Reality Gap in Afghanistan
Belquis Ahmadi, Afghanistan
July 8, 2002
For 10 days I sat inside a tent in Kabul as one of 200 women delegates
participating in the loya jirga to determine Afghanistan's future
government. Given my experience, the widespread willingness to declare
that assembly an unmitigated success is a mystery to me and, I would hope,
to all those who put reality before rhetoric when it comes to women's
Afghan women emerged from the loya jirga facing not only the
discrimination and harassment that are a part of Afghan life but a real
danger to their physical security. Those who pose these threats to Afghan
women are no longer international pariahs (the Taliban) but participants
in the heralded new government of Afghanistan.
When I first entered the loya jirga, I was inspired by the outspokenness
of the Afghan men and women in attendance. Many women found the courage to deliver speeches before the mostly male crowd, campaign for candidates and even make efforts to confront the warlords who were there. One Afghan
woman even pursued a largely symbolic run for the presidency.
But such apparent signs of progress were eclipsed by a growing sense of
futility in the face of threats, bribes and intimidation by warlords and
Following a letter in a prominent local newspaper labeling her the "Afghan
Salman Rushdie" and public threats by speakers at the loya jirga, Sima
Simar, former minister of women's affairs, has been subjected to threats
and harassment. The risks she faces cannot be overstated in a society in
which little stands in the way of extremists who have both the desire and
ability to act on such threats and where the deputy justice of the Supreme
Court has left open the possibility of charging Samar with blasphemy, a
crime punishable by death.
Masooda Jalal, the woman who challenged Hamid Karzai for the presidency, received threats throughout the loya jirga and continues to be the target of systematic intimidation. Afghan women less visible than these two women also fear retribution for participating in the loya jirga and for speaking out for women's rights.
Judging by this intimidation campaign, one might think Afghan women are
gaining in power and threaten to undermine Afghanistan's male-dominated
society. Instead, take a look at the new Afghan government.
Where once a woman held the position of vice chair, now four of five vice
chair positions are filled by warlords. Women have managed to hold on to
the two posts assigned during the interim administrationóhealth and
women's affairsóbut with little hope that women will be allowed to move
beyond those traditional roles in the new government.
Most Afghan women live with daily reminders of their lack of status in
Afghan society. Despite rosy news reports, some forms of discrimination
have even worsened for women since the fall of the Taliban.
For example, while women were forced to take separate buses from men
during the Taliban years, they at least had seats on those buses. Today
they must sit in designated seats at the back of the bus or stand, also in
the back, when those few seats are filled. And a walk down the street in
Kabul still exposes them to the certainty of being groped and verbally
harassed by men.
Threats to prominent and not-so-prominent Afghan women are a test of
whether the support of the Bush administration and the international
community for Afghan women's rights was merely a gesture or represented a genuine commitment never to let the abuses of the Taliban be repeated.
Those who are truly dedicated to the cause of Afghan women must show their support now.
In particular, Karzai publicly must denounce threats being made against
Afghan women leaders and voice his support for prominent women such as
Samar. And the Afghan government must include women in all levels of
government, both national and local in more than token positions and
The international community must be ready to back up its flowery
statements on women's rights by working to protect those who believed in
the promise of a new Afghanistan that would respect women's rights. Now
that the loya jirga has ended, the real show begins.
Belquis Ahmadi is Afghanistan program coordinator for the International Human Rights Law Group. She was assisted in the preparation of this article by Mary Lou Hartman of that organization.
From The Washington Post,
July 8, 2002. © 2002 The Washington Post Company.