Observations on Afghanistan


  The plight of Afghan women under the Taliban has been well documented. Women were denied education and employment, and were treated harshly if they transgressed the "rules" dreamt up by madrasa-trained, semi-literate, bearded bullies stalking the streets carrying Kalashnikovs.

  International opinion was incensed, but little was done. A National Geographic cover made an Afghan girl with mesmerising eyes the mascot of her sisters' misery, generating a well-intentioned e-mail petition that clogged up inboxes around the world in 1999.

  Things changed after 9/11. America decided to remove the Taliban from power and Barbara Bush went on national television seeking emancipation for Afghan women. But after the Taliban fell, the focus shifted. Establishing the rule of law and rebuilding infrastructure became priorities. The US now spends $1bn a month on military operations in Afghanistan, and $25m on aid. Women's rights have receded in importance. Some who cast away veils are again shrouding themselves in towns where local militia, opposed to the Taliban but sharing their misogyny, patrol the streets.

  "We look like upturned shuttlecocks," an Afghan woman told a group of New

York activists visiting Afghanistan recently. The four women, Masuda Sultan, Manizha Nadiri, Esther Hyneman and Sunita Mehta, were from an NGO called Women for Afghan Women, which supports Afghan women in the New York area and now also backs nascent women's organisations in Afghanistan. Sunita Mehta, the group's co-founder, says: "Our aim is to create platforms for Afghan women to chart their own future and speak in their own voices. We see ourselves as a bridge between the grass roots and the international arena."

  Last month, Mehta and her colleagues brought 45 women from all parts of Afghanistan to Kandahar, in the heart of Taliban territory, for a conference to draw up the first Afghan Women's Bill of Rights. It was an audacious effort, bringing together academics, activists, under-educated and illiterate women. Mehta says: "We are willing to take a risk. And we trust the grass roots to have the knowledge, wisdom and expertise required to build the nation."

They presented the document to President Hamid Karzai and it will form part of the deliberations on a new constitution. He has promised that half his 50 appointees to the commission drafting the constitution will be women.

The first guarantee the bill seeks is the right to education, followed by healthcare, personal security and support for widows. Freedom of speech comes fifth, followed by the right to vote. Mehta explains: "The security question will be paramount when elections take place next year. How can women be expected to vote, whether or not they have the right, if they are scared to leave their homes?"

  That danger remains. When Mehta was in Kandahar, a girls' school was burned down and there were attacks on the Kabul-Kandahar road. But it did not prevent them from going on a picnic, singing songs from Bollywood films and sharing home-made ice cream.

  Mehta says they earned trust because they respected local traditions. She adds: "To work for Afghan women's rights, and not sincerely accept, acknowledge and respect the fact that most Afghans are practising Muslims, is simply ineffective."

  Women for Afghan Women: shattering myths and claiming the future is edited by Sunita Mehta (Palgrave Macmillan)