Afghan Women Await the Promised Good Times

On the face of it, things looked good. So good, that many of the delegates and old Afghan hands gathered at last month's loya jirga, or grand assembly, in Kabul found the odd tear slipping down their cheeks.

Indeed, the fact that Sima Samar, Afghanistan's deputy chair of the loya jirga and interim Women's Minister, was presiding over the country's grand assembly — which boasted about 200 women members — led some delegates to sigh about how Afghan women had come such a long way.

By all accounts, it was an impressive feat.

After five years of extreme oppression under the Taliban, a woman was presiding over a session of the loya jirga, a traditional assembly that has for centuries been the exclusive domain of males.

And there, in the front row of the 60,000-strong audience, sat a phalanx of some of the country's most notorious warlords — the sort of men not known to have working relations with women — stoically listening as some of the women speakers launched blistering attacks against Afghanistan's mujahids, or Islamic fighters.

But if the old patriarchal world seemed to have turned upside down, behind the scenes, it was very much business as usual.

Cheryl Ray, Samar's faithful assistant, saw it coming on the fifth day of the weeklong meeting. "I saw a whole stack of magazines being brought in and handed down the rows," she told during a recent visit to the United States.

The offending magazine bore a front-page headline calling Samar "Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie," a reference to the author whose novel The Satanic Verses was declared "anti-Islamic" by Iranian clerics who called for his death.

In its report, the Mujahid's Message, a weekly newsmagazine backed by a conservative branch of the Northern Alliance, published what it said was an interview Samar gave to a Persian language magazine in Canada, in which the interim Women's Minister allegedly questioned Islam and said she did not believe in Sharia, or Islamic law.

Samar has denied the allegations.

‘An All-Out, Systematic Attack’

"It was an all-out, systematic attack against Dr. Samar, which I don't think any of us expected and we really didn't respond quickly enough," says Ray, a U.S.-born businesswoman who gave up her business when Samar invited her to be her assistant last year.

But the salvo seemed to have struck home. Days later, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced his Cabinet positions, Samar was not given her old post.

In the confusing days that followed, as rumors that Samar had been threatened and even killed did the rounds, the Karzai administration announced that Habiba Sorabi, a pharmacist and women's rights activist, was replacing the outspoken physician-activist as Minister for Women's Affairs.

Samar, it was announced, would now head the country's new human rights commission, an important position, experts admit, but one that is significantly outside the Afghan government.

A Cause Celébrè

About nine months after the plight of Afghan women became the cause celébrè of heads of state and first ladies around the world, the status of Afghan women has theoretically made dramatic strides. But critics argue that at a practical level, they can at best be called modest transformations.

Last year, as the international coalition prepared to launch a military offensive in Afghanistan, presidents, prime ministers and their wives publicly vowed that Afghan women would finally have their day in the sun.

And as the hard-line regime fell, the world's media congregated in Kabul to snap up the much-awaited images of Afghan women shedding their burqas, the all-encompassing Islamic robes, in a symbolic celebration of their emancipation.

Those images however never materialized — after decades of war and instability, Afghan women were going nowhere without their burqas, or chaudris, as it is often called in Afghanistan.

Today, visitors to Kabul may see little girls on their way to school and may even spot women in crowds signing up for jobs. But of the grand gender revolution, there is no sign.

The streets of the capital are still lined with women — mostly widows in a country that has approximately 40,000 war widows — begging pathetically in their burqas on the sides of the streets.

And of the nostalgic tales of a swinging Kabul during its heyday in the '60s and '70s, when gender equality was a socialist ideal and miniskirts could be spotted on main thoroughfares, there is no sign.

Good News, Bad News

After six years of fighting for Afghan women's rights, taking their cause through the halls of the White House and Capitol Hill long before the Taliban and Osama bin Laden became household names, Eleanor Smeal, founder and president of the Washington-based Feminist Majority Foundation, has a mixed assessment of their fate today.

"There's good news and there's bad news," she says briskly. "Although it's hard to get figures, a number of girls are back in schools. Few women are in universities — although there are still overwhelmingly male students. And some women are being hired — mostly by the Afghan government and international aid agencies. The bad news is 90 percent of women, even in Kabul, still wear the burqa because they are afraid and because security is not what it should be."

