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Victims No More, Afghan Women Rising

March 7, 2014 by Melissa Charbonneau

In what's being called an "event of historic proportions," Afghan government leaders are recognizing the voice of a grassroots movement that represents a quarter million Afghan women.  The Women's Call for Ceasefire and Peace campaign this month completed a nationwide petition drive and delivered the document to top Afghan government leaders. 

The campaign marks a first for Afghanistan. It signals an unprecedented move towards women's self-empowerment as women take the lead in appealing to government leaders for peace and protection of precious gains in women's rights over the past decade.

Author Maximus Bossarei, JD, who attended the conference, has spent five years on the ground in Afghanistan and is senior advisor to Gen. Joseph Dunford, NATO Commander of International Security Forces in Afghanistan. Bossarei also served as advisor to the Deputy Minister of Public Affairs in the Afghan Ministry of Defense and to the Deputy Minister of Public Affairs in the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

By Maximus A. Bossarei, Sr. Governance Advisor, COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT), ISAF HQ, Kabul, Afghanistan

War-weary women in Afghanistan have unleashed an unprecedented petition drive to seek immediate cessation of hostilities and defend the freedoms gained for women over the past decade in the mostly conservative, male-dominated society.

“Afghan women have been the primary victims of the conflicts and the most innocent of martyrs,” said Golalei Nur Safi, a Parliamentarian and committee member at the forefront of the “Afghan Women’s Call for Ceasefire and Peace,” a women-led initiative that collected 250,000 signatures and fingerprints from women across Afghanistan to call for an end to the decades-long state of conflict.

“Our mission,” said Safi, “is to urge the government and Taliban-led opposition groups, as well as international forces, to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict as soon as possible.”

At a March conference at the Vice Presidential compound, Safi and organizers delivered the petition to government representatives. The move comes amid intensifying fears that a December withdrawal of NATO combat troops could spark a Taliban resurgence, a return to strict Sharia law, and the loss of major gains in women’s rights made over the past 12 years.

Unique to the “Afghan Women’s Call for Ceasefire and Peace” initiative is the progress it represents for Afghan women entering a new phase of self-empowerment.  It is a watershed moment in Afghan history. No longer resigned to sit in the corners of their homes cloaked in burqas, Afghan women for the first time are employing the democratic petition process to inform government of their demands and make their voices heard.

The petition was enough to capture the attention of prominent leaders in the Afghan High Peace Council, members of Parliament, and even presidential contenders who showed up for the conference, which was also attended by hundreds of women from across Afghan government, civil society, academia, and media.

Invariably, whenever a peace dialogue starts between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, the debate is maneuvered around the implementation of Sharia law and changing the current Afghan Constitution as a precursor to peace.  Taking the podium at the conference, two Karzai officials called the petition drive “an event of historic proportions in Afghanistan,” and uttered assurances that women’s right gains would not be compromised to appease the Taliban during the peace process. 

“On behalf of President Karzai and the new administration that will be elected soon, we will always support the peace process,” said National Security Advisor Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta.  “I can tell you that we will not change the Afghan Constitution, and if anyone wants to do so, they must go through the same democratic steps that we took in order to establish the Afghan Constitution in the first place.”

“It is important for our women to reach their full potential in a peaceful and stable environment devoid of fear and threats,” said Salahudin Rabbani, High Peace Council Chairman.

Addressing an unspoken hope for more leadership positions in the higher echelons of government, Chairman Rabbani called for the expansion of women’s role in the High Peace Council. Currently, out of 69 members in the HPC, only 9, or 13 percent, are women.

“I want to reiterate that the High Peace Council has supported, and is supported by, all Afghan organizations, Rabbani said.  “Afghan women’s organizations have a place of paramount importance in our efforts. The current and future role of Afghan women in our society is one of our red-lines, and we will not compromise nor negotiate it just to reach peace talks with the opposition groups.”

In its petition, the Afghan Women’s Call for Ceasefire and Peace states:

“As we know, women in Islamic and Afghan society have special historic and cultural responsibilities. The Afghan woman -- whether mother, daughter, sister or wife -- has a constructive and effective role, which is greatly respected in our society. In addition, Afghan women have a unique past that calls for ensuring peace and national unity. They not only strengthen friendship among the tribes and member of families, but also based on their values and role in the society, they are able to resolve conflict and eliminate long-term tribal aggression...

“We are ready to play our roles in bringing all the conflict parties together; we hear from them and share our ideas with them…

“We are hoping all the opposing parties will have a positive response to our proposal for peace and help us in provision of peace and security, and we will work with them to achieve this goal.”

The peace petition may be seen as a statement against the kind of violence seen during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s that paved the way for the Taliban to seize power and impose their brand of strict Islamic law. The Taliban critically undermined female rights, banned women from the workplace, and prohibited girls’ education during their five-year rule.

While in power, the Taliban became notorious for their sexism. The Taliban’s stated aim was to create a "secure environment where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct," reportedly based on their beliefs about living in purdah (the practice of preventing men from seeing women that takes two forms: physical segregation of the sexes and the requirement that women cover their bodies so as to cover their skin and conceal their form.)

The restriction on women’s rights became evident in the narrow narrative of a woman’s dress code. Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa at all times in public because, according to one Taliban spokesman, "the face of a woman is a source of corruption" for men not related to them. In a systematic segregation, essentially a de-facto and de-jure gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Quran.

 Women seeking an education were forced to attend underground schools, where they and their teachers risked execution if caught. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to untreated illnesses. They faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws. The Taliban allowed, and in some cases encouraged, marriage for girls under the age of 16. Amnesty International reported that 80% of Afghan marriages were considered to be arranged by force.

It is estimated that until the U.S.-led military coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, fewer than one million Afghan children were in school, nearly all of them boys. Recent local and foreign studies show that international assistance has since helped the country raise the number of students close to eight million; more than a third of that eight million are girls. Meanwhile, improvements to health facilities have brought down the maternal mortality rate by 80 percent, and Afghan women are now running their own businesses.

Building on recent gains, Afghan women are venturing further into the process of government, speaking in one voice, directly to national and world leaders. “Afghan Women’s Call for Ceasefire and Peace” organizers say the next step will be submitting copies of their 250,000 signatures to President Hamid Karzai, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and representatives of the Taliban.

Perhaps most telling of the latest move towards self-empowerment are the words of Surat Al-Raid – V11 of the Holly Quran, the initial words quoted in the petition for peace: “Allah says that he will not change the condition of his people until they change it themselves.”