Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Once again I am in the States for a few short days. Here’s a report of some of the things I have been doing in Afghanistan from early June to early September 2002.
- The Second Conference of Afghan Women: As a follow up to the First Conference held in Dushanbe in June 2000 and attended by 300 Afghan women, Negar-Support of Women of Afghanistan held its Second Conference on June 7-9, 2002 in Kabul for one thousand Afghan women and 42 non-Afghan supporters. To be sure it was a great moment of victory – – the Taliban were no longer there to brutalize the population and turn Afghan women into outlawed non-citizens. But it was also much more than that: The Afghan women enthusiastically reiterated the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women. Drawn in Dushanbe, the inalienable rights mentioned in this Declaration must become part of the next Constitution of Afghanistan. They also delineated their priorities in the areas of education and social issues. The non-Afghan women who stood by Afghan women during the Taliban militias’ rule could clearly see the results of their efforts. The conference was a testament of the power women have gained in the world and of how today women’s issues are the vanguard of defining a world order truly based on ethical behavior. The Final Resolution of the conference is on this website. Please distribute it as widely as possible.
- The Loya Jirga: Shoukria Haidar, President of Negar and I were invited as special guests. The Jirga was to begin the day after our Conference. Fortunately for us it started one day late which gave us a little time to rest.The mood for the LJ was fantastic. The anticipation was euphoric and contagious; for Afghans to have a chance to experience a peaceful and democratic event of this scale felt like a collective nightmare was finally coming to an end. We were happy that we had invited over 50 women delegates to our conference and therefore had very good contacts on the floor of the Jirga.The event with 2,000 people in one compound was like Afghanistan itself in miniature. The men and women’s fashions alone not to mention the variety of languages, dialects, accents, greetings, even religious orientations bespoke of the pluralistic nature of the country. And how wonderful to recognize each one on his/her own merit as a true Afghan!The achievements of the Loya Jirga for women and for Afghanistan were considerable. The election of Hamed Karzai was very orderly. The secret ballot, the voting booths, the procedures to follow, gave each delegate a taste of democracy at work, of how orderly conduct could produce results and of how people with different points of view can also have agreements and common interests. This is a powerful lesson in a country that lengthy war has literally separated into many groups and chaotic governance.I could see that the stiff greetings of the first few days were giving way to broad smiles by the end of the Jirga. The ice was thawing. People could feel that in spite of their differences they also had the same aspirations for Afghanistan. They also were beginning to realize that they all had at least one irrefutable thing in common; they had all suffered and had experienced pain. This was especially true about Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns coming together after six years of complete separation. One side being totally ruled by the Taliban and suffering the worst of the militias’ victimization and Pakistani propaganda; the other side experiencing the ravages and deprivations of an imposed war and not knowing what was happening to their brothers/sisters on the other side. Every time I saw a few of them talking with each other or eating at the same table or praying together, I knew I was looking at another, albeit small, step of healing, reconciliation and unity.I could also see (and many told me) that for many of the delegates this was the first time they had left their own district for a larger city, let alone for Kabul. Some even told me ‘Kabul may be a city in ruins for you coming from America, but for us it looks like a palace’. This meant that it was the first time, not all, but some were experiencing modern style buildings, tents with electricity, sitting on chairs, having bottled water, air-conditioning, security check points, modern amenities in their living quarters, looking at TV screens, talking to a microphone, seeing people in professional office clothes, men without beards, women without scarves and/or chadari, etc. And yes, this was the first time many of them experienced sitting in an official meeting with men and women present together. All behaved with beautiful dignity and tolerance characteristic of Afghanistan.On the women front, major achievements: 220 women delegates from all over Afghanistan added a weight that could not be ignored. And they were vocal and visible. Massouda Jalal’s precedence-setting candidacy for the presidency of the state of Afghanistan did not draw any criticism even from those who have in the past eschewed women’s political role (the only criticism of her was from people who were pro Karzai and did not want to see the vote split in any fraction). This fact alone made it very worthwhile for us.The presence of women in so many dress codes, from the extreme of veils of several layers to the very ethnic clothes to the professional attire and no veils, also showed Afghanistan’s special place in the community of nations (many came with chadari from their districts but none wore it in the compound or in the meeting tents although I would have preferred to see a few come in with it). It showed the pluralistic nature of this society and hence its tolerant stand in allowing different communities to pursue their individual preferences. Actually, this was true for men also, dressed in very traditional or ethnic or many kinds of religious outfits or modern professional office suits and many different head coverings. All of course wore their Sunday best, no shabbiness here. Also, in the last days of the Jirga we could see that some dress codes were getting more relaxed.During the Jirga, we were able to meet several times with the women delegates in both special sessions and informal meetings. We made sure we ate lunches and dinners with them (served in the big cafeteria, on tables of 8 or 10) to ensure that we get to know them better. We wanted to give them as much information about our work and the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, and find out from them what their needs in their communities were. We distributed our Declaration, conference resolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to about 600 people. We received many signatures. We also ran into a problem that a number of them confused the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ours. We took this as an opportunity to explain the relationship of each country of the world to the major documents of the United Nations.We also wanted to help them understand some of the Jirga issues better. One area we lobbied very hard was for women representation from every province in the council of representatives (a transitional parliament that was not in the Bonn Agreement but came out of the Jirga session itself and eventually was left for the government to work on after the Jirga). In this parliament only fifteen positions were allotted to women. We discussed with the women that at a minimum there must be one woman from each of the 32 provinces (and more from the few very densely populated ones), and we talked with the decision-makers to accept the idea of this larger number.We had many extensive discussions with political Islamist women from around the country. From them we learned how the only source of knowledge and information for them is the Quran and teachings of Islam. They use the Quran and Islamic teachings like an encyclopaedia of all knowledge, like an entire university. This has raised tremendously each person’s awareness and knowledge of Islam. Other books and journals on topics such as child rearing, hygiene, modern social issues, choices other societies have made, or even Afghan history, have been nearly non-existent, totally
unavailable. I might add that many delegates, men as well as women, were very aware of being in public. Many would seek us alone and discuss their needs, wishes and problems separate from the larger group. I also think that for the next Loya Jirga, there needs to be a general pre-session training on procedures, basic principles, etc. as we found delegates to have come from a very wide spectrum of readiness. During the Jirga, the delegates who attended our conference thanked us profusely and talked about how the conference had helped them understand the proceedings of the Jirga and their role in it.
