Future of Afghan Women Debated at Forum

A year after the historic meetings that led to the formation of Afghanistan's interim government, scholars and U.S. officials debate the future of the country's women.

Belquis Ahmadi

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-With Afghanistan's fragile new government including armed warlords, the nation's infrastructure destroyed, and food and shelter scarce, a sense of apprehension is swirling through those in the United States who remain concerned about the well-being of women there: What must be done now? What is ideal? What is possible? What is likely? Which is more important: Roads or schools? Food or protection from warlords?

At a recent conference convened at Barnard College here, women leaders from Afghanistan anda representative of the U.S. State Department examined these questions but found little resolution. Full participation in civil society requires much more than permission to lift the burqa, they agree.

The conference was held one year after the historic October meetings in Bonn, Germany that led to the formation of the country's interim government. Scholars, activists, doctors and journalists, brought together by the New York-based group Women for Afghan Women, all focused on current conditions, the need for continued humanitarian assistance, as well as vigilance and support for the human rights of Afghan women.

“We cannot have peace without human rights and, of course, women's rights are human rights,” said Sima Samar, currently the human rights commissioner for Afghanistan.

Belquis Ahmadi, the Afghanistan and Pakistan program coordinator for the International Human Rights Law Group, said that many of the positive changes for women have taken place in the capital of Kabul, but emphasized that “Kabul is not Afghanistan.”

During a visit to 28 villages in the country this summer, Ahmadi saw people so hungry they ate pellets of grain that caused paralysis. Young women, she said, continue to be raped, abducted, or forced to marry their abductors or soldiers. The suicide rate is high, she noted.

“Girls commit suicide to escape marriage to warlords. There will be no peace unless the warlords are disarmed.”

Hangama Anwari, an activist and law professor at Kabul University, said Afghan women are not aware of their rights and are still being imprisoned for adultery. “Women suffer in prison although they have done nothing wrong, but there are not enough public defenders,” she said. “Although Islam gives them equal rights, a woman abused in the home does not realize she can turn to the legal system.”

Another woman who spent the summer in the rural areas of Afghanistan, Helena Malikyar, a doctoral candidate in Middle East Studies at New York University, emphasized that the women needed mundane but vital assistance: the clearing of land mines, the rebuilding of roads, and better hospitals and clinics, because their children are dying of “perfectly curable” diseases. She added that women were still not safe by any measure from the warlords carrying guns.

U.S. Official Says It's Better for Warlords to Be in Afghan Government ‘Than Outside, Causing Mayhem'

Donor nations, at a meeting in Tokyo in January, pledged $4.5 billion in reconstruction aid for Afghanistan, but Afghanistan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, in a recent conference pushing the United States to follow through on its efforts to rebuild his country, said some 70 percent of that was designated for humanitarian organizations and that some of it was in the form of credit rather than grants. In October, Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani said the government needs up to $20 billion over the next five years to rebuild the country and end its dependence on foreign aid.

The United States, as part of the Tokyo meeting, promised $297 million in aid for this year and has provided more than that amount, congressional aides said. But the amount of long-term U.S. aid is still being debated. The House this year passed a four-year, $1.15 billion aid package. The Senate has been pushing for a larger amount, and the aides said they are near compromise to provide $425 million a year over four years.

Daria Fane, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for Afghanistan Women's Issues, faced hostile questioning at the conference not only about the numbers of civilians killed by U.S. bombings, but also about the presence of warlords in the current government.

She expressed her regret about the deaths and defended the warlords' presence.

“It is better to have warlords in the government rather than outside, causing mayhem,” she said.

Afghan political activist Fatima Gailani replied that if the United States “cut off their funding today, tomorrow, they would be nobodies.” She also argued that all improvements for women must be framed within the context of Islam.

“If we talk about secularism today, we will lose it all,” Gailani said, adding that Afghan women need to be educated about what their rights are under Islam, especially in light of the elections scheduled for next year. “If we don't get a proper place for women, we are doomed,” she said.

Julie Ostrowski is a New York freelance writer.

For more information:

Women for Afghan Women:

The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics-
“Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam?
The Issue of the Rights of Women in Muslim Communities”:

U.S.-Afghan Women's Council: