number of girls' schools have been set on fire.

Fane noted that men must be engaged to support efforts like educating girls and women. And most importantly, she said, adequate resources must be allocated for this goal.

Nayereh Tohidi, a professor of women's studies at California State University-Northridge, pointed out some problems with the Soviet approach. She said the Soviets measured success with statistics, without regard to how the women themselves felt about being unveiled.

The Soviets, she continued, claimed to be saving Central Asian women from barbaric Islamic traditions, but they themselves were looking down on these women. That's why Tohidi thinks the veil cannot be the starting point for change in Afghanistan today.

"That is what the Soviet Union did and it failed, not only because of the perception, but also [because of] the policy of having this Communist Party from the top down go with these sometimes armed, uniformed Bolsheviks to the doors of these people and say that, 'I'm here to emancipate you,'" Tohidi said.

That's where grassroots aid work comes in. Shakena Yacubi, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Afghan Institute of Learning, advocates a community-based model to empower women through education. Her program boasts a fivefold increase in enrollment -- from 3,000 students to 15,000 -- and seminars that have trained 8,000 teachers in one year.

In 1991, Yacubi visited Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. She told the Harvard panel that she quickly realized that before she could enact her program, she had to build trust.

"The trust was gone completely. People were very suspicious -- not only the men were suspicious, the women were suspicious. Not only the men didn't allow the women to go outside the house or to get education, the women themselves didn't trust any foreign [entity]. They didn't trust any foreign program. They didn't want to go outside either. So when you come to a community like that, you say, 'Wow! What am I going to do?'" Yacubi said.

She said she knew in her heart that she could reach these people through education. Her efforts paid off. She was able to expand her program to include health education, a women's learning center, a literacy program, and leadership and human rights workshops.

Yacubi pointed out that aid programs should be flexible and culturally sensitive. Her strategies include asking people what they want, starting with noncontroversial topics, and targeting cities before rural areas. Providing intensive seminars -- teacher-training sessions lasting 24 days, for example -- lets people know that her program was serious.

Yacubi said aid workers should foster a sense of ownership for projects in the communities they are servicing. In her project, she encouraged the community to contribute to the program.

"They felt proud of it. They felt they were part of it. They provided for our security. They provided for us a building. They provided also some kind of incentive like the food for children and for the people. So these kind of things gave them a feeling of ownership. They feel that they own this program. They protect this program. They expand this program," she said.

Fane of the U.S. State Department said Afghan women returning from abroad can provide a model. The consensus from panelists was that -- whether in top-down or bottom-up approaches -- one thing is clear: Afghan women must be part of the decision-making process.