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 Report from Afghanistan
 Nasrine Gross, USA (Afghanistan)
 May 21, 2002
 
Hi Friends,

I am back from Kabul for a very short visit. I would like to report to you on what I have been up to since I left on March 7 and what is in store for us in the coming weeks and months.

1. My Stay in Kabul

I arrived in Kabul on March 10. I stayed at the Intercontinental for six weeks until I found a suitable living arrangement. I now live in a rented room of an apartment in a convenient part of town. I have running hot and cold water (in the hotel I only had cold water and only in the wash basin); a fully functioning kitchen, 24-hour electricity, two phone lines, and taxis galore just outside the building (the best means of both transportation and communication). I went shopping to buy towels, silver ware and cleaning stuff (I felt funny starting all over again at 56!)

During my stay I managed to see about 3500 people, mostly women. Among some of my activities were:

I spoke at a celebration held by Negar for the 350 clandestine teachers and students.

I attended the new year's celebration at the hotel, the first in six years. It was an all male affair. It was great to see all these young men gyrating on table tops . . . Hopefully next year we will have girls also.

I spoke at the very moving inauguration of the Malalay High School, on March 23rd for Afghans and on March 24th for the foreign minister of France.

I was invited to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources to speak about women's rights to their council of women. Later Minister Haji Mangal Hussain Ahmadzai invited me to an international conference on water resources in Afghanistan, which was inaugurated by Karzai. The Kabul TV showed us prominently.

I was asked to speak at a gathering of 500 women of Payamawaran-e Azadi (a women's association headed by Qadria Yazdan Parast). I talked about the role of non-governmental organizations in empowering women.

I caught up with the Feminist Majority delegation and managed to take them to a couple of places.

I met with Dr. Sultani, an important Shi'a cleric and Minister of Transportation, and gave him our Declaration. Later I met with the head of the Ministry's council of women.

I attended an 800-women celebration of spring held at the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Talked to many of them and took pictures of the Kabul fashions.

I met with Dr. Sima Samar, Minister for Women's Affairs, several times on her projects and our plans. The ministry's work is very daunting but it is progressing very well. In fact, the Zainab theater and the painting of the buildings look very good, and the women's professional high school has reopened with 380 students. In the courtyard of the Ministry, watching women holding their children's hand and getting on a bus on their way back home from work is a wonderful and heartwarming sight.

I attended the first public play that included two actresses, at an old Afghan theater. There were about 2000 men and two women—the theater director and myself. The actors played very well. I found the audience very attentive, well-mannered and not phased by our presence.

I visited several times with groups of up to twenty women. These were women who were interested in running for the Loya Jirga. Giving them the Declaration and exchanging views have been really informative for me. They have gathered thousands of signatures for us.

I visited several schools of the Literacy Program in various parts of Kabul—from the poorest section that had several open running sewers to more fashionable sections of Kabul and inside large offices. The Program has different classes for young people between 9 and 14 as well as for grown ups.

I met with Dr. Sharief Fayez, Minister for Higher Education, regarding the university entrance exams and was invited to attend the first election of the academic colleges. I also had meetings with Kabul University President, Dr. Popal, and Director of the Pedagogical Institute, Dr. Khorassani, regarding their requirements.

I participated in the training of about 600 literacy teachers and served as translator.

I was invited to speak to the preliminary and election session of the council of women of Kabul University. Several hundred women attended it.

I attended a seminar on policy research at Kabul University where Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad of Dehli University was presenting to the faculty his ideas regarding policy research and analysis.

I met with leaders of several Pashtun provinces—Paktika, Kunar, Kandahar and Tagab—regarding their need both for schools in their areas (boys and girls) and for women in the Loya Jirga.

I met with Kabul mayor and director of Afghanistan radio and television. Presented them with the Declaration, which they signed.

I met with a very important and highly respected religious cleric of Afghanistan, the Mir of Gazargah from Herat. He was in Kabul for a conference and I presented him with the Declaration. He signed it and promised to collect signatures from his area!!!! Needless to say, I am ecstatic!

I began teaching at the University. I teach third year students in the history and philosophy departments (both part of college of social studies). I have ten students in each class. In one, I have nine girls and one young man; in the other there are ten boys. I have gotten to know their stories, which are heartbreaking. These people have become internal and external refugees several times in their young lives. Even their high school years, they have studied in several places. They have all experienced the Taliban. They have all experienced separation from their families at one point or another. One class had never been to a library. So, we made a field trip to the University library to learn the basic components of a library system. The other class does not know any foreign languages—meaning they do not know the Latin alphabet. This was unheard of when I was a student in Kabul 40 years ago. I wish there was a way to teach them some English! For some reason these two classes are popular: students from first and second years also come and listen.

