Women, Democracy and Hope

Women, Democracy and Hope by Kathy Sheridan
photographs by Sharron Lovell
From MS on-line

“Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights. Under his decision, two women are counted as one man.” — Sebaghatullah Mojadeddi, former chairman of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, to Afghan women, in 2003.

“I am here today because after 23 years of war, I want to help my country, I want peace, and the best way I can do that is to help the people to choose a good president.” — Parween Dalilee, 29-year-old woman teacher and polling-station official, October 9, 2004.

A dust storm had blown up the night before around Kabul, eclipsing the sun and making Saturday, October 9, the chilliest and most unpleasant day of the year so far. At 6 a.m., while the murderous specter of the Taliban still hung over a palpably tense and barricaded city, Parween Dalilee and Zohra were already at their appointed polling station, pulling on their distinctive blue vests.

Parween, unveiled, was sure and resolute. Zohra, just 18, was nervous. “My family are very worried about me. So am I, but I couldn’t tell them that,” she whispered.

At 7 a.m., across the vast concourse of the Aedgha Mosque, opposite the stadium where a few years ago women and men had been routinely executed and beheaded, a figure in a blue burqa strides out of the mist and toward the three polling lines set aside for women.

“I am here for peace,” she says quietly. “Peace”: The word is first from the lips of every woman in the line.

Most are in burqas. Even here in the capital, a woman is always tediously, relentlessly aware of her gender. The gnarled, work-worn hands of the next voter in line suggests that the woman behind the burqa is elderly. In fact, she is 38, rearing eight children in one room in a bombed-out squat and desperate for a home.

The next woman points wistfully to the empty photograph space on her registration card: “I wanted the photograph there but my family wouldn’t allow it. … They thought a man might see it.”

She is 24 and just one of many with the blank space in a card meant to provide vital identification information to officials already stymied by burqa-induced invisibility. It’s the “culture,” everyone says.

Across town, Professor Nasrine Gross, Afghan-born U.S. citizen and no-nonsense women’s-rights activist, is stepping out to vote — in red nail varnish and power suit — with 17 of her neighbors from their apartment block in the Makroryan. The pace quickens as they get closer, tears welling up as they spot old friends from women’s-rights battles, crazy little dances erupting as they celebrate what one describes as “the first day of the rest of Afghanistan’s future.”

In Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where the number of women registered was a fraction of the national average, the women’s polling section is a sea of blue burqas and soaring optimism.

To fortify the fainthearted, postcards depicting Taliban atrocities — a 13-year-old showing off severed hands, the destruction of the ancient statues of Bamiyan, the public beating of women — are in circulation.

Political posters on a Kabul wall include female candidate Massouda Jalal.

No Westerner could even begin to guess at what this day truly means to these extraordinary women. Only a woman like Afghan MP Malalai Joya knows what Afghan “democracy” means in practice right now.

Since she criticized the warlords in parliament a year ago for their savage abuse of women, she has had to conceal her whereabouts and travel with bodyguards. A few months ago, in the southeastern province of Khost, men hammered on the gate of Sahera Sharif ’s home with fists and stones, and threatened to kill her if she continued her work as a U.N. election registrar. She continued — but under 24-hour armed guard.

In June, in the central province of Wardak, a “night letter” directed at women election workers encapsulated the fundamentalists’ vision:

“Those women’s centers set up with the support of UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan] are providing a facility for sexual relationships for UNAMA. They [the women] should stop their activities or prepare for death.”

Only a few weeks later, proof that these were no empty threats came in the form of a Taliban attack on a bus carrying women election workers near Jalalabad, 175 miles from Kabul. The bus had been rented by the electoral commission and the women were on their way to set up a voter-registration point when the bomb went off. Three of them and a child were killed.

The bus driver, who disappeared just before the blast, was arrested.

The effects of such murderous activities on the wider female community cannot yet be measured. In dozens of interviews with potential women parliamentary candidates for elections in April 2005, Human Rights Watch found that many now live in fear for themselves and their families.

Health educators, literacy teachers and women’srights activists routinely see their efforts destroyed by the absence both of security for civilians and sanctions for the perpetrators.

For most Afghans, the enemy now is likely to be the local “commander” and his well-armed militias. Meanwhile, the country's supreme court, properly the last resort for citizens of a democratic country, is presided over by Chief Justice Mawlawi Hadi Fazel Shinwari, a 70-year-old Karzai appointee who for 40 years taught Islamic law at a madrassa (religious seminary) in Pakistan.

Shinwari is the man who demanded gender segregation at the university, who managed to have cable-TV channels banned for a while, and from whom the charge of “blasphemy” (punishable by death under Islamic law) falls as naturally as breathing.

As for any man who dares to come out to bat for women, they too have been warned.

When presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram asked for a debate on the strictures requiring women to obtain their husbands’ consent before filing for divorce and wondered whether a husband could realistically treat all his four wives equally (as required in the Koran), the Supreme Court accused him of blasphemy and demanded that Pedram be disqualified from the race.

Pedram’s courageous stand went to the heart of the state’s abuse of women. He survived the run-in with Shinwari but perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the affair was the absence of support from the other candidates. Even Massouda Jalal, the lone female candidate and longtime women’s-rights activist, remained silent. Meanwhile, a mere scratching of Afghanistan’s veneer is enough to uncover stories about the brutal oppression of women and the impunity of the perpetrators.

Ms. spoke to a 24-year-old who was kidnapped by a warlord and raped ......More


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