To: Editor-The Christian Science Monitor
Re: US-Grown Feminist’s Pace of Reform Riles Afghan Women, July 31, 2002
Regarding your article of July 31, 2002 entitled ‘US-Grown Feminist’s Pace of Reform Riles Afghan Women’, of which I was the subject, I would like to respond with some important points about myself and the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan. I hope you will print it.
First, I do not reject the Sharia in the government, as your reporter mistakenly writes. On the contrary, I have consistently based my activism for Afghan women’s rights on the 1964 Constitution precisely because this Constitution asserts Islam as being the official religion of the country (Chapter one, Article 2), and it recognizes Sharia in the country’s legislative and judiciary branches (Chapters four and seven). This same Constitution, which is, per the Bonn Agreement, in effect now, in Chapter three, entitled ‘Essential Rights and Responsibilities of the People’, in Articles 25 through 40, describes the rights of citizens of Afghanistan.
This is the chapter with which I as a women’s rights activist am concerned. The rights mentioned in this Chapter are those that Afghan women had as citizens in the past and that the Taliban cancelled by means of official written decrees and with the use of fascistic methods. I want these rights to be restored in the next Constitution of Afghanistan, due out in eighteen months. Not only are they not against Islam and the Sharia; they are basic: Equality of rights and responsibilities before the law, freedom and dignity of Afghans as human beings, defining crime and punishment, being innocent before proven guilty, crime being an individual act, freedom from compulsion and the use of force, protection of domicile and property, freedom and protection of communication, freedom of thought, speech, assembly and travel, the right to education, to good health, to work and to be politically active, and for the state to be responsible to its citizens.
So, when I say I am against the government enforcing Islam on us (printed in your article), I mean I am against a return to the whip and compulsion by decree of the Taliban, which had nothing to do with Islam or the Sharia, despite the false claims of the Taliban to the contrary.
Second, I have spent most of this past year in Afghanistan. I have had the pleasure of meeting with thousands of Afghan men and women, including religious clerics, politicians, intellectuals, Mujaheddin, community leaders and non-literates from all over the country. My observation is that, for various reasons, Afghan society is more conservative now than when I lived here thirty-seven years ago. The reception, however, I experience is extremely encouraging. So many thousands tell me I am on the right track; so many ask me to continue more vigorously; so many ask me to come and speak at their gatherings. I have been invited to almost all the provinces of Afghanistan. This past June 2002, one thousand Afghan women (about fifty of them Loya Jirga delegates) attended Negar’s Second Conference of Afghan Women in Kabul, and enthusiastically reiterated the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women. I consider your headline suggesting that I “rile” most Afghan women totally misleading and almost deliberately designed to create a false impression.
To be sure there are some that do not agree. These are mostly those who are Taliban apologists, or want to vindicate the Taliban and Pakistan by insisting that it is Afghan society that is intolerant. There are also some that have political agendas of their own. In addition, some remember with pain and disgust how Communism was both godless and, as far as social freedoms were concerned, excessive. Fortunately, my women’s rights activism does not support any of these ideas and Afghans — men and women — need not worry.
And then there are those, like Ms. Rahima Jami (mentioned in your article), who think it is ‘too much too soon’. They invariably are talking about exercising rights, not opposing their inclusion in the Constitution. Ms. Jami is right: For her area of the country (the western parts), the pace of implementing these rights will necessarily be slower, for women as well as for men. With country-wide non-literacy around 90% for women and 80% for men, her district may not have many (any?) hospitals, civic associations, girls’ schools, courts, police stations, restaurants, cinemas, television/radio stations, major public works projects or large governmental offices, all areas where men and women can be modern contributing members of the work force and society. Most of the provinces of Afghanistan are this way. Therefore, it is unrealistic to talk about uniform implementation or taking equal advantage, of rights, in both, say, Kabul and Ms. Jami’s district, or for that matter, Mazar-e Sharif and Katawaz.
This situation does not mean that such basic rights should be excluded from the new Constitution. On the contrary, aside from the fact that we must reestablish the rule of law and the legitimacy of the country by having a democratic Constitution, we must also have vision and give the more developed communities a framework for good civic involvement, and the less developed ones an option to progress in the manner and at the pace they themselves prefer. This can be achieved only by recognizing the inalienable rights of all Afghan citizens in the new Constitution. It is the recognition of rights in the Constitution that ensures gradual and healthy participation of female citizens in the society. And it is the provision of the legal justice system in the Constitution that prepares for the uniform and universal application of the Sharia in all Afghan courts, on all Afghan citizens, men and women alike.
Another point concerning the article — my mother is an educated woman of Kabul and participated in the state-led women’s emancipation of 1950’s. She was a career civil servant. She is chagrined with your reporter’s portrayal of her and her own mother, a housewife Haji of great social standing, as revolutionaries, as am I. I myself am the quintessential rule-of-law person and have never accepted revolution as a mechanism of change. My conduct in Afghanistan today is precisely the same as it was when I lived in Kabul thirty-seven years ago, when I was an 18-year old university student. I am proud of this heritage and will not deny it.
Finally, please allow me to make an appeal to all freedom- and democracy-loving peoples and governments of the world: Afghanistan and Afghan women are not out of danger yet. There are a number of powerful and very savvy enemies working against both. Only now that they cannot operate so easily militarily, they are using every other means possible to derail the planned Constitution by having articles inserted in it limiting the rights of female citizens. I beg your readers to stay the course with us. I remain convinced that not only the restoration of the rights of women of Afghanistan is central in our fight against international terrorism and its abuse of Islam and women, but also that the new Constitution of Afghanistan will be the standard bearer of treatment of women the world over — for better or for worse. At the beginning of this new century, we have an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to make it a trailblazer, just like the US Constitution in 1776. This will also ensure the creation of a uniquely Afghan civilization based on Islam’s values of tolerance, brotherhood and democracy. This is my right; this is OUR legacy.
Nasrine Abou-Bakre Gross
Afghan Women’s Rights Activist and Negar Member
(This letter was sent to the Christian Science Monitor. I do not know if they ever published it. ng)