THE MESSY SIDE OF GLOBALIZATION: WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN
TALK GIVEN BY NASRINE GROSS
SYMPOSIUM ON GLOBALIZATION AND WOMEN IN MUSLIM SOCIETIES
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, WASHINGTON, D.C., NOVEMBER 2000
I will first describe to you the situation of women and the way globalization has found its way in Afghanistan. I will then talk about the feminist movement of Afghanistan and suggest ways to get out of the debacle.
First let me describe the current situation from the mouth of an Afghan woman herself:
ìI am an Afghan woman living inside Afghanistan. I want to tell you about my ground realities: The last four years I have been ordered to cover myself with a chadari and wear shoes that don’t make noise. Four years since I had a bath, as it’s not permitted to visit public baths and I don’t have running water. Four years since I had food for my soul, as Islam prohibits me to pray without a bath after my period. Four years since I am coerced not to hear music or celebrate any cultural feasts or see a magazine with pictures. My daughter is forced not to go to school and not to know what a book is; but to get good at pushing drugs. I am forbidden to work, and driven to eke out bread money by begging, stealing and some night work. For justice, I am treated to stoning, public execution, cutting of hands and legs, and my nation is forced to watch. All this is accomplished by decree. The smallest infraction from these edicts and I am whipped, imprisoned,
beaten and ridiculed with no recourse. I am constantly exposed to thieves, muggers, extortionists and gunmen with beards and foreign tongues who exact on me rape, forced marriages and selling of my daughters. Where I live, grenades, rockets, mines and bombs are a constant reminder of lurking danger.î
So these are the decrees of the Taliban and the condition of women. And yet, until 1996 when the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghan women were an integral part of society, they worked outside the home, they went to school, and chose their own doctor. Women constituted 50% of the student body in the universities, 60% of the civil servants, 75% of the hospitals workforce, a majority of teachers for boys and girlsí schools, and had businesses of their own. In the city of Kabul alone, there were around 17,000 women teachers. The 1964 and 1977 Constitutions of Afghanistan provided for gender equality and women were fully vested in the political process including the right to vote and get elected. Many women also wore either a chadari or scarf on a voluntary basis.
What is important to note is that the rights of women are now revoked officially and systematically. Thus the situation is one of politics rather than trampling of rights.
But who are the Taliban? They are a group exported from the outside into Afghanistan. They are not an indigenous force. The popular lore has it that they are composed of men, many of them Afghans who were raised outside Afghanistan as orphans in orphanages without the influence of women. As such they were ripe for indoctrination, which
they got in religious madrassas of Pakistan. So, they have not seen the warmth of mother and they are void of knowledge about Afghan culture. However, this description does not explain their success and their well-thought out albeit devilish philosophy.
Their philosophy is to show Afghanistan as a failed state, and to have total control. The revocation of the rights of women is nothing but to deconstruct the Afghan society and show it as uncivilized, illiterate and incapable of self-governance. That way, with borders not important anymore and the world being a village, it becomes very easy for another supposedly more capable country, to govern it, i.e., Pakistan. There is no question in my mind that by negating the rights of Afghan women, the Taliban and their backers, the Pakistanis, have been trying to negate the right of Afghanistan as a sovereign and independent country.
To reach total control, the Taliban abuse in a systematic way, tribal and social traditions of Afghanistan, and the religion of Islam. At the beginning, this abuse created a major problem of fighting them back; it was hard to say no, this is wrong. Like, if we forcibly put Mennonite ministers in a Catholic congregation; or, make the wonderful traditions
of the Amish people, a Supreme Court requirement for all US citizens.
Of course, the tradition that they have abused the worst is Islam itself. And at first, it was the most difficult to talk about. For 1300 years Afghanistan has been a Muslim country, following mostly the Hanafi sect of Islam. The religion was very tolerant and the God of
Islam we worshiped was the compassionate and the merciful. I am currently in the process of analyzing the Taliban edicts coming out of Mullah Omarís mouth, and I donít want to commit blasphemy, but this manís God is one of anger, disrespect, spying and punishment. In almost every edict there is talk of using informants to ensure enforcement, of the anger and wrath of God, and of punishment, mostly corporal, that
must take place on earth, without exception or recourse. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Taliban have endgamed women from praying (the last six months men too). In a trip to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in June of this year, many recent refugees told me that if this is the real Islam, they would rather have another God, another book.
This is very serious for Islam as a global religion. I personally believe that now that literacy and education are commonplace in the Islamic world, the leadership of Islam must try to create learned explanations of it, rather than let poorly educated catechism students malign this comforting, inspiring and deep faith. They must strive to help create Islamic civilizations, like in the olden days, rather than means of controlling the masses and inventing outdated supremacist-colonialist power pools.
The Taliban are also abusing Afghan social traditions, such as wearing of the chadari (burqa), which in Afghanistan is about 150 years old and has come from India and was used primarily in the cities, not in the villages, and completely as a voluntary cover and at the discretion of families. The Taliban now require by decree all twelve million Afghan
women (CIA factbook, February 2000) to wear this modern-day chamber of horrors, whether or not they wore it in the past. And they assign a large part of the responsibility of this requirement, under threat of punishment, to the men of the family. In this way, the Taliban accomplish control over both men and women. They not only obliterate womenís presence but also by usurping what was the purview of the family, they put to shame the men of the family, thus rendering them disempowered. The chadari is also used by men, spies, foreign settlers, drug traffickers and terrorists to travel back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the border post does not check women much.
In Dushanbe, many recent refugees of Mazar-e Sharif told me that prior to the take over of Mazar the second time, the Taliban infiltrated the city, wearing chadaris. Very effective tool of control and transborder illicit traffic.
Among other traditions the Taliban abuse, are the tribal code of silence, the idea of giving sanctuary to a guest and the idea of tribal leadership and hegemony. In the tribal areas the code of silence requires every tribal member to keep mum about, or even defend his/her tribal leadership, good or bad. The Taliban have abused this tradition very effectively both in the area of controlling people and giving an aura of popular support; and in the area of poppy cultivation – – never mind that poppy cultivation has criminalized their population, and controlling schools has kept their children from becoming literate, loyalty and solidarity they must give to the tribe. I have talked to
dozens of tribal people who privately tell me this is a disaster and a shame. But publicly, they must keep silent, which unwittingly (!) helps perpetuate what is truly akin to the treatment of Jews just before the holocaust.
It is this abusing of religion, traditions and culture that instantaneously creates the understanding among Afghans that the Taliban are an invading foreign force. By now, as we all know, their conquest of Afghanistan is nearly complete. What that means and it is becoming increasingly public and clear, are two things: One, that the Taliban do not have the support of the people of Afghanistan. Of the over 24 million population of Afghanistan (CIA factbook), 64% are openly against them and of the other 36% who are the Pashtun tribal people, indications are that a large number does not agree with them. In fact, recent visitors to the US who in the last four years have lived under the Taliban, have told me that no one supports the Taliban; that there is no relationship between this small elite crust at the top and the masses under their thumb.
The other point about the Taliban victory is that every piece of military equipment and infrastructure left over in Afghanistan from the Soviet war, including American equipment, is now under the control of Pakistanis, as madrassa students are not into tanks, radars, stinger missiles, command and control and other advanced technology of warfare.
So, to recap, the Taliban are a regional, some say global, force that control the Afghan people. And their main backer, Pakistan, is in control of the military.
But, where, really, where did the Taliban come from? Who created them and why? It is not just in the obliteration of Afghanistan as a viable people and country that this tragedy of globalization lies. It is also that there is no shred of accountability. No body in the world has taken responsibility for this modern-day plantation politics at its worst. The success the Taliban have achieved is no small matter; it requires huge sums of money, huge amounts of technological expertise, and huge amounts of knowledge about techniques of information (and disinformation) handling. The silence of the world as to who is responsible for such a destructive and desecrating yet successful and cohesive force has been deafening, and to me, as a woman, as a Muslim and as a mother with a child just entering adult life, very alarming.
