Putting the world on notice

Delegates to the Afghan Women's Summit, deftly maneuvering past their differences, issue an ambitious agenda for inclusion in their nation's future.

Published December 6, 2001 7:23PM (EST)

It took just two days for the 50 delegates to the first Afghan Women's Summit here to come up with a blueprint for the future of women in their country. Building the egalitarian nation they envision will probably take years -- even decades.

The summit, taking place simultaneously with the political negotiations in Bonn, has functioned as a kind of complementary task force to those proceedings: While the mostly male leaders in Germany have debated how to structure the new government of Afghanistan, the women in Belgium have set their agenda for what that government should do to restore women's rights and involve women in the political process. The women hope that their ambitious list of some 70 demands -- addressing everything from the establishment of hospitals to the elmination of child labor -- will be implemented with the assistance of the women leaders recently appointed by the Bonn summit, and enforced by their sympathetic allies in the United Nations.

Delegates from the women's conference presented what they are calling the "Brussels Proposal" to European Parliament on Thursday, and sent it to Bonn conference mediator Lahkdar Brahimi and the president of the U.N. Security Council the same day. Next week, they will begin a tour of the world powers. The goal is to make U.N. support of the new government in Afghanistan contingent on the women's demands. Whether their idealistic vision for the future of Afghanistan will make it off paper and into actual legislation remains to be seen. But the women do not lack confidence about their eventual success.

"I have been in exile for a long time, and I was amazed at the resilience, intelligence, strength and ability of the Afghan women that I met who came from inside the country and all around the world," said attendee Zieba Shorish-Shamley, head of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, an expatriate living in America. "These women, I promise, can rebuild that country with no problem."

The Brussels Proposal addresses four key subjects: rebuilding the educational system and cultural heritage of Afghanistan; reestablishing essential health and medical services; guaranteeing human rights, a constitution and equal rights for women; and finally, assisting and repatriating millions of Afghan refugees. The list of demands range from the obvious and essential -- from the reopening of colleges to the rebuilding of the water and sanitation systems to the inclusion of women in the loya jirgah (grand assembly) -- to the unexpected and poignant -- such as the "cessation of using Pakistan as a proxy for Afghanistan," "ensuring salaries for all staff in education" and the "reprinting of rare books of literature and poetry."

The goals in every category are ambitious; any new government that rises from the shambles of Afghanistan will be hard-pressed to meet all 70 demands. That is not to say, however, that these goals are not fair, and in many cases, very basic. That women feel they have to specifically request "the inclusion of educational professionals in the Ministry of Education," is an indication of just how dismal the political system in Afghanistan has been and how remedial some of the tasks are that face the architects of a new government.

The list of demands also reflects the diversity of the women who put it together. The cross-section of Afghan women who met here ranged from affluent Afghan exiles who have been living in Europe for more than 20 years, to impoverished teachers and artisans still living inside Afghanistan's borders. Also among the delegates were deeply devout religious teachers and liberal humanitarian workers from Afghan refugee camps.

Needless to say, the feminist agenda for upper-class Afghan exiles who have long been living in Western countries is not necessarily the same as the agenda for the rural women who are more worried about where they will get their next meal. But attendees seemed to believe that the final document was representative of every delegate's most critical goals. Similarly, the group's varied ethnic and religious backgrounds didn't seem to get in the way of creating a cohesive document at the end of the summit.

"Because there are participants who are representing the fundamentalist groups, there have been some issues," says Habibi Sarabi, an Afghan educator and doctor now working in Peshawar with Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. "But even considering these differences, the members of the group want to solve these matters together. The group wants to agree, without exception, that Afghan women should not have to see any more violence."

Attendees also seemed to concur that a secular government was the only reasonable option. As Sarabi put it, "The people of Afghanistan have had the experience of an Islamic government and at this point they really want a secular government." And since the group focused primarily on humanitarian demands, rather than the political makeup of a new government, the basic human rights issues at stake seemed to transcend tribal differences.

As Najla Wassie, an Afghan activist living in the Netherlands, wryly explained, "I don't think ethnicity and background are really issues here. Ethnicity is just a power issue, and that's a man's problem, not a woman's problem."

It is one thing to put together a list of humanitarian demands, though, and another to have those demands implemented by a fledgling government in a country plagued by sexism and violence. The good intentions of these Afghan women could be blithely disregarded by a government that is dominated by chauvinists or by fundamentalists.

