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.

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