To: Style section editor-The Washington Post
Re: A Cause Unveiled, March 30, 1999
I am an Afghan American woman. I have lived outside Afghanistan since 1965 and I have been an American citizen for nearly 25 years.
I read with mounting dismay the article regarding Mavis Leno’s efforts for the Afghan women. In it the Feminist Majority’s point of view is shown somewhat. More clearly, we saw the Taliban’s view. What I found totally missing, however, was a vision of the Afghan woman before the current impasse, a point of reference. I also found a few inaccuracies. Even though the pain of the Afghan tragedy strains everyone’s objectivity, I feel we owe it to Post readers to provide this third view so they could formulate a more accurate vision. Below I have tried to describe and correct based on my own understanding of the situation:
For the better part of this century until the coming of the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan formed an undeniably active segment of the Afghan society. Those in the villages and countryside worked alongside their menfolk in the fields. The educated ones fully participated in the building of the 20th century Afghanistan.
The first girls’ elementary school began in the 1920’s. The first girls’ high school opened in 1939 and granted its first baccalaureate degree to 6 Afghan girls in 1947. Two years later Kabul University started its female section. When the school first began, in addition to the aristocracy, girls from very poor and modest families also joined. Some even had head lice, wore no shoes and were devoid of social skills. Within a short time of less than 20 years, not only many other girls’ schools had opened, but also, the graduates were entirely engaged in building their society outside the home. Among them were cabinet ministers, members of parliament, governmental directors, university professors, businesswomen, writers, doctors, lawyers, singers, diplomats, judges, poets, educators and such. The professions were not stereotyped by gender and so the technocrat class included a large number of women.
According to one estimate, in 1973, there were about 104,000 school girls across the country and in the city of Kabul alone there were 82 girls’ schools, all run by the government. Female education elsewhere in the country, while lagging behind the capital, a norm almost everywhere in the world, soared. Some provincial schools even surpassed those of Kabul in the quality of their education, such as the schools of Herat. When I left Afghanistan in 1965, education and working outside the home were a norm of my generation’s thought process in Kabul; so extensive and accepted was women’s participation in the society I could not picture myself any other way. As for the provinces, school resources and work opportunities were replacing social resistance as major educational issues.
The current situation around the women’s human rights issue in Afghanistan is purely political. True enough that the previous regime, or more accurately, its militia tragically and wrongfully committed atrocities against women. However, women still enjoyed their human rights; by one count there were several thousand women teachers in the boys’ and girls’ schools of Kabul alone. I do not remember a single incident of women (or for that matter men) demonstrating or petitioning the government asking it to reinstitute the veil (chadari or burqa) or forbid them to work or go to school. To claim that the current situation is for the good of women is like putting under house arrest every office worker in the World Trade Center and telling them that it is to protect them from terrorist bombings instead of tracking the terrorists.
Also, the claim that the practices of the Taliban mirror the traditional village and Islamic values of Afghanistan is incorrect. As your article points out (implies) the traditional values of the village and countryside are for women not to wear the all-enveloping veil. They typically wear just a head scarf, at home, in the market and in the field. Some women wear the chadari as a way to show off their gentrification. And the authority to allow her to wear either, rests solely with the men of her immediate family, not the government. It is an insult to men and a means of subjugating them, especially among the Pashtuns, to usurp this authority. This is why when the women’s emancipation of 1959 occurred, it was clearly left up to the men of a family to decide on it. As for the claim that these are Islamic traditions, today human rights are observed in most Islamic countries, the way they were in Afghanistan before the coming of the Taliban and certainly before the 20 years of war began. The 1964 and 1977 constitutions of Afghanistan provided for gender equality. It is an affront to the populations of these countries to imply that they are not good Moslems. It is an insult to all Moslem Afghans, a decidedly pious people for 1300 years, to imply that our fathers were not Moslem enough. The Taliban have thus far portrayed these traditions as caricatures and a mockery of the ancient and cultured heritage of the Afghan people. In fact, Afghanistan is a traditional society where, helped by its Islamic traditions, the dignity of human beings was paramount. In my 18 years there, I never saw that dignity violated; I never saw a hand cut off or a woman flayed.
I fully believe that the people of Afghanistan including her women are capable of building once again, another viable, vibrant and civilized society, if ever permitted to do so. These people need Afghan and non-Afghan friends that will support them in healing, educating and rebuilding their society, not in assigning them degrees of humanity as the Taliban seem to be doing and as the Feminist Majority tried to highlight. It is also this self-respecting, educated and forward looking society that will prove to be the best insurance of our American best interests in the region as it did so well in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and so valiantly in the 1980’s.
Nasrine Abou-Bakre Gross Compiler/editor of Qassarikh-e Malalay: Memories of the First Girls High School in Afghanistan, published in 1998, containing the personal narratives of about 100 students, teachers and employees of the school who give in their own words an account of life in Afghanistan (and outside it as refugees) from the 1920’s to 1998
Note: The above letter was sent to the Washington Post addressed to Ms. Meg Greenfield. It was not published by the Post. The author recently learned that at the time of writing of this letter Ms. Greenfield was ill and has since passed away. May her soul rest in peace!