Afghanistan

A RIGHTS REVOLUTION

Canadians are trying to help Afghan women shake off centuries of oppression

SALLY ARMSTRONG March 8 2004
Afghanistan

A RIGHTS REVOLUTION

Canadians are trying to help Afghan women shake off centuries of oppression

SALLY ARMSTRONG March 8 2004

A RIGHTS REVOLUTION

Afghanistan

Canadians are trying to help Afghan women shake off centuries of oppression

SALLY ARMSTRONG

THE WOMEN of Afghanistan are planting seeds that might someday produce a crop that makes this whole sorry country prosper. They are promoting human rights, as bizarre a concept to most Afghans today as terrorist attacks were to most North Americans prior to 9/11. That’s especially true for women here, perhaps the most oppressed in the world. They weren’t even registered as citizens until the new constitution was adopted last December; girls are fed last and least after the men and boys. So the notion that they have the right to vote, to education and to health care has created a buzz in every province in the country. And while Afghan women are getting the word out, Canadians are helping foot the bill.

The brainchild of Ariane Brunet, the women’s rights coordinator at Rights & Democracy in Montreal, and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, the Afghan Women’s Rights Fund started in September 2002. Its backers say it’s one of the most ingenious aid programs in Afghanistan today. “A window of opportunity opened when the Taliban fell,” says Brunet. “If women were ever to get out of the oppressive bind they were in, they had to be part of the emerging civil society. It takes rights to do that. Most women had no idea they had the right to anything at all.” Brunet secured the funding from CIDA and hired Palwasha Hasan, a 33-year-old woman who has been advocating for the disenfranchised in Afghanistan for 15 years, first under the Communists and then under the Taliban. “By pushing for a Women’s Rights Fund, headed by an Afghan woman, you accomplish two things,” says Brunet. “You ensure that women are visible and make it clear to funders that this is a long-term project.”

At present, Hasan is funding 16 projects from Mazar-i-Sharif in the north to the streets of Kabul. No one guessed the program would flourish as quickly as it did, although predictably, the backlash has been ferocious: warlords and religious extremists who regard the initiatives as unlslamic.

From literacy training and radio broadcasting to magazine publishing and family health care, every one of the Afghan programs uses human rights as its base. For example, on the second floor of a mud-brick building in Bibi-Mahro on the outskirts of Kabul, 25 women are gathered around a classroom table learning to read and write. The lesson today is based on the upcoming general election. In fewer than a dozen words Lina Abdullah, 19, makes a point that is a luminous analogy for the mess this country finds itself in. She refers to her illiteracy as being blind. When asked to explain the connection, she says flatly, “I couldn’t read so I couldn’t see what was going on.”

The women in the classroom are encouraged to take what they’ve learned back to their villages to share with friends and relatives. One woman, 18-year-old Mary Mohammadi, says, “I have six brothers who always said I couldn’t argue with them because I was illiterate. One brother slapped me on my face for speaking about my rights. Now I know more about the constitution and citizens’ rights than they do.” That is sadly typical—Afghan men are generally against these upstart ideas. “We tell them equality is written in the Koran and the constitution, but it’s a big argument,” says Mohammadi. For that reason, Hasan is proud of her projects but wary—she says a friend had her office ransacked by intruders. “I won’t quit,” she says. “The work we are doing is too important.”

Since the end of the war and the fall of the Taliban, some progress has been madewomen returned to their workplaces, and schools for girls reopened. But as many as 30 of those schools have been firebombed in the last year. This is a country where child marriages are the norm: girls as young as 8 are betrothed to much older men, and bride prices still exist, meaning young girls are sold to the highest bidder. Women are raped to dishonour a tribe, and daughters are used to settle scores—if someone is killed in a dispute, the killer’s family gives a girl child to the victim’s family to make amends. And in Herat, where warlord Ismail Khan rules, girls are yanked off the street and subjected to abusive gynecological examinations to prove their virginity.

Hasan is trying to get these issues into public discussion. The quickest way to get people talking, she says, is to train women as advocates and raise a generation of activists. But first she has to find ways to reach them, not easy in a country with an 85 per cent illiteracy rate. So one project she’s funding is radio broadcasting. Journalists (some from Canada) are training young women to be radio technicians, to do interviews and to create programming that teaches human rights and can be heard by women who might not be able to read. Currently, they are working with a station—set up by another Canadian aid organization, Vancouver-based IMPACS— in Mazar-i-Sharif, where hard-line warlords hold power. Radio programs encourage women to stand for election, work on the constitution and share information about human rights with villagers. Participants must avoid provoking the warlords’ henchmen who lurk around the tiny broadcast centre, waiting for an excuse to shut the project down.

For those who can read, Hasan is funding The Mirror, a four-page weekly magazine that reaches 3,000 readers in 16 provinces. The editorials are about women’s participation in the political life of the country, and the articles are critical of everything from the disarmament program (they say only small weapons are being collected) to the sad state of higher education. In a recent issue, the editors took on the government for closing schools during the Loya Jirga (an assembly of Afghans from all over the country who had gathered to draft a new constitution) and depriving students of classes. “We were called up in front of the minister of culture and information to explain ourselves,” editor Shukria Barakzai says. “They accused us and judged us as if their office was a court.” She knows she publishes at her peril. “Fundamentalists threaten us all the time,” she says. “We have to be careful about every word we print because they’ll use them against us.” One lesson she learned is that the term “human rights” may be tolerable, but “women’s rights” is best avoided.

LINA Abdullah, 19, refers to her illiteracy as being blind:‘I couldn’t read, so I couldn’t see what was going on.’

In Shakardara, west of Kabul, women walk more than an hour from outlying areas to get to the human rights classes. More than 650 students have completed the four-day workshops since they started in May. When the father of one student forbade his daughter to attend the class, the teacher, Qudsia Majid, invited him to come and check it out for himself. “I wanted his daughter in my class, but I also knew he had a car and I hoped I could convince him to drive the others who had such a long distance to walk.” She won on both counts and says, “If we don’t teach the men, we’ll never get through to the women.”

These women know they are in the early stages of a revolution, and Hasan figures it will take time, 10 or 20 years. “You can’t legislate change like this,” she says. “It has to come from the people requesting it.” In the meantime, women are playing the human rights card in the new constitution, the upcoming elections and judicial reform. They may be fatigued by the turmoil and conflict that has ravaged their country for decades, but this is one war these women don’t mind fighting.