Rina Amiri

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)-Persistent questions are being raised about whether the long-silenced women of Afghanistan will have a voice in a post-Taliban peace process and government.

They will if Rina Amiri has her way. Born in Afghanistan, Amiri escaped with her family to India in 1973 when she was 5 years old during earlier political unrest, in which King Zahir Shah–considered by some foreign affairs experts to be part of the solution in a post-Taliban Afghanistan-was overthrown.

Almost 30 years have passed. Her country is still in turmoil, and Amiri is a senior associate at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a U.S.-based peace advocate. She also is the point-person for questions about Afghanistan during this propitiously scheduled two-week Women Waging Peace colloquium at Harvard that ends on Sunday. It coincided with the toppling of the extremist Taliban regime in key cities and the end of diktat that women must not work and must be veiled outside the home.

Women from past and present conflict areas around the world, including Rwanda, South Africa, Guatemala, Cambodia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, gathered here to exchange peace strategies that have worked–or sometimes failed–in their countries, to study the process of peace-making, to talk about the significant role women can play to create lasting peace and to create a powerful network of women who can help each other via new age and old age communications technologies in the years to come.

Swanee Hunt, the former ambassador to Austria and the creator of Women Waging Peace at the Kennedy School, credits Amiri as being “the conceptual force” behind this effort, the third in a series. Hunt said that women–whether by nature or nurture–bring a different, valuable sensibility to the peace table, a strong sense of family and community. Moreover, Hunt says, women should be part of the process simply because they represent at least 50 percent of the population. Did anyone question why blacks in the South should be part of government during the Civil Rights struggle, Hunt asked.

During several remarkable interviews during the conference, Amiri had much to say about the strength of those faceless Afghan women hidden behind their burqas. She talked about how the enemy in numerous conflict areas use violence and control of women as tools of psychological warfare against men who oppose them, and about how the Western world needs to rethink many assumptions about the Eastern world if there is ever to be a chance for peace in Afghanistan.

Peace Lessons Start With Recognizing Profound Similarities and Differences

Peace lesson No. 1: Amiri says that U.S. citizens and the global community should recognize that there are differences in values, but more important is to recognize the commonalities among all people. Americans have a hard time relating to Afghanistan and the danger is that when people don’t understand something, they tend to dehumanize it.

For example, in the American media, over and over again people refer to lives lost in Afghanistan as “collateral damage.”

Yet here in the United States, the respect for human life is so great that though there were several thousand victims in the World Trade Center terror attack, each is seen as having a personal story and many are captured in the media.

Peace lesson No. 2: Both the U.S. and the global community should not forget the lessons of Rwanda and Bosnia, Amiri says. Hundreds of thousands of people are starving or dying in Afghanistan. The situation is worse now than before Sept. 11. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and are trapped in a no-man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan because the borders have been closed. The United Nations says 7 million people will need assistance in order to survive. The United States has been supportive but more needs to happen to stop this disaster of catastrophic proportions.

Otherwise, the genocide that happened in Rwanda will happen all over again. More than 800,000 people died in Rwanda, yet it was very preventable, Amiri says, adding that many said afterwards, “How could we let this happen?” The same in Kosovo. What was going on was widely known and many asked: “How could we have let this happen?” Averting one’s gaze is a very, very dangerous act, she says. All of us need to understand what choices we are making passively and actively.

Women Have a Strategic Role in Stabilizing Afghanistan

Peace lesson No. 3: Women have a strategic role in stabilizing the country and the global community should become more informed about women’s roles in Afghanistan from both an Islamic and historical perspectives–lest what has occurred to women there be forgotten.

Amiri says that she hears the arguments: “We have so many other priorities;” or “We need to put food on the table,” or “We need to get the guns away from the men.” World leaders should recognize that, to be able to make these other things happen, women must be strengthened.

Amiri says she works with women in 20 conflict areas, and she sees the way women create stability in their countries–by creating nongovernmental organizations to help women find jobs, to build their skills and to run for political office, for example. When resources are given to women, the resources get to the community, she argues.

