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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Women Must Lead Afghan Government Back to Democracy

by Cindy Hanford, Staff Writer

While feminists worldwide celebrate the fall of the Taliban regime, women and girls continue to live under dire conditions in Afghanistan.

Two women now hold posts in Afghanistan's 30-member transitional government — a victory for feminists — but many fear that attempts to secure the rights of Afghan women will be negated by factions of the mujahideen who also hold posts in the interim administration.

NOW activists have been protesting the oppression of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in 1996. Here, a group of Action Center staff and interns demonstrated against U.S. companies with oil interests in Afghanistan back in August of 1998. The administration, established by a United Nations agreement brokered in Bonn, Germany, in December, consists of a Prime Minister, five cabinet ministers and 24 department heads. Dr. Sima Samar, the Minister in charge of women's affairs also serves as Deputy Prime Minister, the #2 post in the interim government. Dr. Suhaila Seddiqi is minister of the Department of Public Health.

A graduate of the medical school at Kabul University, Dr. Samar founded and directed the Shuhada Organization, where she risked her life to run 45 schools, 11 clinics and four hospitals in Afghanistan, as well as four schools, a hospital and a clinic for refugees in Pakistan. As a former healthcare worker and educator in Afghanistan, Samar shares a common experience with many other women in the war-ravaged country. Her new responsibility — which she began in December with no budget, office or staff — is momentous.

Dr. Samar met with members of the U.S. State Department in December and called on the U.S. to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. She announced that one of her goals was to create orphanages to protect young girls from sex trafficking, a common practice of both the Taliban and its predecessor, the Northern Alliance.

Women Return to Government

Afghanistan adopted a constitutional democracy in 1964 that affirmed women's right to vote and included an equal rights amendment with equal pay provisions. Under that government, women were not held in seclusion or forced to wear the burqa. During that time, Afghan women served in parliament, as cabinet ministers, and as judges.

After the Soviet invasion and the establishment of a communist government in 1978, the importance of education was emphasized for both men and women, but it was nonetheless the dictate of an occupying force and Afghan activists say the educational materials amounted to little more than propaganda. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the U.S. supplied billions of dollars to fund, train and arm the anti-Soviet mujahideen. But after the Soviets withdrew, the U.S. did not assist Afghanistan in rebuilding efforts, and instead allowed religious extremists in the mujahideen to wage a civil war to gain power.

The victor in the internal struggle, the Northern Alliance, ruled the country from 1992 to 1996 and the conditions for women declined dramatically. Rape, kidnaping, child marriage and violence became widespread.

Many Afghans, particularly women, supported the Taliban takeover in 1996 in the belief that it would increase their safety. Now, while rejoicing in the Taliban's defeat, they fear the Northern Alliance and their ilk could return to power.

Considering the role the U.S. government played in the subjugation of Afghan women by assisting the mujahideen, and ultimately the Taliban, the U.S. is obligated to ensure that the atrocities toward women do not continue. However, both President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have suggested that "moderate" factions of the Taliban might be included in a future Afghan government, a move which would be disastrous for the women of Afghanistan. They also seem determined to include the Northern Alliance, which has its own history of atrocities, especially against women.

"In a country where women have been so abused and vilified, it is not sufficient to have only two women in the 30-member interim government," notes NOW President Kim Gandy. "We need to use this opportunity to create gender parity in the government of Afghanistan, just as we need to do here in the United States. More women in government will result in a focus on basic human needs, like food, housing, clean water, health care and education."

Eleanor Smeal, who led the Feminist Majority's Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, emphasized that women's rights must not be marginalized in the U.S. fight to end terrorism. "We cannot allow history to repeat itself," Smeal said. "Afghan women winning their freedom and rights is essential for restoring a stable, productive Afghan society that does not harbor terrorism. We cannot allow one fundamentalist extremist group to be replaced with another."

Only with the establishment of a broad-based, constitutional democracy that includes Afghan women in leadership roles will the rights of women in Afghanistan be restored. Afghan women leaders — not religious extremists — must be at the table. We need your help to demand that the U.S. insist on the inclusion of women in rebuilding a democratic government in Afghanistan.

Please send messages demanding support for Afghan Women by visiting http://www.now.org/congress and clicking on "Help Women Rebuild Afghan Democracy" and "Help the Women Refugees of Afghanistan." If possible, please call the U.S. State Department at 202-647-4000, the White House at 202-456-1414, Sen. Joseph Biden (Foreign Relations Committee) at 202-224-5042 and the United Nations at 212-326-7000 to express your concerns.


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