We are delighted that we obtained many signatures during the sessions, including those of General Dostum, Ustad Atta, Mr. Kazemi, Minister of Commerce, several governors such as governor of Ghazni, and others. As well, many offered to take the Declaration back home.
The Jirga really brought back the voice of the people to them. This means that expectations are now rising very fast. This of course has created a downside in that the government has no funds to respond to these expectations. I hope the world is not dropping Afghanistan yet one more time. It is imperative that the promised funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan are delivered to the Afghan government and people as soon as possible.
- Life at Kabul University: I was very busy with teaching this past semester. The whole experience is so meaningful. Watching the university bloom, so to speak, is wonderful. Every week I notice the students are getting more at ease, more in tune with their role and responsibilities as students. Their thirst for knowledge is fantastic. They are like a sponge. They have already developed a student newspaper. This paper has no budget and works with dilapidated equipment. The paper is very eager to write about normal student activities of a university, ways that students can get involved in the community, etc. If any college out there is interested in adopting this fledgling but very important student paper, please contact me through my email firstname.lastname@example.org. Same goes for any Afghans who might want to do some translation into Pashto or Dari for them.The books project is very well received. The last two boxes (mostly medical texts) I gave to the president of the Al Biruni University just last month; one textbook went to the College of Medicine of Kabul. They all want more. Almost all departments, all universities, all institutions of learning have asked me for books. So, we are continuing with this project. All those who would like to participate, please remember, the books need to be second hand, donated, fairly recent, in all subjects (not just medical), and for all ages. And don’t forget to include books and materials with simpler English for new learners (Almost every Afghan now wants to learn English). Soon we will be in contact with the donors about shipment and arrangements. If you would like to participate let me know.I also visited the Fine Arts department of Kabul University. They have a beautiful building that is being renovated. But they do not have any supplies, books, stands, paint, paper, etc.I was fortunate to serve as a translator in the seminar of ‘reconstruction of higher education in Afghanistan’. It was a joint effort of the Germans and the Kabul University. All the universities of Afghanistan were represented there and I was able to meet other university presidents.While we will continue to support the Al Biruni University, I was deeply moved by the presentation given by the president of the Kandahar University at the seminar. He reported that there they did not have even one typewriter, one old mimeograph machine or a fax or a computer to pursue their work. Their library does not have any books, either. So, anyone out there interested in higher education, please contact me for the Kandahar University as well.