It is with this perspective that an Afghan woman in Paris by the name of Shoukria Haidar, formed an organization called NEGAR-Support of Women of Afghanistan. She wanted to show the world the reality of the Afghan woman. She visited Afghanistan several times and then attended hundreds of conferences around the world, telling people what the Taliban say Afghan women are is not true. She soon realized that one, all the
feminists she met asked what they could do to help, and two, that it must be Afghan women themselves who say who they are and what they want, otherwise she, Shoukria, would remain just one solitary voice. So, in June of this year, with the help of non-Afghan feminist and human rights advocates and about 40 organizations, she organized a conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for the women of Afghanistan. Three hundred
Afghan women from inside Afghanistan, and refugees from Iran and Tajikistan along with Afghan women from Europe and America, and 45 non-Afghan activists from five continents attended the conference. This conference accomplished a major goal. The Afghan women were able to draw up a Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, saying these are the rights we hold for ourselves.
The Declaration is fashioned after United Nations declarations and has four parts: The first part explains why this Declaration at this time, and each point more or less is related to one of the United Nations declarations. The second part mentions the ten documents that the Declaration uses as its foundation: Seven from the United Nations, the Beijing Declaration and two constitutions of Afghanistan, the ones from 1964 and 1977. The third section are the ten articles of rights, each of which is connected to one of these documents and is a response to one or more of the Taliban decrees. Section Four talks about how the women of Afghanistan think these are their inalienable rights and the state of Afghanistan must respect and implement them.
Our objective with this Declaration is to make it part of the peace settlement of Afghanistan so that it eventually becomes part of the next Constitution of Afghanistan. We believe that only by approaching the problem at the bullís eye, can we give it the correct blow and also avoid a future repetition.
So, our task now is twofold: One to secure buy-in from Afghans and, two to get the sponsorship and support of organizations and individuals working for womenís rights. For this, we have developed a Statement of Support that we give out along with the Declaration. In the Afghan area, it is a slow process because Afghans are so scattered. But weíve had good reception with those weíve approached, because this Declaration
Immediately empowers them as well.
The second part of our approach is actually the good side of globalization, and that is, to get the support of non-Afghan organizations, feminist and otherwise. It is this global power that we find to be with us and we want to harness it for a cause that is at the
core of fate of women the world over. We believe it is the fate of the women of Afghanistan that will be the standard bearer of treatment of women and nations in the 21st century, and we must not let it slip. The interest we have generated is overwhelming. For example, during October, we attended the march of women in Brussels, Washington, D.C. and New York and distributed several thousand copies of our literature, and saw more than 20 thousand women from 5,500 organizations from 159
countries. Each person we met face to face told us she or he is ready to support. We also have given the Declaration to the United Nations political office.
We realize that this is a long, hard and slow road. And I know that many of you understand how hard, much better than I do. We need your help, individually and as institutions. I have brought copies of the Declaration and the Statement of Support and will distribute them among you. Please share with your colleagues and friends and please give us your endorsement.
In closing, let me reiterate that we must all do what we can, to ensure that our legacy as women of the world, is not violated. The power we feel, at this juncture in history, within ourselves and without, we must use, so that ethical and moral behavior continues to remain the basis of all power, wherever it travels, however it travels – – in Afghanistan,
in the world of Islam and in the rest of our global village.
Nasrine Gross, an Afghan American, is the compiler/author of Qassarikh-e Malalay (Memories of the First Girls’ High School in Afghanistan) and Qadam-ha-ye Awshti (Steps of Peace and our Responsibility as Afghans). She now works full-time with Negar-Support of Women of Afghanistan on the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women.