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Women in Afghanistan

November 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the prospects for women in Afghanistan, we’re joined by: Rina Amiri, a senior research associate at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She left Afghanistan in 1973.

Nafissa Mahmood Ghorwal, head of the International Federation of Afghan Women. She also produces a weekly public TV show in Fairfax, Virginia, for Afghan immigrants. She left Afghanistan in 1975.

Azar Nafisi, visiting scholar at the Sais Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. A former professor in Iran, she’s written widely on cultural conflicts in parts of the Islamic world.

And Tahmeena Faryal, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA. RAWA has helped women in Afghanistan operate secret schools for girls and other forbidden activities. She asked us to obscure her face for security reasons. Welcome to you all.

Miss Faryal, beginning with you, tell us about, based on your work or RAWA’s work inside Afghanistan, how have women coped, the women who have remained there, coped with life under the Taliban?

TAHMEENA FARYAL, RAWA: Well, the point that I want to make clear is the tragedy, the real tragedy for the women of Afghanistan begin in fact in 1992, when the other fundamentalists known as the Jihadists took power, and obviously the situation got worse when Taliban took the power.

Before the Taliban also there were a lot of restrictions on women. But they were not official restrictions. But there were a lot of other cases of atrocities towards women, such as rape, forced marriages, or women’s abduction — besides the other atrocities that those different warlords or fundamentalists committed to humanity. But Taliban made all those restrictions officially on women.

But it never means that there was never any resistance by the women in Afghanistan. Women themselves conducted, as individuals, they conducted secret home-based classes in different parts in Afghanistan, and the work of RAWA is very visible in a mobilized form of resistance, which was not only after the other Taliban or after the other fundamentalists, RAWA – before the Soviet invasion – with its many different projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you there. What about the women who always had worked, couldn’t work any more, was there a way to resist that, or did a lot of those women leave?

TAHMEENA FARYAL: Well, after the fundamentalists, obviously the migration started with the Soviet invasion, but after the fundamentalists, a lot of Afghan population had to leave the country. Most of them were women because they did not feel safe to stay in Afghanistan longer.

And we had thousands and hundreds of women, some of them professional, who had to go to beggary or prostitution as the only way to survive — or just to experience a gradual death or see their children dying in front of their eyes or commit suicide.

These have been the only options for most of the women who have lost their jobs and who did not have any male breadwinner in the family.

MARGARET WARNER: Rina Amiri, explain for us and for western viewers why women were so oppressed under the Taliban regime.

RINA AMIRI, Harvard University: Well, there were several different reasons. As my colleague said, the women were under threat of there was raping, there were significant threats, and violations against women’s human rights.

MARGARET WARNER: Pre-Taliban?

RINA AMIRI: Pre-Taliban. So when Taliban came in, they claimed they were going to protect women and in fact were able to come into Afghanistan and be accepted because they promised that they would create safety for Afghan women.

In addition, I think the fact that there is so much instability allowed a force that claimed they had some form of legitimacy in terms of religion to come into Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: But Ms. Ghorwrwal, why were the Taliban, why did they want to be this repressive toward women? I mean, explain that.

NAFISSA MAHMOOD GHORWRWAL, International Federation of Afghan Women: I cannot explain that. That’s, I think Taliban would be the better group to explain, why did they want to oppress women.

Why they came, Islam came to earth or was introduced to the people as protector of women, in fact, at that time. And to see this oppression on women during the history, it’s amazing. I think it’s nothing but less knowledge about Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Nafisi?

AZAR NAFISI, Johns Hopkins University: I think it’s the issue of democracy, in fact, and –

MARGARET WARNER: Explain what it was within the Taliban that led to this.

AZAR NAFISI: Well, I think with Taliban they used religion as an ideology, it was an issue of power, and an issue that went against the democratic and struggles of Afghan people for modernity.

And women become focal. If you notice the right for political and social participation, the right of individuals, the right to freedom of worship, all of these are in a very central way related to women.

By oppressing women, they would be able to implement their power and their ideology. I think that is the central question.

MARGARET WARNER: Miss Amiri, would you agree that oppressing women was a way of holding back modernity?

RINA AMIRI: I absolutely agree. If you look back in Afghan history, women have always been used as symbols between the traditionalists and the modernists when they try to define their place in society and their leadership.

I believe the Taliban – they did not have much ideology, but they were trying to create some sort of image for themselves vis-à-vis the Muslim world as well as the western world and used women to create that image of themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: So Miss Faryal, how would you rate the prospects for change in this under a new post-Taliban government?

TAHMEENA FARYAL: Well, it has been struggling for years for a democratic government in Afghanistan, and we believe that only a democratic government can be the answer for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, where people can have the rights as human beings and women can have the rights as human beings and as women. We believe that people in Afghanistan need democracy as people in any other nation in the world.

But unfortunately if, right now we see that the Northern Alliance has once again included in the future government of Afghanistan, and one there also fundamentalists — what they proved in 1996, they are misogynous, and we think that with their involvement we cannot be hopeful for a bright future for the people in Afghanistan in general and women in particular.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Miss Ghorwrwal?