In the months leading up to the November 2001 collapse of the Taliban regime, many Muslim women's rights activists bemoaned the excessive attention the Western media had been paying to what they called "behind the veil" stories.

The West was simply not getting the picture, they argued. The issue at stake was not the burqa, they maintained — it was war, disease, hunger, unemployment and insecurity.

And though the burqa may not be the heart of the matter — especially if, as some Muslim women say, it is worn voluntarily — some experts say it is certainly symbolic of the critical issues facing Afghan women: security and the freedom of expression.

Drawing a lesson from the country's modern history, Thomas Goutierre, dean of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says he anticipates that Afghan women will indeed start shedding their chaudris once a general election is conducted. A general election is likely to be held in 2004.

Noting that Afghan women began shedding their chaudris around the time the progressive 1964 Constitution was approved, Goutierre notes that it was only after the 1965 elections that "one really saw Afghan women shedding their chaudris. I think we may see more of it in the future, but an election is critical."

A Matter of Legal Rights

Far more critical than the burqa, though, is the issue of the legal rights women will enjoy in the reconstructed state.

The international community has been on alert since last month's attack against Samar, when she was charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under Islamic law.

Although the country's Supreme Court threw out the blasphemy charge, claiming there was no proof that she insulted Islam, Afghanistan's Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazel Shinwari said Samar's statements were irresponsible and he believed she could not hold public office in the future.

Where the Taliban was once an international pariah, today the international community is faced with the tricky position of having to support an administration struggling to unite and share power with various factions, many of whose members have an abysmal track record on women's rights.

Karzai's appointment of Shinwari as chief justice sent alarm bells among many local Afghans who, under the Taliban, suffered a harsh brand of Islamic justice that included public amputations, floggings and executions.

Shinwari, 70, is a Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan who has spent nearly 40 years in exile in Pakistan, where he taught Islamic law at a madrassa, or religious seminary.

In interviews with several news organizations, Shinwari has said he would not support a return to the Taliban's harsh — and some say un-Islamic — justice system, but he has maintained that Sharia law calls for adulterers to be whipped or stoned to death and for murderers to be publicly executed.

Islamic Versus Tribal Law

But many experts warn that it's not Sharia law per se that can seriously affect the status of Afghan women.

"They may of course couch things in the language of Islam," says Farhat Bokhari of the Women's Rights Division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But we hope the implementation of the laws are in keeping with international law, which includes guarantees to freedom of expression."

While stressing that she personally hopes Sharia law is not implemented in Afghanistan, Valentine Moghadam, director of Women's Studies at Illinois State University, notes that Islamic law can sometimes be less repressive than tribal laws, such as the Pashtunwadi, or the traditional code of ethics of the majority Pashtun tribe.

"In many cases, tribal law does not have the sense of justice that Islam brought," she says. "Pashtunwadi belongs to another era — it's highly patriarchal and while there's a certain egalitarianism among men, this is not the case for women."

For the moment, all eyes are turned towards a new constitution, which is expected to be drafted by a special independent commission of the loya jirga.

Extending the Arm of the Law

While several experts say the new constitution is likely to be based on the 1964 Constitution approved under King Zahir Shah's reign, the Karzai administration has been vague about its plans to juggle the imperatives of an Islamic jurisprudence with international standards of human rights.

"Afghans are Muslim and moderate people," Said Tayeb Jawad, a spokesman for Karzai told via e-mail.

"Religious, secular and tribal laws and customs have co-existed in Afghanistan for many years, except for situations where external powers have forced the Afghans to move to [the] extreme left or right. The Taliban misused the name of Islam and Sharia in Afghanistan. We will never return to a Taliban-like regime. Islam is a religion of moderation, love and compassion."

But Moghadam warns that the real problem of Afghan jurisprudence would be extending the laws framed in Kabul to the remote rural areas of the Central Asian nation.

"Even under Zahir Shah, the beneficiaries of legal rights were the small, liberal elite in the cities because the reach of the government under Zahir Shah was limited," she says. "Even at the best of times, the vast majority of Afghan women were outside the reign of the government and were unaffected by legal rights. That's the biggest challenge facing women's rights in Afghanistan."