Our classrooms are adequate—ha! The windows had not been cleaned for more than ten years and had a thick layer of dust on them preventing light to come through. The floor, the blackboard (without chalk), the chairs (mostly broken) all looked so dirty and grimy I was sure we would get sick breathing in the room. So I explained that in America we pull up our sleeve and clean the place ourselves. And that is just what we did—we washed and cleaned the whole place. The classroom now looks bright and shiny albeit still impoverished.

The subjects I teach are history of art in Afghanistan (the Islamic period) and sociology of the family. As for material for teaching I have used some of the books I brought with me from the States and had to scrounge around from Afghan professors, who have been very cooperative.

I was one of twenty women invited by Dr. Samar to attend the airport reception of the ex-King Zaher Shah. It was a very moving and important event—to have an ex leader of Afghanistan return in peace. I later met with his chief of staff.

I visited a Parsa home school for Hazara girls and boys orphaned during 1992-1994. These kids are in their late teens. They learn to paint and through painting they learn reading and writing. It was one of the most moving experiences I have had. So beautiful and so sad—they have lost one or both parents and they have not come to closure. I talked to them about healing and moving on. Tears were streaming down their beautiful, innocent and pained cheeks. Their drawings spoke of pain and hope . . . Their teacher so brave and so energetic. The sole room simple and in one corner of it an aunt of two of the orphan boys, lying sick, dying, and no way to get her to a doctor... (she since has passed away).

I attended the opening ceremony for Kabul University Day Care. Met with Mrs. Nooria Zainab Anwari, the director of kindergardens of the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs. Also visited the day care center for the Ministry of Higher Education and that of the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. In both places, they do not have any means to feed the children even a small snack. The teachers ask the families to send some food for their kids; those families that can afford it send something; many come empty-handed. There are no toys and even no mats. The children sleep and play on dirt floors. And day care centers are crucial for women to be able to go (come) to work; they are too poor to have any one look after their kids at home.

I visited schools in Kapisa and Parwan provinces. All in all I visited seven schools and the Al Biruni University, in Farza, Charikar, Jabal Seraj, Ushtur Gram and Gulbahar. The situation is better than last year. Enrollment has increased tremendously. Enthusiasm and hope are rampant. Resources very scarce. Many still study on dirt ground with no roof over them; others still have the thistle matting for roofs. Teachers are not getting paid regularly. Teaching materials, books and supplies are very few. Unicef and AID have provided books for first to six grades (which has been distributed very spottily). But there are no textbooks for seventh to twelfth grades. Laboratory materials do not exist. Even chalk is a rarity (I visited a chalk making factory: two young men shaping chalk by hand and then rolling it to smooth the surface. It must be the last manual chalk making factory in the world!)

In cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior we organized a meeting of a portion of the female officer corps of the Ministries of the Interior and Defense and Security Directorate. There were about 90 of them including 2 female generals. We also invited from ISAF a Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal British Army and a Squadron Leader from the Royal Air Force. We talked about the special mission of the officer corps at this juncture in women's movement in Afghanistan and distributed the Declaration, which they all signed. The meeting was also attended by six male generals and shown on TV.

I met with Mr. Qassemyar, Ms. Mahbuba Huquqmal and Dr. Nedaii of the Special Independent Commission for the Emergency Loya Jirga as well as Dr. Fazelly, the Minister Counselor for Law, regarding women's rights and other constitutional requirements.

In addition to the orphans' aunt dying, I experienced two other tragic events which drove home the situation of health care in Afghanistan: Mrs. Nafissa Nedaii, a 48 year old Malalay teacher and former basketball player, and one of the best supporters of women's rights died as a result of a heart attack/stroke. Due to lack of good technology in the hospitals, she could not be saved. Sossan Qayumi, a very bright 23 year old orphan and a first year medical student was getting paralyzed slowly for the last three months. Six doctors and 18 medications later she was worsening by the day: Her right arm was totally paralyzed and her left arm and legs were almost completely numb. We tried very hard to find hospitals that might have a cat scan and MRI. Only parts of ISAF and the American contingent might have some of the machines but they are not for Afghans. We tried to find an organization (foreign governments or other) to medivac her out to another country. No such arrangement was available. She eventually and urgently left for Pakistan (on borrowed money), where she was diagnosed as having Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

2. The Status of Kabultec Projects

I took 27 boxes full of donated materials with me. I paid in cash for the excess baggage from Washington to Dubai. I took an IOU on the material from Dubai to Kabul as the amount was going to be paid by the Ministry of Higher Education via an international organization. At Kabul airport I had to leave the boxes in their custody until I gave them a letter from the Ministry. This took a couple of weeks as the Minister was on an official trip elsewhere. In the meantime I found a place (someone's extra large room with a lock) to unload and store the boxes. I also found the people who could sort the material. I have taken pictures of each project and will try to send some of them in the next couple of days.