NAFISSA MAHMOOD GHORWRWAL: I see the same link. If there’s not a democratic solution, if women and men are not given equal right to participate in the free election, and right to vote, nothing will change in this country, because if the Northern Alliance claim that we are here instead of the Taliban, they haven’t done that much themselves to begin with, when they had the power to rule the country.

We were, everybody was witnessing their time of ruling the country. They issued so many decrees. One of them was, the women should not be wearing white socks because it attracts attention.

MARGARET WARNER: This is pre-Taliban – the same people in the Northern Alliance?

NAFISSA MAHMOOD GHORWRWAL: That is correct. The Islamic state of Afghanistan so-called. And the other decree was women should not wear high heels because when they are walking the sound of their shoes will attract attention.

And the other big example of it was they denied the women of Afghanistan to participate in international women’s conference in Beijing in 1996, and because they were requiring, required for the women of Afghanistan to take one of the close relatives like husband or brother or father with them to accompany them.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, do you think this is something that the West can — I mean do you think it makes a difference now that the United States and Europe is calling on the opposition leaders to change their tune this way? Or could that incite a backlash?

AZAR NAFISI: Well, you know, I think that any real change should come from within a society, and it would depend upon the people and the forces who are active within the Afghan society to bring about change.

But I think that the international world is involved. Our world today is a portable world. I mean, the repression in streets of Kabul had its resonance in the streets of New York and Washington and vice versa.

So I think that the international community by choosing and supporting those who really believe in democracy, would sort of, I mean, this is a question of accountability.

We all are implicated in this tragic story, and it is about time to think that our enemy’s enemies are not necessarily our friends. Our true friends are the democratic forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Rina Amiri, Secretary Powell has said several times that he believes there are many women Afghan women who want to participate, and yet there has been definitely a brain drain of women from Afghanistan, predating the Taliban era. Where did all those women go? How many would go back, would you go back?

RINA AMIRI: I believe that the majority of Afghan women who are activists in this country would go back. We’ve been working for several years and highlighting the situation of Afghan women, and have been invested in making a change.

Now is that time for all of us. And every Afghan woman that I talk to who is mobilized in the last several years is ready to go back and make the changes that need to happen. But we also have to bear in mind that we have distinct roles that we can play. I look to the women in Afghanistan and in Pakistan in particular to play the leadership roles.

The role of Afghan women in the Diaspora in the West and in Europe and the United States is providing the tools, the resources and the support to strengthen the women in Afghanistan right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Miss Faryal, you’re working with those women, you in particular are working in the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Are the women there ready to go back? What do they want to go back to?

TAHMEENA FARYAL: Well, obviously the refugees in Pakistan as well as most of the refugees in Iran, definitely want to go back to Afghanistan. But they want to go back to a democratic country, not in a country under the domination of the fundamentalists. Most of the refugees in Afghanistan and Iran did not go back after the Soviets left Afghanistan, because the fundamentalists regime seized the power.

And although some people went back to Afghanistan, but they had to return back to Pakistan, because they found the situation more difficult, more scary and dangerous and more restrictive for women, that they preferred the very difficult life and conditions in refugee camps than living under such a brutal and misogynous fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Miss Ghorwrwal, what do you see as the prospects for a lot of women going back?

NAFISSA MAHMOOD GHORWRWAL: I think there are a lot of women in Afghanistan suffering and thousands and hundreds of them outside Afghanistan just suffering as well. Just by hearing and looking at what’s going on in Afghanistan, there is a tremendous feeling of going back and serving the country the way that they supposed to be.

And if the opportunity exists there and if there is support, the international community supports them, and first of all when they are going what are we going to offer them? There’s nothing left in that country. There’s no economical stability in that country, it has no economy — economical basis in Afghanistan. Everything is destroyed.

There is no social life. There is no job for them, for nobody, for men or women of Afghanistan. To me the women and men of Afghanistan — all of them are suffering right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Rina Amiri, I know you’re not on the ground there, but explain either when we look at the pictures of Kabul being at least liberated from the Taliban, a great many women didn’t take off their burqas, in fact in that video you couldn’t see it, but of the demonstration they had yesterday for political power, there were women in the demonstration who were still covered. How do you explain that?

RINA AMIRI: I think there’s still a lot of fear, that’s one reason. In the West there has been an equation of the Taliban as the oppressors and the Northern Alliance as the liberators. Back in Afghanistan, people see that the lines between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance are much more blurred.

The Northern Alliance does not necessarily have a better, significantly better human right record than the Taliban, and I think there is a lot of fear. We’ve seen reason for that fear yesterday and today in Afghanistan.

In addition, there are some women who will continue to wear the burqa because they believe that that is what Islam expects of them.

So you will see different expectations, different practices in Afghanistan; you will see that ten years from now. But I think that overwhelmingly what you still see in the streets of Afghanistan is fear, and a concern for what is to come, because, as my colleague said, the situation is not secure right now, and any day the situation could turn and become devastating again for women. We must not forget that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Miss Amiri and the other three, thank you all very much.