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Don't Betray The Women

Author: Jennifer Seymour Whitaker
November 15, 2001
The Washington Post


As Afghans and others rush to fill the void left by the Taliban's collapse and to cobble together an interim governing order, there is a danger that one prominent issue -- human rights for Afghanistan's women -- will fade into the background. That's why it is important that, from the outset, the United States decisively reject any tradeoff of women's rights in an effort to work out an arrangement with Afghanistan's fundamentalist warriors.

Hopes of enduring peace, stability and development for that country depend on putting women's rights on the table -- and giving women a place at the table -- starting now. This is not some utopian ideal. Women's participation is essential for the creation of stable political and social structures.

To understand the importance of this simple concept, look at the striking correlation between women's participation and advances in development. Comparing development in Afghanistan of the 1950s through the 1980s -- a country that was gradually modernizing and where women played a growing public role -- with the steep downward curve under the mujaheddin and Taliban makes it clear that Afghanistan needs the talents and resources of its women if it is to break the cycle of violence and impoverishment of the past two decades.

Afghan women stand ready to share in peacemaking and nation-building. Despite the severe repression of the past decade aimed at rendering them invisible, qualified women leaders are available to assist in the planning process. Women now constitute a majority of the Afghan population. Many are war widows who provide the sole support for their families.

In pre-Taliban days, 50 percent of the university population, 70 percent of teachers, around 50 percent of civil servants and 40 percent of doctors were women. Although many Afghan female professionals like their male counterparts fled the country, some remain within Afghanistan. A number of women doctors still treat women in hospitals.

Some of the particularly courageous run clandestine centers offering women and girls education and skills training. The Afghan diaspora includes a number of prominent women, some of whom have participated in the group of Afghan exiles advising the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, about the composition of a loya jirgha or tribal council.

In Pakistan and Iran, Afghan women have created and are heading effective relief and support groups among the refugees. Some of the groups in Pakistan meet regularly with other Afghan women working for international organizations in a network whose ethnic composition bridges tribal barriers. In Europe and the United States, Afghan women run advocacy groups that also help support refugees and displaced people.

Although women's participation in political decision-making would be opposed by many traditional tribal leaders, it is important to realize that it would not represent a break with Afghanistan's past. The Afghan constitutions of 1964 and 1977 gave equal rights to women. During the 1960s and '70s, women were elected to the Afghan parliament by men and women throughout the country. Women also took part in the loya jirghas of 1964 and 1977. In a number of rural areas women voted, and in some they also participated in local councils.

The majority of women worked outside the home (mostly in the fields) and often took part in commercial life. Some wore burqas, a number less encompassing veils. Many wore neither.

It was the mujaheddin who broke with the past in 1992, requiring women to veil (though not strictly enforcing it). Then, in 1996, the Taliban officially rescinded rights that had been accorded women and enforced their edicts by intimidation and beatings. Deprivation of free movement, expression, association, right to work and equal access to health care has threatened the physical survival and in many cases the sanity of the country's women.

In addition, the repression has eviscerated the economy and the country's social systems. Acting by decree, not in accord with tradition, the Taliban, confined women to the home, thereby erasing nearly half the country's workforce, severely hobbling health care for all and sharply cutting education not just for girls but for boys as well.

The violence and destruction in Afghanistan will not end until its central feature -- the repression of half the country's population -- is delegitimized. As part of any political or military solution, the United States and the international community must make a clear commitment to women's human rights and to women's participation in the design and implementation of reconstruction and development. Without this covenant, our moral case against terrorism will ring hollow.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Project on Women's Human Rights and U.S. Policy.

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