—The professional clothes for men and women of the Ministry of Higher Education: This project was a big hit. The Ministry asked us for a list of items. Then it asked several institutes, among them the Pedagogical Institute, the College of Medicine, the Polytechnic Institute, to select the neediest of their personnel and the Ministry itself then selected who would receive what item of clothing (a necktie, a suit, a skirt, etc.). The Ministry gave us a conference room and two young ladies to help. We had to find a mirror and a rod to hang the clothes on (we were able to rent a water pipe and two standing coat hangers to serve the purpose). Then, every day, people from one organization would come and we would ask them to select their item, wear it, review it in the mirror and if they liked it, it was theirs and they would sign their name on the roster.

People's reaction was tremendous. They would come and thank us for the presentation of the clothes. They would say 'you have prepared an exhibit for us and this shows you respect us'! They would say they had not had the opportunity of 'choice' or 'trying for fit'. They would thank me for the mirror—they would be very surprised when I would say 'look in the mirror'! They were taken by the hangers; they have had so few professional clothes that they had not used hangers for a long time. They were very taken by the plastic covers on the items. Many asked me for a few hangers or a few of the plastic covers. Many were almost shocked by the bright colors, especially men would avoid even dark green neckties saying this was too bright and for young people! Above all they were very enthusiastic and very appreciative. Kabul television reported the event, which lasted about two weeks.

—Books and materials for the first course on women's studies at Kabul University: This is a very important project. Through your contributions I was able to take with me quite a number of books in both English and Farsi on the subject of gender, women's perspectives and feminism. I also took with me my own collection of Afghan women's writings and poetry in Farsi as well as books written in other languages on Afghan women. However, a major problem developed when the University discovered that the curriculum does not include a course on women's studies and including it is a long bureaucratic process. So, currently, I am teaching two courses at the University, history of art in Afghanistan (the Islamic period) and sociology of family, both at the Department of Social Studies. I have been asked to include as much about women in both courses as I please and I have been making use of some of the books I took with me from here. Hopefully, in the next semester we can have something more directly related to women's studies.

—Medical textbooks for Faizabad University: These books actually went to Al Biruni University because the Faizabad University is now collapsed into Takhar University and I could not find anyone who could take it that far. Helicopters were flying very rarely and people going by car had uncertain situations as the roads were bad (due to rains, floods, ice on the Salang pass, etc.). In fact, Dr. Fayez himself took the box with him when he visited Al Biruni.

—Textbooks and materials for Al Biruni University: I visited the University and delivered their materials to them along with $100. They were overjoyed. They would pick each book and read the title and with big grins would tell me how much they needed the book. They have now been approved as a national regional university. Their enrollment is up > greatly, from 400 to 670 and mounting. They have 20 girls, all living in the girls' dormitory. They have four departments, agriculture, medicine, religion and law; science is also ready. Their school of medicine was starting very soon and they were happy that professors from Kabul College of Medicine had agreed to commute the two-hour car ride and teach some of the courses. They still need a lot of materials and resources, especially textbooks, educational materials and some transportation mechanism for their day teachers and students. Their personnel all come from outlying villages and have to ride bicycles—takes too long and is unhealthy and dirty due to dust storms. They would love to have a group of Americans come and give the teachers some refresher training. They would like us to have a special website for their institution and advertise it far and wide.

—Supplies for schools including vitamins: I sorted and divided the material into six packages. I visited schools in the Shamali plain, mostly those I had visited last fall. I gave a package plus $50.00 to each of four schools: Jabal Seraj Girls' High School, Ushtur Gram Girls' High School, Istiqlal-Malalay Coed School and Kapisa Third Medium School. I gave another package to be taken to Panjsher and one package I have earmarked for a school in Kabul. I mentioned to all the schools that the material was not enough for all the students but that the administration could use it for its and teachers' needs and special incentives. I have brought back some thank you letters with students' signatures. All of them were very appreciative.

