Afghan women debate the terms of their future

Afghan women debate the terms of their future

By Fariba Nawa
June 30, 2002
Women’s eNews (

EDITOR’S NOTE: Afghan women agree that they should play a role in the rebuilding of their country. They are divided, however, on what role Islam should play in the new nation–integral to the new government or a belief system guiding a secular state.

Kabul — When at last she was welcomed under the tent of the loya jirga, the grand council convened to determine the future of Afghanistan’s government, Rahima Jami decided to wear a headscarf knotted under her chin. A long coat hid the curves of her body.

Nasrine Gross had waited a long time to help determine the next two years of her country’s government, too. She wore a black pants suit and tied her soft black hair in a ponytail.

“If you’re wearing this because you really believe in it, I respect you, but if you feel you have to wear it, you should take it off,” Gross told Jami. “I’ve chosen to keep my hair visible and I’m sure you respect that too.” The veiled Jami nodded but said, “If you just put on a small headscarf, it would be much better.”

This significant discussion took place during the nine-day loya jirga that ended June 19. It was the first meeting of its kind since 1964, when then-king Mohammad Zahir Shah reformed the constitution to give women the right to vote, go to school and earn the same wages as men.

Since Afghanistan’s interim government took power in December, women–who comprise 60 percent of the country’s 20 million people–have regained their right to work and go to school. They continue to wear the burqa–the head-to-toe covering that was not a tradition in the capital before the Taliban took over–because they still don’t feel safe. Nonetheless, women are back on television and radio as announcers and performers, and these freedoms are giving them the confidence to speak up.

At this year’s loya jirga, an Afghan woman became a presidential candidate for the first time in the country’s history. Two women secured seats as ministers, and 200 women across the country joined more than 1,300 men to demand more rights for women.

Women’s Minister Calls for Dismissal of Warlords from Loya Jirga Tajwar Kakar, the deputy minister of women’s affairs, stood up to powerful warlords during the loya jirga, calling for their removal from the council. Many of the warlords in control of the provinces are the Mujahideen, freedom fighters who fought against the Soviets. Now some of them are fighting hard to subjugate women.

“I told the country these men are responsible for the destruction of the country, for the widows and orphans who have nothing to eat,” Kakar said. “They should be in jail, not sitting in the front seat in the loya jirga.”

Kakar’s comments made headlines across the globe but did little to diminish the warlords’ influence.

While most of the women at the loya jirga agreed on the need to expand rights for women, what those rights are and how they should be implemented were the source of debates and shouting matches that continue.

At issue is the role of Islam in the government. A small but vocal group of Afghan women such as Gross want a secular government that does not impose the veil or patriarchal laws. But many other women want a religious regime, arguing that it would be more effective to fight for women’s rights under an Islamic framework.

The Islamists supported by the former Mujahideen who control the current government are, as observers expected, gaining ground. The secular or moderate Muslim activists have been beaten off with one word: communist, a potent insult in a country that blames its demise on the former Soviet Union.

Death Threats for Woman Who Allegedly Criticized Islam Dr. Sima Samar, minister for women’s affairs under the interim government, was scared into resigning her post this month after she was threatened with death and harassed for questioning Islam during an interview in Canada with a Persian-language newspaper. During the loya jirga, conservatives took out an ad in a local newspaper calling Samar the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan, equating her with the Indian-born author who was threatened with death for blasphemy.

Samar denies making any statements against Islam but concedes that she supports a limited role of religion in government. President Hamid Karzai is expected to replace her with an Islamist woman to appease the religious establishment. Samar has accepted a less powerful post as a member of the country’s human rights commission.

“I don’t want to leave,” Samar told The Associated Press. “That’s the easiest way.”

Women Islamists, who do not want the iron rule of the Taliban but a moderate interpretation of Islam, condemned the harassment against Samar even though they do not support all of her views. Women, they say, should wear modest clothing and Sharia, the law of Islam based upon the Koran, should be implemented in civil cases involving issues such as divorce and property disputes. They believe that any radical or secular measures to improve the lives of Afghan women, whose basic rights to education and work were denied for six years under the Taliban, will backfire.

“I don’t wear this for men,” Jami told Gross, pointing to taupe cotton fabric on her head. “I wear this because I have faith in my religion. Islam is democratic and the best way for women to achieve their rights.”

Jami is a mother of seven children and a teacher who spent the 23 years of war in northwestern Afghanistan. But Gross has written two books on Afghan women and represents the urban, educated Kabully who fled the capital for the West when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. She argues that Islam is part of Afghan values and daily life. Therefore, she says, it doesn’t need to be reinforced in government.

“What we need to accept is pluralism of social groups,” the 56-year-old Gross said. “There’s not one model of Afghan woman. None of what I’m wearing is from the West. I dressed like this 37 years ago.”

Gross, who is married to an American and traveled to Afghanistan specifically for the loya jirga, is a member of Negar, a Paris-based Afghan women’s group involved in securing human rights in Afghanistan. Her group succeeded in convincing Karzai to sign an equal rights law; implementation of the law will be the group’s next challenge.

The ultimate impact of women’s strong lobbying at the loya jirga has yet to be seen. The delegates–both secular and Islamists–returned to their homes hopeful that they had improved Afghan women’s lives.

“The fact that most of the men supported my candidacy and I could stand there and be a presidential candidate should show how far we’ve gotten in the last six months,” said Massouda Jalal, who unsuccessfully challenged Karzai as head of state. “I think that we’re only going to move forward.”

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