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Afghan Women Building Their Own Councils

Friday, October 14, 2005

As Afghanistan waits for the final results on Oct. 22 of its first elections, women continue working to build institutions and their country. In Herat, Suraya Pakzad focuses on expanding shuras, or women's councils.

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As Afghanistan waits for the final results on Oct. 22 of its first elections, women continue working to build institutions and their country. In Herat, Suraya Pakzad focuses on expanding shuras, or women's councils.
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Massumi Jami (left) and Suraya Pakzad

HERAT, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Four years after the fall of the Taliban here, Afghanistan is waiting for the final results on Oct. 22 of elections for Parliament and its provincial capitals that were held for the first time in more than three decades.

Turnout has been estimated at 55 percent in the legislative elections and 70 percent in the presidential election. Under the preliminary results already tallied, women appear to have made a strong showing in the races. One-quarter of the seats in Parliament and the provincial councils were set aside for women.

In the meantime--after the ruins of wars that began in 1973--the country continues to rebuild, road by road and institution by institution.

One of those institutions, the Voice of Women Organization, formed in Herat in 1998 when the Taliban still ruled. The Voice of Women was illegal and had to operate in secrecy, teaching girls and young women how to read and write behind closed doors.

"We met in my house and in those of other women," Suraya Pakzad, the group's founder, recalled in recent interviews with Women's eNews held in Herat and the surrounding villages. "The women would gather together and we would use donated books to teach them. Each reading area had an oven though, and if we were discovered, we had to burn all the books."

Once the Taliban fell, Pakzad, 34, continued her work openly.

"We were the first woman-run NGO registered under the new government," she said.

Today, Pakzad continues to educate women and improve awareness of their rights.

Focus on Women's Shuras

During the elections, she concentrated on women's voting rights, but the group's main focus is on bolstering the network of women's shuras--or quasi-government councils--in the villages that surround Herat.

Politics is part of what gets discussed at the shuras, Pakzad said, but the main point is to simply gather women together so they can talk and discuss issues without the oversight of men.

The shuras also enable women to create cottage industries from their homes, such as textile manufacturing. The shuras also provide start-up funds and consolidated space for manufacturing by bringing looms under one roof.

A new shura is under construction in the village of Fatobat, about an hour's drive from the center of Herat in the district of Zandagen. The land for it was donated by 28-year-old Massumi Jami when she decided to demolish an old house on her own property.

It will be a few months before the building is completed. In the meantime, women have been meeting in Jami's living room. She can only accommodate about 40 women for meetings, so some stay outside in the courtyard, waiting to hear what has been discussed.

The new building will be 150 square meters with meeting and business facilities. Even with this new structure, it will not be enough. Nearly 35,000 women live in the region and could potentially participate in the discussions. Some funding is being provided by Women for Afghan Women in New York, which has donated about $30,000 for this and other projects.

Facing Problem of Suicides

Pakzad's work in the region also includes combating the problem of women committing or attempting suicide by dousing themselves with kerosene and setting themselves on fire.

"Women for Afghan Women has been overcome by the sheer horror of Afghan women trying to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire," said Dr. Esther Hyneman, a director of the New York City-based group. "They see this as their only escape from intolerably cruel and dehumanizing domestic situations."

The main hospital in Herat has a busy burn clinic where up to 20 women a day are treated before being turned over to their families. Medicine, bandages and help are in short supply. Pakzad's group, however, pays for the doctors' salaries to ensure they stay in the clinic and are not pulled to other areas of the hospital. A washing machine was also donated to wash the bandages, which are re-used among patients.

Women for Afghan Women is one of the main funders of Pakzad's efforts in the clinic and is providing more funding for expansion.

Hyneman said her organization is also supporting a project developed by the Voice of Women Organization that will assist the shuras in the villages around Herat.

"The idea is to give women the authority and the means to alter their circumstances, by finding ways to earn money, by learning to read and write, even by getting legal assistance," Hyneman said. "The empowerment of women is the best way to prevent the terrible epidemic of self-immolation and the best way to lift Afghanistan from the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Scale, where it now sits."

Voter Registration Drive

During the recent campaign season in August and September, Pakzad concentrated on registering women to vote and informing them of what was at stake in the elections.

"For the past two and a half decades, women have really been suffering," she said. "We feel it in our blood. We hope women who run will remember this. Really, they are no better than the men, and I hope they can do things."

Pakzad said she was encouraged by the sight of campaign posters of women all over the country--a sight that would have been impossible to imagine just a few years earlier.

It was especially good, Pakzad added, to see women running campaigns in the provinces. While world attention often falls on the cosmopolitan capital of Kabul, she says the impact of these elections will be felt most deeply in the provinces because that is where new policies can create the most significant change for women.

Female candidate Fawzia Gailani received the most votes in the parliamentary contest in Herat, under the preliminary election results. At the same time, conservative and religious candidates are having a strong overall showing in the results. A final tally is expected on Oct. 22.

Pakzad, however, is sober about the potential of these first elections to radically alter the reality of provincial life in Afghanistan.

The work of aiding women in Herat, she said, will need to go on long after the final votes are counted.

Michael Luongo is a freelance writer and photographer who has worked several times in Afghanistan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Conde Nast Traveler, MAMM, National Geographic Traveler, Out Traveler and many other publications. More on his Afghanistan work is available on his website: http://www.michaelluongo.com.

For more information:

Women for Afghan Women:
http://www.womenforafghanwomen.org

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