—Sewing kits for non-literate women: I gave the box to Mary MacMakin at Parsa. She works with many widows and will distribute the material to them. The material consisted mostly of catalogs.

—Seed packets for non-literate women and returning internal refugees to make the rubble bloom: I gave half of the packets plus $100 to Mary MacMakin. She distributed them among her "widows' gardens". I also distributed some in the Ministry of Water Resources and the Department of Agriculture of Kabul University. The widows have reported that their seeds are now growing. I will take pictures when the crop is in full bloom.

Rest assured these seeds are not affected negatively by the X-ray machines at the airports. And they do grow in the Afghan soil. They are extremely popular and every one is asking for more. I even gave a few packets to each school I visited.

—Materials for literacy program: This was a great hit.

3. Upcoming and Continuing Projects

—The literacy and seeds projects will continue.

—The books shipments will continue for a while. Our main obstacle has been to find reasonable shipping venues. We are talking to one group now and will let you know. This program should now concentrate on reference books and dictionaries, especially English-Farsi ones, maps, laboratory materials, educational posters, and such.

—The Kabul University courses will continue. In fact I am looking for titles in Islamic art, Afghan art, family as a social institution, and up-to-date glossaries and bibliographies in these fields as well as more women's studies titles. Anyone knowing of titles, magazine articles, videos, tapes, etc. please let me know.

—The school supplies and materials is a very good project if we can continue it.

—Women's rights issue will remain the center of my attention. In fact, it is going to heat up in a couple of months' time when the committee to draft the constitution will begin its work. This is a very crucial moment in the history of women's rights for the entire world. There are still forces working feverishly to derail the process against women in this part of the world. We must have savvy vigilance and effective activism. Afghanistan remains the defining moment for women's rights for the twenty-first century... make no mistake about it!

4. Concluding Remarks

—I found Kabul changing rapidly. Personal security is very good. Also, now that women have been working outside the home for a few months, the economic level of their lives has noticeably changed. We see a lot more people with clean professional clothes—men and women. And a better attitude is visible on their faces. There are now many women on the streets, both with burqa and scarves, a sign that they feel more secure and more empowered.

—At the same time, this is a society that has not only grown very conservative but also extremely war-torn and poor. We need to work on all these fronts. We need to show them respect for their identity and their choices. We need to show them the world of Islam and the world at large and the many options that exist in both. We need to help create emotional confidence. We must help them see how the Taliban era and the prolonged war have hurt Afghanistan. The staggering illiteracy, the lack of information about the outside world, the reaction to the excesses of the communists and the Soviets, the reaction to the non-stop Islamic teachings of the Taliban have all created a milieu that translates into problems for women and hence to the society as a whole. Many non-Afghans visiting Afghanistan for the first time have told me they think the treatment of women is the worse they have seen anywhere—and this is after so many positive things that have happened since September 11!

—And, Afghanistan still remains very susceptible to pressure from the outside world and you can see it clearly: There are forces working very hard to keep Afghan women afraid (to keep the burqa on), there are those who tell you 'Afghanistan needs to follow the model of Iran' (keep the scarf on) ... Political Islam wants this law of head cover written as an article of the constitution and it is spending a lot of money on the ground to make it a reality!

—Afghan and non-Afghan women coming from abroad and donning scarves do the greatest disservice to the cause of Afghan women. These women tell me they are respecting the Afghan culture (they actually imply that Hamid Karzai wearing Afghan clothes in his trip to the West was not respecting the West's culture, or that Afghans are not as discerning of differences in cultures as the West is). The truth is that these women are either working for political parties and want their party to win at all cost or work in a political way for themselves and want to cater to the men in their milieu or they are very afraid for their own lives. In any case, Afghan women always ask me 'These women seem to be respecting the culture of the Taliban. Why don't they respect us and our wishes?' At the same time, I get hundreds of people, both men and women who come up to me and thank me for walking without a scarf. They tell me 'when you do this it givesme just enough courage to lift up my burqa and when you wear bright red, it gives me just enough courage to wear light blue or soft rose.'

—So, we have come a long way, but we have an even longer—and more crucial—way to go ... Stay with us.

Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American, works with Negar, an Afghan women's organization based in France, which initiated the "Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women" in the summer of 2000. (archive) "Support for the Declaration" is an international movement for the inclusion of the items in the Declaration in the new Afghan constitution. Gross has been in Afghanistan, with only short visits to the US, prior to her trip there in September 2001. She returned to Kabul just prior to the convening of the Loya Jirga in early June 2002.