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Archive for Friday, November 2, 2001

Women not a side issue

November 2, 2001

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— There's a photograph on my desk that's been there for a week now. It's a newspaper portrait of Afghan tribal leaders gathered at a Pakistan border town to plan for a post-Taliban government.

The picture shows a diverse group of elders, colorful in their turbans and varied in the robes of their clans. The caption that I have scrawled across the bottom reads: What's wrong with this picture?

You see, these elders, indeed all the 1,500 leaders who assembled, didn't include a single woman. Those who were deciding the shape of the negotiating table had already decided that there would be no women at the table.

Have we gotten so used to the absence of women in Afghanistan, invisible under the burqa, anonymous and mute, that this picture passes without comment? Have we seen them as victims of the war for so long that we can't envision them as builders of the peace?

Looking at this portrait, I wonder if the Taliban haven't succeeded in erasing memory, even history and especially the history of Afghan women. "We see Afghanistan in rubble and say rubble is their normal state. But it's not," says Eleanor Smeal, whose Feminist Majority highlighted the plight of Afghan women long before this fall. "We see women treated like nothing and we say, 'oh, we have to start with nothing.' But we don't."

In fact, Afghan women, who are now 54 percent of the population, gained rights slowly during the 20th century. In 1964, they helped write their country's first constitution. Even before the Soviet takeover, women served in parliament, went to universities, became doctors and teachers.

Afghanistan wasn't a showplace of feminism but it was by no means the same country that placed women under house arrest and forced families into exile simply to educate their daughters. Even today, Afghan women living in the diaspora are leaders in humanitarian work and in refugee camps.

As Jamila, a founding member of the Afghan Women's Network engaged in the politically charged work of educating and training refugee women and girls, told a session of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday: "I often heard that Afghan women are not political. That peace and security is man's work. I am here to challenge that illusion."

Our government has shared the illusion that Jamila challenged. We've been more willing to condemn the Taliban for destroying women's rights than to insist on those rights in a post-Taliban world. Indeed, one senior administration official told The New York Times, "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them."

I understand that caution. It is true that the West used the "emancipation of women" as something of a con game. In the late 19th century, Lord Cromer famously blasted Egyptians for degrading women while back home in Britain he helped found the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

On the other hand, we had no such fear of "imposing our values" on the Japanese when equal rights for women were written into their postwar constitution. Even Gen. Douglas MacArthur, no liberated male, became convinced that if the world wanted to end fascism, if we wanted freedom, we needed to ensure rights to women.

That's where we are today. The international community has begun to acknowledge that women's rights are universal. On Oct. 31, the United Nations celebrated the first anniversary of a groundbreaking Security Council resolution on women, peace and security that, among other things, committed governments around the world to involving women in peace negotiations.

Meanwhile in Washington, Sen. Barbara Boxer added an amendment to the foreign appropriations bill calling for the inclusion of women in any new Afghan government.

Finally, we also have begun to see women's rights not just as a moral question but as a strategic question.

Rina Amiri, an Afghan-born associate with the Women Waging Peace network at Harvard, may have put it best when she recited a different history. "When it comes to war, women's issues always get put to the side," she said. "People say 'let's make sure everyone puts down their arms first, let's get food on the table first."' But, she asks, who will help build that civil society the warlords or the women who have been finding ways to feed their families now?

In many ways, the women of Afghanistan were reduced to anonymous symbols: nothings. But we learn from their history and our own that peace and security and freedom are "cultural values" that we should not be afraid to impose.

As long as women are excluded, the Afghan future remains decidedly unphotogenic.

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