(WOMENSENEWS)–A Washington, D.C.-based women’s rights activist said in an interview Wednesday that an Afghan leader who had taken a leading role in advocating for women’s rights was slain at the same time and place as the leader of the anti-Taliban forces.
In early September, the activist, Barbara Bick, was in northern Afghanistan to observe women’s progress in the region controlled by anti-Taliban forces.
On Sept. 9, Bick was one of two Americans in the outpost Khwaja Bahouddin when two international terrorists–believed to be linked to the Taliban and directed by Osama bin Laden–fatally wounded the Northern Alliance’s military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, Bick said.
The mud village, which serves as the headquarters for foreign visitors, can only be reached by helicopter from the neighboring country of Tajikistan, said Bick. She had been in the village at the outset of her trip two weeks earlier and, after touring women’s schools, hospitals and support networks in the northern territory, returned to the outpost to prepare to return home.
Massoud was an ethnic Tajik who had won the trust of some members of other ethnic groups, and other rebel leaders have hailed him as the leader who could have unified the country.
However, Bick reports another significant resistance leader was slain at the same moment, although that death has not been publicly reported. Mohammad Asim Sahail was also murdered, Bick said.
Bick said she was staying at the foreign outpost of the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan when the murders occurred.
Sahail May Have Died Trying to Protect Massoud
Sahail had been in charge of greeting humanitarian workers, journalists and foreign guests, Bick said. Bick added that from the information she was able to gather and from her own observations she believes that Sahail threw himself in front of Massoud when the attack first occurred and was immediately killed. Bick reports that she saw Sahail’s shrouded body and collected photographs of his coffin.
Sahail was a man in his 30s with two young children, Bick said, and had headed a cultural center in Kabul, the nation’s capital, before the Taliban took over. Bick had talked extensively with him and was impressed with his commitment to women’s issues.
“I’ve been calling him a feminist,” said Bick. “He deeply believed in women’s equality and rights. He helped set up women’s political groups and support groups in the north,” she said.
In addition, Sahail had worked with Negar, a group in France that advocates for women’s liberation in Afghanistan. He had assisted in the organization of an historic meeting of 300 Afghan women last year in Dushanbe, a city in neighborhing Tajikistan. There, the attendees wrote the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women.
Although Sahail was killed immediately, according to reports, Massoud died later from his wounds. Bick also saw at least two other victims who were severely burned in the attack.
Flees Afghanistan on Foreign Minister’s Helicopter
After the assault, Bick said she and another observer from the United States, Nasrine Gross, were immediately moved to a nearby village, where they spent the night sleeping on a mud floor. Eventually, Bick was given a place in the helicopter of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, and she was able to leave the country. Gross did not depart with her.
Bick reached Tajikistan again four days after the assassination and two days after the terrorist attacks against the United States. She returned to the United States on Sept. 20, via a weekly flight from Tajikistan to Germany.
Interviewed from her retreat in Massachusetts, Bick said she journeyed to Afghanistan because of her work with Negar.
One of the founding members of the 1960s Women’s Strike for Peace, Bick describes the village where the murders took place as having a small L-shaped structure with offices, bedrooms and sitting rooms, an outhouse, a wash house, a shed for cooking, and a separate guest house. On the way into the northern territory, Bick stayed at the guest house.
On her travels through the area, Bick joined with three other women: Shoukria Haidar, a French-Afghan woman who heads Negar; Gross, an Afghan woman who also resides in the Washington, D.C., area and is affiliated with Negar; and Mary MacMakin, an American who has lived in Afghanistan for 40 years and now lives in Pakistan, running an agency that creates jobs for Afghan widows.
“I went there to witness the many schools set up there for young girls and women, the work being done by Afghan women, the hospitals staffed by female professionals–all in accord with pre-Taliban Afghanistan,” Bick said. She was also there “to witness the only remaining area of Afghanistan where women and girls still have some opportunity for education, work and the right to exist with some equality.”
After completing their mission, Bick and Gross, who speaks Farsi, returned to the outpost.
Bick said she had a room in the small building, adjacent to a room shared by the two men who–it is now known–were there to kill.
The assassination occurred in the guest house, said Bick.
“I was right next door to the guest house, when the explosion came through,” said Bick. “It was very, very emotional and traumatic.”
The Northern Alliance holds the United Nations seat for Afghanistan and has been fighting the Taliban since 1996 when it gained control over much of Afghanistan. The United States is hoping to assist the Northern Alliance as part of its strategy to end Taliban rule.
Bick Observed Women Doing Well under Northern Alliance
Bick reports that prior to the assassination, she and the other women toured the north and met “humane and intelligent men” in the Northern Alliance who supported women’s rights. She interviewed the man first picked as the interim president of the Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and visited internal refugee camps for Afghanis escaping Taliban rule.
She saw schools for girls and women and interviewed female doctors working in hospitals.
“We were in a hospital where the head was a female,” said Bick.
Although life was difficult, women were grateful to be in the north, said Bick, where the Islamic society allowed for women’s participation.
Other feminists have criticized the status of women under the Northern Alliance, and Bick’s journey was intended to observe first-hand the status of women in the region.
The Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, developed with the assistance of the slain Sahail, is part of an international campaign by Negar that calls for the integration of women’s rights and the rejection of the Taliban.
The document underscores the fundamental right of Afghan women to a life with dignity. It incorporates United Nations documents, including the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Beijing conference on women’s rights platform, and the statement from the conference on the elimination of violence against women. The Negar document also calls for a return to the Afghan constitution of 1964, as revised in 1977. Previous to the takeover of the Taliban in 1996, women in Afghanistan were active participants in society, with many roles as doctors, teachers, civil servants, government officers and students, all of which are prohibited under Taliban rule.
As part of this movement to press for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Bick found herself at the epicenter of a frightening attack designed to maintain the Taliban’s power. However, it was only after Bick found safety in Tajikistan that she learned that the terrorist’s violence extended as far as the United States.
Bick, now 76, was an original board member of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and worked with the Institute for Policy Studies, both in Washington, D.C. She previously volunteered with the Feminist Majority in its work to stop gender apartheid in Afghanistan.
Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance writer in New York City.
For more information:
Leaders Comment on Terrorist Attack Against U.S. (9/13/01):
Negar–Support of Women of Afghanistan:
Feminist Majority Foundation: