Last week, I attended a glitzy ceremony in New York City in which Bill Clinton awarded one of five Global Citizen Awards to Suraya Pakzad, who runs shelters for abused Afghan women. The crowd of eminent humanitarians, environmentalists and cultural pooh-bahs cheered.
But I felt a chill as I listened to Pakzad, whose organization I visited last year in Herat, Afghanistan. She spoke of her fear that Western troops will leave and let the Taliban retake the country, and all the fragile gains made by Afghan women in recent years will vanish.
“Please don’t leave us alone,” she said, looking very lonely on stage in her print head scarf and long, embroidered coat. “We lost lives for these rights. Stay with us today, because tomorrow it will be too late.”
Over the past decade, Afghan women’s rights became a sexy issue on all sides of the American political spectrum. But, at a time when the country is turning inward, I wonder if Americans care what happens to those brave little Afghan girls now eagerly attending school.
Pakzad fears a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal will induce the Afghan government to sue for peace with the Taliban at any price.
The current Afghan constitution endorses — at least on paper — many rights for women. Even though these provisions are often ignored, they do give women some legal recourse.
“Peace negotiations with the Taliban are a major concern for women,” Pakzad said, because “the Taliban conditions (include) changes in the constitution. The articles which guarantee rights for women will be removed.”
Already, she told me, the widespread belief that the Americans are leaving soon — fed by Obama’s July 2011 deadline for starting a drawdown — has emboldened religious hard-liners. Threats against activist women have increased, even in Herat, where the Taliban isn’t present.
I asked Melanne Verveer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dynamic ambassador-at-large on global women’s issues, what the administration is doing about this. (Verveer, who served as chief of staff to the first lady in the Clinton White House, co-founded Vital Voices, a nonprofit that works to help women in the Third World help themselves in business, politics and the household.)
Verveer spoke of Clinton’s intense interest — and former first lady Laura Bush’s strong interest — in helping Afghan women. “When Hillary went to Afghanistan,” she said, “she met with women first. Part of our challenge is to help women lift their voices.”
She stressed — and Pakzad would agree — that Afghan women don’t want to be seen as victims, but rather as the leaders that many of them have become over the past decade — in small businesses, education, health, and, to a limited but brave extent, in parliament.
“Secretary Clinton raised the question of women’s role in the peace process with (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai,” Verveer said. “She said any progress will be subverted if women are marginalized. If they are in the process, they stand a better chance.”
Perhaps. Yet much more remains to be done if Afghan women are to avoid becoming the first casualties of an American withdrawal. Any future Western aid to Afghanistan — whichever government is in charge — should be conditioned on continued education and health care for women. More private U.S. corporations can be encouraged to train Afghan women in business skills, as some are already doing.
And Afghan women need help honing their leadership skills. Pakzad wants to start a leadership institute where strong Afghan women can train and work toward forming a critical mass of female leaders.
Ordinary Americans can help. Universities, churches, and even private citizens can partner with and fund Afghan women’s groups, schools, and shelters so these women — and their government — know they are not alone.
Pakzad’s case is an example: Aldo Magazzeni, a businessman from Perkiomenville, Pa., raises money from churches and universities to help her shelters; Penn State Brandywine is collaborating with Pakzad on her women’s leadership project, and its students are raising funds.
Bottom line: If the United States quits Afghanistan heedlessly, women’s rights there will be a lost cause. But if we act responsibly and help Afghan women become stronger, Pakzad’s fears may be averted.
“Afghan women want an end to this conflict, but they don’t want to be sold down the river,” Verveer says. True, and if those who profess to care about Afghan women let that happen, shame on us.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org