- The Education Fund: As you know education is a corner stone of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. Just from the women’s perspective, the education sector has the largest group of women. For example, currently Kabul city has 159 public schools with 20,000 teachers. 17,000 of the teachers are women!!! I have also visited a school for the blind in a poor and far suburb of Kabul. The teacher is a 19-year-old blind girl who goes to public school in the morning. In the afternoon with her old Braille machine she teaches the blind of her area in her home; her dedication and can-do spirit so inspiring.I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the fund that the Ministry of Education has created. The education fund is based on a kind of a strategic plan. In this plan the Ministry has set up some goals for the national education system. It has identified education as a peace building activity that benefits from the start to well in the future. It has also identified by name a long list of projects.The plan is called ‘Plan of Reconstruction and Development of Education in Afghanistan” (as yet to be translated into English) which I am summarizing here. It describes its goal as ‘restoration, reconstruction, refurbishment and increase of the quality of education and balanced development of education in the capital and provinces, in order to realize educational goals’.The document mentions that this year there were about 4.5 million school children in Afghanistan. The ministry absorbed into the school system three million of them while the capacity was for only one million students. This means they are not able to provide to two million current students much in the way of schoolrooms, textbooks, school supplies, drinkable water, etc. They are also facing hundreds of new student arrivals in each province from the returning refugee population, which exacerbates the situation.One of the needs is to build 2,500 new schools. They already have 5,063 schools of which 3,525 require basic, 873 moderate and 665 some, renovation. They need 93,466 teachers (they have a shortfall of 28,615 teachers). Most of the teachers need some training and refresher courses. The current salary of a teacher is $43, which is so low that teachers have second and third jobs on the side. Teachers do not have health insurance. (ng’s note: Many teachers and civil servants outside Kabul have not received their salaries for several months due to lack of funds).Another need mentioned in the document is to build a relevant, useful and practical curriculum. (I personally appreciate this. I know that there are no textbooks for grades 7 to 12. There are no school libraries, no labs, no gyms, and no workshops in any of the schools. Teachers and students try to find something from the used bookstores of Kabul. What is available is very outdated. Thanks to the USAID there are textbooks for grades 1 to 6.)The plan mentions that for three million students they need 27 million textbooks of which only 11.5 million have been available and distributed.The plan mentions that 75% of the current students in all of Afghanistan do not have chairs, tables, and schools supplies. 50% do not have a blackboard in their classrooms. 100% of labs, libraries, technical shop rooms have been destroyed; dormitories have no furniture.The plan also mentions the literacy program. (ng’s note: with illiteracy around 90% for women and about 80% for men, there are more non-literate adults in Afghanistan than school age children. Most notable among the adult non-literates are rural women and the former Mujaheddin soldiers).The plan also mentions that the dire poverty in the general population is preventing children and grown ups to go to school as parents want their kids to work and bring some money no matter what the age.The plan has three schedules for emergency, short term and long term projects. It divides its work into 56 projects and puts a dollar cost on each. The total comes to US$875,754,181.
Obviously a lot of the major projects need to be funded by large donor countries and the United Nations. However, in order to encourage Afghan and non-Afghan individual participation in the rebuilding of education, the ministry has created the education fund. It has set up bank accounts around the world to which contributions as little as a few cents and as much as whatever can be made. The idea is to use these funds around the country and help the communities help themselves in some of these projects.
In another message I will provide the number of some of these bank accounts and I encourage you to publicize them widely.
- The literacy projects have been wonderful. Three of the courses have finished. The students, teachers and administrators are all very happy with the results and want more. The dropouts from these classes were nearly nil. In one of the classes that included many young boys working as apprentices in various professions (carpentry, coppersmithing, ironworks, plumbing, etc.) they asked for a football and more books to read from. So we provided those too.
- Our seeds project and other activities: I visited the widows’ gardens where the seeds were distributed. I have already sent you the results. It is a great success and we want to continue with the project for the next season. Soon we will be in touch with donors as to specifics. If anyone wants to become part of this project, let me know.Since the school supplies project was so successful, we will continue with this as well. However, regular school supplies are available in Afghanistan and we will concentrate on items such as maps of the world, educational games, small calculators, dictionaries, educational materials, etc.I also attended the opening ceremonies of the Hindokush News Agency, a private enterprise which provides regular as well as more offbeat and provincial news.
- Of course my main focus remains the rights of women and the next constitution of Afghanistan. From our Conference and the Loya Jirga, we now receive bundles of signatures from around the country. Shoukria and I also had a special meeting at one of the ministries. The ministry’s Council of Women invited 200 women where we spoke of the Declaration, the rights of women, and the special mission of the educated urban women of Afghanistan at this juncture in time.Securing women’s rights in the next Constitution is one of the most important aspects of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The next Constitution will be the defining document of women’s status as citizens as well as of an independent, legitimate and self-ruling Afghanistan. I cannot emphasize this enough.The challenge here is multifold: There are countries in the world who feel threatened in their home turf by a truly democratic constitution of Afghanistan; there are extremist groups for whom cancellation of women’s rights remains the most important and easiest route to safeguarding their gains around the world; there are countries that do not want Afghanistan relegitimized as a country. All these groups are now working inside and outside Afghanistan to affect the Constitutional process; they want to have articles inserted in the Constitution that limit the rights of women as equal citizens to men. They are using many methods, working with some political groups, bringing pressure via other countries, misrepresenting the issue to and polarizing Afghan women’s groups and personalities, continuing propaganda outside Afghanistan, continuing to use the fear and insecurity angles, paying women to wear a veil, creating confusion, they stop at nothing.We believe that women’s rights is a unifying point around which consensus can be built. That regardless of what others want Afghans to do, we Afghans must do good things for ourselves.
- In closing, on the projects front, we will continue with seeds, literacy, books and school supplies. We are trying to expand and include the student newspaper, the Kandahar University and the Education Fund.I am convinced of the importance of women’s rights in the coming Afghan constitution. Rest assured I will continue my activism in this area with all my being.I emphasize that without financial assistance reaching the Afghan government, there will be no success. A destitute government cannot deliver, and hungry stomachs and idle bodies do not become supporters but fall prey to those who want to keep Afghanistan a center of turmoil.I ask your continued support and activism. Let us build on this wonderful legacy of women of the world standing by Afghan women during the darkest of times – – so it will never be repeated anywhere.Let us shape the standards of ethics of this new century. From my little rented room on the mountains of Kabul, I fully believe that together we have the power to do just that!
Onward to success!