A Future Veiled in False Hopes

Twelve years ago, I was astonished by what I found on a trip from my native Pakistan to Afghanistan. I couldn’t have imagined a neighboring Muslim country with so many women in public places. Each morning, the Afghan capital was abuzz with young professionals on their way to work, most dressed in Western clothes and some even in miniskirts and high heels as they vied with their fashion-conscious counterparts in Paris.

Kabul University, where I saw more female than male students, was another surprise. But even then, the occasional gunfire and bomb blasts in the city — ruled by Soviet-supported President Najibullah — were a reminder that these freedoms could prove elusive. Young women on campus, clutching their notepads in the streaming February sunlight, told me apprehensively, “If the mujaheddin take over, they will force us to veil.” The encumbering full-length burqas that women now have to wear have become a symbol for Westerners of the ruling Taliban government’s oppressive policies.

Even President Bush acknowledged as much last week when he condemned the current regime under which “women are imprisoned in their homes, and are denied access to basic health care and education.” But it would be an oversimplification to imagine that simply ousting the Taliban will restore basic human rights to women there. Indeed, in its determination to use whatever means necessary to destroy Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, the administration is in danger of exacerbating the rivalries among Afghanistan’s tribes, whose practices are shrouded in traditions few Americans comprehend.

Even though there has been much talk in the West about how to establish a broad-based post-Taliban government that would guarantee the rights of women and ethnic minorities, the United Nations has not seriously begun addressing the role of women in any future form of government. If history is any guide, neither a government led by the exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, nor one dominated by the Northern Alliance would readily grant women freedom. Instead, the dramatic changes in women’s fortunes over the past century are testimony to their fragile position in Afghanistan’s oft-rent social fabric. I got a clear sense of that during my 1989 visit.

Although many Afghan women I spoke with expressed trepidation about a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists, they could not have predicted how oppressive their lot would soon become. After all, they grew up in a relatively liberal Muslim society; many in Kabul and Kandahar had working mothers — nurses and doctors, engineers, journalists, factory workers and, of course, teachers. Soviet forces had withdrawn from the country just two weeks before my arrival, and the question foremost on everyone’s mind was whether the Soviet-backed Najibullah government would survive the onslaught by the Islamist radicals.

As if anticipating his eventual death at the hands of Taliban fundamentalists, the embattled Najibullah was clearly taking no chances — and he was even recruiting women to help him. At a training school in Kabul, I came across a female trainee reserve force engaged in combat exercises. They told me that their job was to arrest and hand over mujaheddin suspects to authorities. They knew full well what a formidable force the mujaheddin had become. With their most radical factions in Northern Pakistan, they were receiving millions of dollars’ worth of arms from the United States, funneled through Pakistan’s military ruler, all directed at the goal they would accomplish a few years later — removing Najibullah from power.

I asked Afghan officials then whether such threats of future instability might put women’s freedom on the line. The president of the Afghan Women’s Council at the time, Massuma Esmaty Wardak, argued that, on the contrary, women’s emancipation was deeply rooted in Afghan history. She pointed out that the country’s most famous reformer, King Amanullah, who was inspired by Turkey’s secular nation builder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, encouraged sweeping changes for women in the early 20th century. He introduced Western dress, she pointed out, sent girls to study abroad, banned the sale of women, raised the marriage age and abolished the tribal custom known as levirate (where a widow is obliged to marry her brother-in-law).

What Wardak and others I talked to failed to mention was that King Amanullah was ousted in 1929, after a brief reign, when conservative tribesmen revolted against his liberal policies. Thereafter, King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s longest-reigning monarch (1933-1973) — whom the U.N. has now selected to head the post-Taliban government — slowed down the changes for women. Yes, women came to enjoy greater liberation than in some other Muslim countries, but encouraging freedom also risked provoking a backlash from the conservatives.

Ever since, the role of women has continued to reflect the volatile nature of Afghan society — and of the dangers of trying to alter traditions by imposing outside standards on the people. The Soviet occupation that followed the bloody communist Saur Revolution in 1978 attempted to force top-down changes in Afghanistan. Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) workers fanned out into the villages to stop Afghans from selling their daughters and coerced the girls instead to go to school. Conservative tribesmen retaliated by murdering PDPA workers.

These changes also triggered a vast exodus of Afghan tribes. Some 3 million Afghans fled the country. Many of those who grew up as orphans of war in Pakistan’s refugee camps have become today’s Taliban; others are that regime’s fiercest critics. The most militant Islamist groups who resisted the Soviet influence banded together under mujaheddin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Peshawar, northern Pakistan. They objected fiercely to Muslim women not wearing the veil and to their working outside the home. Some of his supporters threw acid on women wearing Western dress in Kabul.

When I interviewed Hekmatyar in Karachi in 1986, I was surprised to find a soft- spoken man who was fluent in English. But his supporters included Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, the radical Islamist party that enforced gender segregation at Karachi University with acid attacks on female students. (This group has now given an ultimatum to the Pakistani government to stop supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition or be overthrown.) Hekmatyar has refused to join the Northern Alliance now backed by the United States in its battle with the Taliban. But many other mujaheddin leaders are members of that alliance, and even less radical ones than Hekmatyar punish women who refuse to wear a burqa.

The tribal beliefs in the submission of women go far beyond the Taliban. The stability that the Taliban offered when it snatched power from the warring mujaheddin in 1996 came at a further cost to women. Made up of ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban enforced the strict Pashtunwali code of honor that requires women to be treated as the property of their men. The militia barred women from working in the professions. Without female teachers, schools soon closed. The Taliban issued a decree that forbade all girls from going to school. Women who organized the early protests against the ragtag militia were beaten back.

Only two ways of earning a living were left open to them — beggary and prostitution. Last week I spoke with two Afghan women who have been helping refugees as U.N. staff. They told of women’s isolation, cowering in their houses behind darkened windows so that they cannot be seen from the street. Few can read. Many are depressed. Nafisa Nezam, who was in Northern Afghanistan until last month, said that the Taliban have “brought about a new interpretation of ‘jihad’ to mean fighting women who wear lipstick, nail polish and jewelry.” Some have reputedly had their fingers cut off for painting their nails.

There have been some brave voices of dissent. Afghan women in Pakistan have banded together as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). The group’s members told me in Islamabad in 1999 that they lived in mortal fear of being discovered. They know how the extremists treat women who dissent. RAWA’s founding president, Meena, was murdered in 1987 — allegedly by the mujaheddin — for speaking out against the fundamentalists. About half of the 4 million or so people who fled Afghanistan over the past 20 years are women, and many of them would love to return to their home country once the Taliban is overthrown.

Among them, Tahira Shairzai, a former schoolteacher in Kabul who now works in the United States, told me she favors the U.N. choice of an interim government headed by King Zahir Shah. The 86-year-old exiled monarch shares Pashtun ethnicity with the Taliban, but he is popular because he treated ethnic groups even-handedly during his 40-year rule of Afghanistan. Tahira also holds out hope that the Northern Alliance, which allows girls’ schools to remain open in the area it controls, will take a positive attitude toward working women. However, the past behavior of the Alliance leaders offers little indication that women’s rights will be taken seriously under the next regime.

A mishmash of conservative and more moderate tribal leaders, the Alliance is united for the sole purpose of combating the Taliban. A recent meeting of anti-Taliban leaders in Peshawar demonstrated that women’s rights do not figure in their deliberations. What’s more, as U.S. bombs hit civilians, the Pashtuns are becoming even more radicalized. The United States has had little success in wooing moderate Pashtuns away from the Taliban — a move that the administration recognizes is necessary not only to win the current war but because Afghanistan’s future stability depends upon cooperation among tribal factions.

As the U.S. bombing continues, thousands of armed Pashtun tribesmen are gathering on the Pakistan-Afghan border to fight alongside the Taliban. Political analysts I have spoken with in Pakistan predict that even if the Taliban is routed, it will likely withdraw into the hills and fight the new government. Moreover, the Northern Alliance could plunge into internecine strife. So although there is no doubt in my mind that women will fare somewhat better if the Taliban is overthrown, I wonder what comes next. Unless there is a means of ensuring durable peace, women’s rights do not have a fighting chance in Afghanistan.

Source: Washington Post

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