This frightening twist of fate was of the highest concern to attendees, anxiously monitoring the proceedings in Bonn, where a woman was among the deputies elected from four Afghan factions to form an interim government for Afghanistan. The women have particularly bad memories of the warlords of the Northern Alliance; and worry that because the Northern Alliance has taken over on the ground with the support of allied troops, their dominance in the new government is a fait accompli.

Sima Wali, one of the organizers of the Afghan Women's Summit, did double duty this week: She also served as a delegate for King Zahir Shah's faction in Bonn. The Northern Alliance delegates were definitely "of concern," she reported back. "Many Northern Alliance delegates were trying to give positions to the commanders as political payback."

Nevertheless, the outcome of negotiating in Bonn is regarded as a "positive step" by these women; not only were three women present as delegates, but the newly designated interim government already includes at least two women as ministers. Wali says this is a sign that the Brussels Proposal will be heard: "We Afghan women are now realizing that we have the power to influence the men in the Bonn conference; and the women of the world have committed to supporting us. The women at the highest levels in the U.N. and the world governments need to make sure that we remain on track."

Indeed, as the Brussels summit ends, the Afghan women appear to have some powerful allies: An impressive array of influential international female politicians convened simultaneously in Brussels to discuss how they could best support the Brussels Proposal. Women ranging from Queen Noor of Jordan, who sent a videotaped greeting to her Muslim sisters, to British M.P. Joan Ruddock, who is campaigning in Parliament for Afghan women's rights, offered statements of support.

In a declaration of solidarity, these women announced that they will begin an international advocacy campaign to ensure that the funds for Afghanistan are conditional on the involvement of women in the government, and that will focus on the priorities detailed in the Brussels Proposal. They also plan to form a task force of women's rights lawyers to assist in drafting the country's legislation and constitutional law.

And they do mean business. On Thursday, European Parliament chair Maj Britt Theoren announced: "We have decided in the European Parliament today that 40 percent of the new government should consist of women, because without that number we won't break the grip of the warlords. We don't want the money put where the men want it, but we want to put it where the women want it."

Perhaps the most critical support, however, will be from the U.N.'s top female diplomats -- Angela King, gender advisor to Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, both attended the Brussels summit -- who have the most direct impact on U.N. decisionmaking.

The U.N.'s role will be critical if the Brussels Proposal is to be met. Some $10 billion is expected to pour into Afghanistan from United Nations member countries, and human rights activists hope that this cash will be the carrot dangling before the new leaders: Ideally, a new administration will receive the funds required to rebuild Afghanistan only if they promise to fulfill these essential human rights and women's rights. (As part of their proposal, the Afghan women are also demanding accountability and transparency for all funds Afghanistan receives, and a special fund for women's issues.)

King plans to meet with the U.N.'s security council next week to address these concerns, and is hopeful that the women's demands will be addressed. "Between myself, Brahimi, the UNIFEM leaders, as well as the other ambassadors, international NGOs and prominent women leaders who have written in support of these women's issues, there is a very good chance that their voices will be heard," said Angela King.

But is it really up for the members of international governments to decide what the new government will be? While the enthusiasm of the international activists and politicians here is critical, the success of the Brussels Proposal will ultimately rest on the engagement and involvement of the Afghan women themselves. For their part, the Afghan women here are aware that the attention to them may be fleeting; the more cynical attendees were already concerned that they would be dropped like hot potatoes -- both by the U.S. government and their feminist allies -- once the U.S. moved on to other concerns.

As Shorish-Shamley put it, "We know the attention to women -- by donors and politicians -- is short, and will pass by. I'd like to ask our Western and Eastern allies to not use us to further your agenda. If you are with us, be with us in the heart; what you do to others comes back to you. Our issues must be taken seriously."

And if the rest of the world moves on the other concerns, the women of Afghanistan have vowed to stay engaged. "The women of Afghanistan have proven that they are the backbone of the country during the last two decades: They are the ones running schools, keeping culture alive, building families. They kept it together," says Hibaaq Osman, the Somalian director of the Center for Strategic Initiatives of Women.

"In war societies, women find themselves in positions they'd never dream of," she added. "Tragedy teaches them their strengths. They brought food to the table, sent kids to school. And once these women have understood their power, there is no turning back. They have seen what they need, and have become activists out of necessity. It's a survival strategy for them, at this point."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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