A new role for Afghan women

The United States must insist that women be a part of the new government in Afghanistan.

Published November 21, 2001 7:13PM (EST)

I have a girl-power double feature playing in my head right now. On one screen of my mental multiplex is the larger-than-life face of Hermione Granger, Harry Potter's fearless, brilliant, passionate and dedicated partner in his battle against evil -- perfectly portrayed in the new movie by young actress Emma Watson.

On the other screen are the faces of equally fearless but even more heroic Afghan women who have been battling against real-life villains whose savagery would tax even J.K. Rowling's fertile imagination. Women like Soheila Helal, a teacher who defied the Taliban -- and risked her life -- by operating a clandestine school for girls; Kobra Zeithi, a pharmacologist turned activist who was imprisoned for the crime of traveling to Pakistan to pick up educational materials; and Weeda Mansoor and Tahmeena Faryal, who have tirelessly spoken out against the atrocities of the Taliban as members of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Harry Potter is smart enough to seek Hermione's indispensable assistance in his climactic clash with Lord Voldemort. It remains to be seen if the eventual victors in Afghanistan will behave as sensibly. If they don't, they may not stay victorious for very long. For peace and justice will never prevail unless women are allowed into the tent of the new government.

Of course, Hermione is not your average 11-year-old girl. Besides being a bang-up wizard, the brightest student at Hogwarts, and a powerful female role model, she is also a modern manifestation of an ancient archetype, embodied by Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. By following Athena's lead -- and now Hermione's -- women, both young and old, can learn to weave together strength and vulnerability, passion and discipline, intellect and imagination -- and breathe humanity and mercy into the masculine order. What so many Afghan women have done against all odds.

Besides "Harry Potter," this past weekend saw the launch of another marketing campaign, one with slightly less spectacular success -- a massive public relations effort designed to link the fight against terrorism with, as Laura Bush put it, the "fight for the rights and dignity of women." Good for the first lady, who kicked off the campaign by borrowing her husband's weekly radio address. But Mrs. Bush is hardly going out on a political limb by condemning the treatment of women under the Taliban. Since no one can really disagree, her denunciation should be merely the starting point.

Nor is it enough for Condoleezza Rice to say, as she did on "Meet the Press," that "our principles are that all Afghans deserve a far better life than they've had under the Taliban, and our principles include that women should have rights and women should have a rightful role in the life of the country." But what is a "rightful role"? Giving birth? Cooking samboosak? This is not a time for diplomatic ambiguity. The administration needs to make it clear that this "rightful role" must include participating in Afghanistan's new government. Before the fighting that has rocked the country for the last two decades, women played an essential role in Afghan society, accounting for 70 percent of the country's teachers, 50 percent of its civil servants and 40 percent of its doctors.

"There is a window of great opportunity now," Peter Tomsen, former U.S. special envoy and ambassador to the Afghan resistance, told me. "But the political terrain is treacherous. And if the international community, led by the United States, is not careful, the vacuum will be filled with yet another brutal regime with no interest in power sharing -- as happened in the early 90s with Burhanuddin Rabbani clinging to power."

Rabbani, the Northern Alliance's titular leader, is a fundamentalist zealot with a bloodstained record. During his four years as president of Afghanistan, from 1992 until 1996, the forces now making up the Alliance used systematic rape, abduction, enslavement and murder to effect the complete and utter humiliation of Afghan women. "The Northern Alliance is nothing more than just the Taliban without beards," says RAWA's Mansoor. "They are dogs of the same field."

A U.N.-brokered meeting of Afghan opposition groups, involving at least a dozen separate factions, is scheduled for Monday in Berlin. It is imperative that both these delegations and the interim Afghan government include women -- not only because this is the right thing to do but because there is no better indicator of how welcoming a country will be to terrorists than how it treats its women. As Laura Bush put it: "The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorist."

Evil is hard to defeat, even in the magical realm of Hogwarts. It would have been ill advised for Harry Potter to enter the deadly dungeon without Hermione -- and her vast knowledge of potions, herbology, and the history of wizards -- by his side. It will be equally foolhardy to move forward in the war against terrorism, and the hard work of rebuilding a country, if more than half of the population of Afghanistan is not allowed to join the battle.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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