Beyond the veil: time to refocus women’s rights

Beyond the veil: time to refocus women’s rights

By Fariba Nawa
June 13, 2002
Pacific News Service
Essay also ran in the San Jose Mercury News

EDITOR’S NOTE: Afghanistan’s grand council is completing its deliberations on an interim government, but the highly charged issue of women’s rights — inseparable from women’s dress in Islamic countries — will continue to simmer. PNS contributor Fariba Nawa considers how she, an Afghan-American in Kabul, should clothe herself, and asks if issues more important to Afghan women should be on the table.

A Western reporter scolded me for wearing an Islamic head-covering today. She said Afghan women want exiles such as myself to dress in Western clothes and show our hair so that they too can muster the courage to lift their veils.

I, an Afghan-American woman, am supposed to serve as a role model for executing the Western feminist agenda — showing my face and body is a step toward liberation, according to this female journalist.

Perhaps it’s surprising that a non-Muslim, non-Afghan in pants, a long-sleeved shirt and bare head would tell me how to dress in my birthplace. But the incident reflects the debate simmering among women’s rights activists inside and outside Afghanistan. How can we help Afghan women gain their rights — and what are those rights?

There are two approaches. One is the grassroots way of slow negotiation within the understood norms of Afghan and Islamic culture. The other is a much more Western style of in-your-face, secular, feminist lobbying.

Afghan and non-Afghan women including aid workers, educators and activists on both sides of the debate have been busy since the Taliban banished Afghan women from the public. Now that the Taliban have been ousted and the interim administration has allowed more personal and political freedoms, the two sides have not joined hands. The debate rages on.

Secular feminists say women’s rights should not be curbed by cultural relativity. In this view, human rights are universal, yet culture and religion have been used throughout history to justify women’s oppression. Many urbanite Afghan women, such as those in the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), are fighting for a secular, Westernized Afghanistan.

But other activists agree that certain rights — such as the freedom to work and go to school — are universal, but say that cultural values must also be considered. Afghan women see themselves as part of their families, and seek justice and liberation within the family unit. From what I’ve gathered, the secular approach is not practical in Afghanistan. RAWA has few supporters, despite its brave lobbying.

The women I’ve spoken to, from Herat to Kabul, are not ready for — or should I say not interested in — a secular, universal feminism. Older women, such as deputy of women’s affairs Tajwar Kakar, remember when, during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, urban women wore miniskirts. Last week, Kakar, her 20-year-old daughter-in-law Susan and I had dinner. I told them they probably wouldn’t have to wear anything on their head if the transitional government, now being determined by the Afghan assembly, turns out liberal.

“I’ll always keep my scarf on because I’m Muslim,” Susan said. “I hope we never get to that stage.”

Kakar said she’s not proud of her miniskirt days. “We weren’t liberating women with our skimpy clothes,” she said.

So when the Western reporter verbally attacked me for my scarf and coat — Iranian-style veiling — I told her I felt more comfortable being covered in Kabul. No, I don’t wear the garb in my residence New York City, but I also don’t think clothes should be dictated.

The first Reza Shah Pahlevi of Iran in the early 20th century witnessed a tumultuous backlash when he forced the veil off women. Even now, Turkish women are fighting to keep their veils on in government posts and at the universities, against the policies of a secular government.

Islamic dress has served both as a symbol of oppression and power at different points in history. And today in Afghanistan, it has become the center of the debate, while more important issues like work and education opportunities take a back seat. I wish we would go beyond the veil. But I realize the implications.

If I unveil now, perhaps I will help a few of my Afghan sisters feel freer. But I can do much more with my scarf on. I can be a journalist who is respected and welcomed, recognized as an Afghan. Soldiers I walk past on the street comment, “Long live hijab (Islamic dress).”

I’m coming back to my homeland for the second time after 20 years. I’m not here to give shock-treatment feminism to men and women who have lived under 23 years of war. I just want to fit in and be accepted. Then maybe I’ll join the debate on how to fight for women’s rights.

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