By Caryl Rivers
Wednesday, November 1, 2000
Feminists have placed the treatment of Afghan women on the agenda of the United Nations and human rights organizations worldwide, and now the tiniest crack has opened, indicating that the nation's rulers may in fact be beginning to hear the roar.
BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)--The degree to which women have become an issue in international diplomacy was evident recently when representatives from the ruling Muslim fundamentalist Taleban in Afghanistan argued the case for their right be considered the country's legitimate government.
Even though the Taleban faces many issues--its alleged tolerance of international terrorists and the opium trade as well as possible alliances with other fundamentalist regimes--it was the Taleban's treatment of women that dominated the October forum at the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts and provoked the most heated exchanges.
The Taleban representative to the United States, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, presented a view of his government's philosophy on women that appeared to at odds with independent news reports: His was a softer and more conciliatory Taleban.
The Mujahedeen Alliance, which formally holds the U.N. seat for Afghanistan, now controls less than 10 percent of Afghanistan. Its president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is in exile.
The Taleban seized control of the reins of government four years ago, after civil war racked the country since the Soviets ended their occupation a decade ago. The Taleban government is strongly opposed by Iran, Russia and the United States.
Last November the U.N. Security Council imposed financial and aviation sanctions on the Taleban for failing to hand over Osama Bin Laden, who is based in Afghanistan. He is the Saudi millionaire accused of directing the bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa in 1998. More than 200 people died.
Many of the Taleban were educated in monasteries in Pakistan, and the group preaches a militant form of Islam. The Russians in particular fear the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Despite its victory in the ground war, the Taleban still has not achieved the status it desires on the world stage. The nation is still represented at the U.N. by a member of the opposition, and the fundamentalist regime has been heaped with opprobrium from human rights groups for its systematic denial of the rights of women.
Women have been forbidden to attend school and to work and have been forced to wear a head-to-toe garment called a burka in order to appear in public. Women also have been reported beaten for leaving their homes without a family male escort.
But as the Taleban accelerates a diplomatic offensive to gain worldwide legitimacy, both international pressures and a growing fatigue at home with the strict and punitive piety of the Taleban appear to be moving the group toward a more moderate tone.
Mujahid, the Taleban envoy, said that his regime would respect human rights and women's rights and wanted to work with the world community toward achieving those ends.
He added that his wife did not wear a burka, that his daughters were being educated and that local Afghan customs in the countryside, not Taleban decrees, were responsible for opposition to education for women.
The diplomat's assertions led to a heated exchange with a young Afghan woman who had been a medical student in Afghanistan, and was studying abroad when the Taleban took over. She accused the Taleban of ruining her country, saying that when she was studying at home, 40 percent of doctors were women and 60 percent of medical students were female. Now, she said, she would not be allowed to practice medicine if she returned home. She also said that the suicide rate among Afghani women had soared. She added that two of her classmates in medical school had committed suicide.
The diplomat invited her to return to the country, but asked her to "respect Afghan traditions." Despite the urgings of the audience, he did not elaborate about those traditions. But he appeared to be in favor of increasing education for women, at least in Islamic schools and at least when he was in front of a U.S. audience.
Such education has, in fact, been a part of Afghani tradition, at least in urban areas. Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development in Washington, D.C., herself an Afghan, noted that Afghan women earned the right to vote at about the same time as American women, in the 1920s, and that the Afghan constitution of l964 granted women equal rights, including the right to be educated and to work. She said that she grew up seeing strong Afghan women around her and that women were active as members of parliament, doctors, judges and educators.
The population is getting restless with the Taleban's whip-wielding Vice and Virtue police, according to reports from the country. Women are starting to walk alone on the streets with their burkas unfastened, their ankles and high-heeled shoes clearly visible.
The Los Angeles Times reported that at a soccer match in Kabul in August, the police started to whip a few spectators who had failed to pray before the match. The crowd became enraged and turned on the police, driving them away.
A man in the crowd told a reporter, "All the people were hitting the Taleban. People have enough to worry about without these idiots telling us to pray."
There is also growing resistance in villages to conscription of young men because their mothers and fathers do not want them fighting for the Taleban.
In addition to resistance on the home front, the Taleban is facing increasing international pressure on their treatment of women. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata of Japan, the highest-ranking woman in the U.N. system, visited the country recently and told Taleban leaders in no uncertain terms that it was a high priority for the U.N. to see the rights of women respected.
The refugee issue is of special concern to the United Nations. Some 1.2 million Afghan refugees now live in Iran, where women are not required to wear full body veils and can be educated. Many Afghanis want to stay in Iran because they want their daughters to be educated, but the government of Iran has begun deporting these refugees back to Afghanistan.
Taleban officials had said that one reason for the restrictions on women was that the chaos in the country led to the rape and molestation of women. But human rights officials scoff at the idea that women have to be "protected" from jobs and education.
William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, asked rhetorically, "Are the only two options to have women raped and assaulted on the one hand, or on the other, to have them totally repressed, refused the opportunity for education and employment?"
The future of women in Afghanistan may depend, as it so often does, on geopolitics. The Taleban is in control of all but some 5 percent of the countryside, but a civil war is still being waged, with insurgent groups battling in parts of the mountainous nation.
Moreover, the international community is concerned that Pakistan and the Taleban will join forces to extend militant Islam throughout Central Asia, especially in the former Soviet republics. At the same time, experts on Afghanistan say, growing resentment at home against the Taleban police and charges of graft and corruption could lead to popular unrest and plunge the nation back into chaos.
But international pressure to protect the rights of women may be beginning to have some impact on Taleban policies. Women and their issues are relative newcomers to the real-politic world of diplomacy. For journalists like this writer, who remember the days when women were only mentioned in State Department briefings in connection with population control or child welfare, the prominence of the issue of women's rights is an encouraging sign.
The apparent eagerness of the Taleban, as it appeared in the Fletcher School meeting, to be seen not as a rogue state but as a member of the international community, makes it at least somewhat vulnerable to international pressures on behalf of women.
Keeping up the pressure may be Afghani women's best hope.
Caryl Rivers is professor of journalism at Boston University.
Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP.