Reaching women in Afghanistan

Reaching women in Afghanistan

The nearer you are, the more complicated it gets
By Fariba Nawa
July 6, 2000
Pacific News Service

EDITOR’S NOTE: Women in Afghanistan have no legal right to education or employment, and this has drawn outright condemnation from many individual women and women’s groups. Some of those who work directly with Afghan women, by negotiating their way through loopholes in the current system, fear these protests may make things worse. PNS commentator Fariba Nawa was a staff reporter for ANG Newspapers in California and is now based in Pakistan.

Peshawar, Pakistan — Farida Azizi, an Afghan aid worker here, travels to train women to work in Afghanistan, where most work for women is outlawed.

Azizi has learned how to deal with the Taliban, the hard-line militia controlling 90 percent of Afghanistan. She travels with her husband, wears the all-enveloping burqa and has permission from the government to be a health educator. The Taliban allowed Azizi and her organization, Norwegian Church Aid, to train 20 women as midwives with the condition that they must also study Islamic scriptures.

Azizi is one of hundreds of aid workers, many based in Pakistan, who have been moving cautiously for change ever since Afghan women lost their legal right to education and employment six years ago. But they say their efforts are thwarted by campaigns conducted by exiled Afghan and other feminists Certainly, the idea of liberating Afghan women is big in the United States with Hollywood stars like Meryl Streep and Sidney Poitier gracing fundraisers for the cause. Photos of women shrouded in veils appear in American magazines with disapproving captions. But aid groups working in the field say all this may hurt as much as it helps. At issue is a conflict between a Western and a Middle Eastern approach to the Taliban problem.

Western feminists conduct a straightforward, strong campaign against the Taliban, demanding to be heard, and in the process making things worse for the women they want to help, critics say.

In contrast, those trying to work within the system exploit loopholes and play on the economy’s need for women workers — but also run the risk of change coming slowly and not always steadily.

Those at the center of the conflict — the Afghan women — also are split. Educated city women loathe the Taliban and want their freedom back. Poor and village women whose lives have become safer since the Taliban seized control, support the hardliners’ ways.

At the forefront of the U.S. campaign is Feminist Majority, a Washington D.C.-based organization that publicizes accounts of atrocities in Afghanistan. But aid workers say by taking individual cases and blowing them up as a national crisis, feminists discourage donor funds, making it difficult for non-governmental agencies to open home schools and create home work — activities the Taliban grudgingly allow in some Afghan provinces.

“They are poisoning the general attitude in Europe and America, taking away funding,” said Nancy Dupree, the senior consultant at the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Peshawar.

“We must all persevere in our efforts to find ways, using quiet dialogue, to take our steps forward. Too much aggressive haste can only jeopardize those we seek to help,” Dupree wrote in a letter to the feminists.

She said she received no reply. Aid workers say the feminists ignore their protests. Jennifer Jackman of Feminist Majority dismissed the criticism as based on misconceptions about the organization’s campaign and denied that the group’s advocacy has depleted funding. She said Feminist Majority and other women’s groups have been pressuring the United States and United Nations to provide humanitarian assistance for women but also to continue their isolation of the Taliban as a government.

“To remain silent would be to condemn women to unspeakable misery,” Jackman said. The debate includes Afghans and non-Afghans on both sides. Zieba Shorish, an Afghan woman and head of the Washington D.C.-based Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, has assisted Feminist Majority with their campaign.

“We the Afghan women do not have any power over the Feminist Majority and should be grateful that they have taken the ‘Afghan women problems’ and have made it their own,” Shorish said. “They are on our side and struggle against injustice to our Afghan sisters with us.”

Aid providers say the more feminists push the Taliban, the stricter radicals become; providers say working with the Taliban helps women more.

And the best way, they say, is to invoke Islam, the Taliban’s law. The religion essentially gives men and women equal rights, as aid workers are quick to remind the Taliban. “They’re uneducated village boys who sometimes listen when you teach them,” Azizi said.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, one of the most established aid groups in the country, runs more than 100 girls’ schools in Afghan villages. Carol Le Duc, the organization’s gender coordinator, said they work with communities to solve problems with the Taliban. A British native, Le Duc is one of the most vocal opponents of the feminist approach. “The feminists,” she says, “are marginalizing women. They’re repeating historical mistakes and focusing on the political.”

While women in Peshawar and Washington shoot at each other, inside Afghanistan the Taliban — religious students, who are by no means monolithic — are easing up.

Initially women could not leave the house without a male kin, now they can. International pressure is part of the reason for the change, but the big reason has been need — for example, Taliban realized that firing all the women doctors would leave a void that men doctors could not fill.

But there’s no consistency. One militia leader may allow a woman’s clinic to operate on one day but another official will shut it down the next.

Mary Rahmany, a 20-year-old from Kabul in Pakistan for a wedding, said she preferred the communists in the 1980s to the Taliban. They were the lesser evil with women, she said. “I’ve been sitting home doing nothing for four years now when I could have finished high school, gone to college,” Rahmany said.

According to Rahmany, the aid providers help people they know, not the people in need, and so their good relations with the Taliban benefit a selected few. She hopes the feminist approach will give women more freedom in time.

“Afghan women don’t have the spirit to fight anymore. We sit all day listening to BBC hoping to hear that somebody out there is doing something so that we can live again,” Rahmany said, sighing.

But it may be that women in villages, where aid organizations are most active, exert more power over their lives.

Coco Gul lives in a village in Logar province and comes to Peshawar often. The mother of six children said the Taliban have not affected her life. She is illiterate but brings in an income. She sews and sells the clothes through a program that one of the grassroots groups has set up.

“I like my life. Education is not for women anyway. It’s these Westerners and city women who ask for too much,” Coco Gul said.

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