Peace lesson No. 4: People see women shrouded in the burqua and they equate that with utter powerlessness. It’s become like a wall. But the burqua does not mean women are inherently weak. It just means they are working under very difficult circumstances. Afghan women have demonstrated that they are incredibly resourceful. They have managed to feed their families during this long crisis.The international community should give women the tools to make changes, because they have the capacity to make those changes.

Peace lesson No. 5: The U.S. and the global community should remember Bosnia, South Africa, Cambodia and Rwanda where sexual violence against women increased dramatically after conflicts ostensibly ended. There is euphoria now that the Taliban has fallen in some areas. However, even without the Taliban, women will not necessarily be safe. Prior to the Taliban, women were being raped. Savage acts against women are used as a tool of psychological warfare against men. Women are used as war booty. Women become dehumanized objects and are violated to terrorize the “enemy.” Afghan women need multi-national forces to protect the women and all of the people.

Peace lesson No. 6: It’s important to be concerned about “cultural imperialism.” However, making sure women have public roles in post-Taliban Afghanistan is not necessarily imposing Western values. Rather than comparing Afghanistan to Western countries, the U.S. and the global community should look at any Islamic country apart from Afghanistan. Women are employed, they participate within the economic sphere; they do have public roles.

Women Are Ready to Assume Role in Reconstruction

Amiri urged leaders to look at Iran, even Saudi Arabia and says that the way women were treated in Afghanistan was not because of the Koran or because of the culture. It was not even about Afghan culture, as the Taliban tries to claim, she says. In Afghan history, especially in urban areas, women are active contributors to their communities.

In Kabul, prior to the overthrow of the king, 40 percent of those in the health sector were women. The education sector in Kabul had over 60 percent women. The treatment of women by the Taliban is about women being used by the Taliban as a political tool to create a persona–to say that they stand in defiance of the West, to say they are “truly” Islamic, Amiri says.

Still, gender issues are very explosive. Women certainly would be able to step into leadership roles. But it has to come with an understanding of the historic roles of women in Afghanistan rather than as an imposed agenda. Answers are not easy, but the U.S. must recognize that women have a role to play.

Peace lesson No. 7: The U.S. and the global community must understand Afghanistan in a regional and global context, or otherwise they will miss some of the central issues that must be addressed to create stability. Afghanistan has been used by its neighbors to fight proxy wars between regional powers. Leaders should use their influence to move the United Nations group known as the “Six plus Two”–the six countries bordering Afghanistan plus the United States and Russia–which have been talking for two years about mitigating things–from mere rhetoric to action.

Just disarming the two warring groups would not be enough, Amiri says. Leaders need to apply political pressure to persuade these regional powers not to arm or fund their favorite factions in Afghanistan. The solution really lies within these countries. If global leaders cut off the sources of arms and financial support, that would eventually stop the fighting.

Bush Must Reassess Rejection of Nation-Building, as in Somalia

Peace lesson No. 8: President Bush and United Nations special representative Lakhdar Brahimi have declined a nation building role in Afghanistan. However, for the past 30 years, Afghanistan has been destroyed at every level-from the social infrastructure, to the political infrastructure, to the physical infrastructure. If the global community leaves a population that has been radicalized by war and extremists with guns, something worse than the Taliban will be the result.

Peace lesson No. 9: It’s important to understand why people have been susceptible to Osama bin Laden’s message. There is a reason why an element of the population thinks bin Laden speaks for them. People who are desperate and poor also feel some anger about globalization and about their perceptions of Western policies. The U.S. and the global community should ask the “why” question. We should not want to create martyrs. For every terrorist that dies, another may be born.

Peace lesson No. 10: Finally, the U.S. and the global community should find ways to bridge the cultural divide and engage the ordinary people in the region, recognizing their needs, their interests and perhaps their anger.

Florence George Graves, a resident scholar at Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, is a former Washington Post reporter and the founder of the national political and investigative journal, Common Cause Magazine.

For more information:

Women Waging Peace:

Women and Public Policy Program: