A chance to shine

Delegates in Brussels prepare for a role in government, and react variously to a French belly dancer in a spangled bra.

Published December 5, 2001 7:20PM (EST)

Even in this city -- home to the European Parliament, and an adamantly international metropolis where no two people seem to speak the same language -- a group of 50 Afghan women travelling en masse is a showstopper. Sitting in the smoky bar of their luxury hotel sipping lemonade, standing in the street waiting for their charter bus, they inevitably draw stares.

And then there's their entourage: an equal number of international politicians, diplomats and activists from around the world, who are here to attend the first Afghan Women's Summit in a supporting role. A hodgepodge of British MPs, high-ranking U.N. officials, Middle Eastern feminists and young European Parliament administrators trail in the wake of the Afghan women wherever they go. And there's not a man in sight.

Even as the predominantly male Afghan negotiators in Bonn, Germany, hammer out the final details of a preliminary agreement to rebuild Afghanistan, a group of Afghan women have assembled in Brussels to put together their own agenda for the future. Brought to Belgium by an international group of womens' activist groups -- some were virtually smuggled across borders -- they have been selected to form a new Afghan women's coalition that seeks to have an influence in the reinvention of Afghan government. After 20 years of punishing oppression, these women suddenly have an opportunity to secure rights and participate in government and they don't plan to let this moment pass without honing their own issues and creating a strategy to promote them.

For two days, the women have been cloistered in a room at the European Parliament, divided into working groups that cover four areas of greatest concern: human rights, specifically women's rights; the tattered educational system; the welfare of millions of Afghan refugees; and reconstruction, a daunting task that involves everything from the installation of running water to the resurrection of hospitals. On Thursday, the women will present their resolutions to the European Parliament and representatives of the United Nations.

The hope among the women here is that their demands will be factored into a plan that allied forces oversee in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The women also want their unified front to make a strong enough impression to improve their chances of equal representation in the new Afghan government.

A lofty goal, especially considering that the women here are as diverse as snowflakes: In some cases, they are so distant from each other in so many ways, it is only their general concern about women at home that unites them. Some women are veiled and conservative, others are unveiled but in traditional dresses embroidered with red and purple thread; still others are as coiffed, bedecked and bejeweled as Fifth Avenue matrons. A few delegates have arrived here as representatives of the Northern Alliance; others, like the RAWA representative Sahar Saba, vociferously object to any government in which the Northern Alliance has a role.

A minority of these women still live in Afghanistan (and were smuggled out to attend the event); the rest live in exile in countries ranging from Iran, Kyrgystan and Pakistan to Switzerland and the United States. Some haven't set foot in Afghanistan since the Communists took over 25 years ago; they now hope to return. There are teachers and doctors who worked underground with women forbidden to leave home for their services, as well as scores of humanitarian aid workers and activists, former politicians and even a carpet-weaver.

Three of the attendees flew in from Bonn, where even as a token presence in a room full of men, they oversaw the appointment of a woman -- Dr. Sima Samar, who works with a nongovernmental organization for Afghan women based in Quetta, Pakistan -- to one of five deputy chairman slots on the alliance created out of negotiations there.

Overall, this is a confident group of women who reject the idea that they have been intellectually hobbled by their experiences of sometimes brutal sexism. Complained one delegate, "We hate the way the world thinks of us as victims."

That is not to say that they haven't been victimized: Most of those who stayed in Afghanistan during the last decade have stories to tell about being beaten, robbed, or forced to quit their jobs. Shafiqa Habibi, a prominent Kabul journalist and TV personality, was forced to quit her job when the Taliban took over. Yasamin Hasanat was imprisoned for five years due to her work as a women's rights activist. She later fled to Iran. Hena Efat, a 24-year-old former medical student and underground teacher, winces and shifts her weight while talking. "Since the Taliban broke my leg, it sometimes hurts me," she explains.

Regardless of their injuries, psychic or physical, the women are optimistic and purposeful as they sit in groups, papers strewn about them, and debate about U.N. bylaws and the tenets of the Beijing conference for women in Dari, Farsi and English.

Sometimes, they are downright giddy. On Tuesday night, the women and their extended entourage descended on a Moroccan restaurant near the European Parliament buildings to eat couscous and shish kebab ("Some of the women had complained that the local food was too bland for their tastes," noted one organizer of the event.) As the hungry women -- some of whom had been fasting all day for Ramadan -- waited for harried waiters to bring their food, they broke into song. Before long, some were dancing between the tables as onlookers quipped loudly, "Hey, sit down! Mullah Omar is coming!" Later, the group gawked and cheered as the restaurant's resident belly dancer emerged to perform; although some of the more conservative Islamic women looked less amused by the presence of a writhing French dancer in a spangled bra.

Thanks, in part, to the current global fascination with the plight of Afghan women, the event organizers have pulled in an impressive group of donors and sponsors. Their hotel rooms and meals have been paid for by the Soros Foundation and the Global Fund for Women. And at dinner on Tuesday, each woman received a goody bag from Lifetime TV, filled with such useful items as a DKNY scarf (too small, alas, to serve as a head covering), a Walkman, Belgian chocolates and a silkscreened purse.

Most of the women here probably have no idea what Lifetime TV or DKNY are; a sign of some of the stranger forces at work during this summit. The organizers, mostly American and European feminists, are high on the drug of helpfulness, and overjoyed to be witnesses of progress on the issues they have focused on for five years. The Afghan women, in turn, are defiantly independent, and though they seem to appreciate the support being offered by the international community -- particularly the wisdom of attendees from the U.N., like High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Angela King, gender advisor to the secretary-general, and Muslim activists from Pakistan and Somalia -- there is a dubiousness about Western meddling in their affairs. Most blame the U.S. and Russia for the place where they are today.

Indeed, the greatest applause during Tuesday's opening session was for Hibaaq Osman, the ebullient Somalian CEO of the Center for the Strategic Initiatives of Women, who was among 14 politicians who offered statements of support. "America did not go to Afghanistan to free you, they went for their own interests. If you do not take the opportunity of this window, they will forget you. Case in point: Somalia, my God."

But this skeptical edge on some of the delegates' positions won't prevent the women here from trying to work with Afghanistan's allies, at least as long as the allies are willing to consider their ideas and demands. In fact, at the end of the summit, several Afghan representatives will immediately fly to the United States to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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