Women In Afghanistan: Mixed Reactions To US Troop Drawdown

President Obama says Afghans are prepared to take the reins of power in their country as U.S. troops start pulling out. Some worry this will end progress in Afghan society, especially for women. To learn how Afghan women may be affected by Obama's announcement, host Michel Martin speaks with Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women's Network, and Gayle Lemmon, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relation's Women and Foreign Policy program.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now to one of the top stories of the day. Thousands of American troops will be coming home from Afghanistan. In a prime time speech last night, President Obama outlined his plan to bring 10,000 troops home by the end of this year, and 33,000 more troops by the end of next summer. President Obama declared that the Afghans are prepared to take charge of their own security.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BARACK OBAMA: We've already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people. In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls and trying to turn the page on decades of war.

MARTIN: Even as the president praises the gains made in Afghanistan, some worry that the drawdown could signal the end of progress there for the nation's women. The fall of the Taliban-led regime had enabled more Afghan girls to attend school, more women to join the workforce and empowered a few to seek and win offices in government.

So now some are asking, what will happen once the U.S. scales back its involvement? That concern brought a delegation of Afghan women leaders to Washington last week. They lobbied members of Congress to remember the needs of Afghan women even as American troops are drawn down.

One of those delegates is with us now. Samira Hamidi is the country director of the Afghan Women's Network. That's a group that aims to protect the place or enhance the place of Afghan women in their society. She's on the line with us from NPR's office in Kabul, Afghanistan. Samira, thanks for joining us.

SAMIRA HAMIDI: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy Program. She's also a veteran journalist who's been reporting from Afghanistan for years. And she's the author of the book "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." It's a story of a woman who managed to take care of her family, despite the Taliban's restrictions. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back, Gayle, thanks for joining us once again.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So, briefly, I'm just going to ask each of you your reaction to the president's speech. Gayle, I'll start with you. I know you heard it here in Washington.

LEMMON: You know, I think it was about as center as the president could've managed in terms of really giving the military as much as he could while also not defying the will of his base, which really wants out of this war yesterday. And I think he had been feeling enormous pressure to pull back even faster than what he announced yesterday. So I think that for officials - I talked to U.S. officials working in Afghanistan, and they said, look, we don't like it, but it could've been a lot worse.

MARTIN: So that's the perspective from the standpoint of American domestic politics. Samira, I'm assuming that you knew this was coming, or at least something like this was coming. What was your reaction?

HAMIDI: Well, for me I was expecting as such, so I wasn't surprised with the announcement, honestly speaking, because last week speaking with policymakers in Washington, it was clearly made that this announcement was going to happen. But talking with majority of my contacts that I have today, either from media or from civil society or from local people, the answers are different.

Some people believe that it's the right time for America to leave Afghanistan and we have (unintelligible) take the lead. Majority of Afghans are worried because we are not financially and technically prepared to take the lead of the security, for example, the security of our country. Or, for example, financially, we cannot take care of our finances.

MARTIN: Samira, does the reaction break down along any particular lines? Like, for example, are there some people more eager for the U.S. to leave than others?

HAMIDI: Well, you know, Afghanistan is a very diverse country with 34 provinces. And all 34 provinces have their own dimensions. People have their own understandings. You might end up hearing from people, from some of the very conservative areas in Afghanistan, saying that we are an Islamic country and we don't want internationals anymore in Afghanistan.

Also, in terms of, like, other international community actors, like immediately, France government announced it would withdraw 4,000 troops. So that's also a matter of concern. That doesn't mean that the announcement made by U.S., it will be followed by other countries as well. So that's also a matter of concern.

Some people say that this fighting is because of the presence of international troops in Afghanistan. And majority in the ground who are involved at the community level, they don't believe in this and they feel that we need them for our security because we are not yet ready to care of the security of the country.

MARTIN: That's Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women's Network. She's talking with me, along with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy Program.

We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the future of Afghan women after the American drawdown. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, how one pro football player, who's locked out is spending his time. He turned substitute teacher. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we have a few more minutes of conversation about the situation for women in Afghanistan and how plans for a U.S. troop withdrawal might affect their circumstances. With us in our Washington, D.C. studio is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She's deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women in Foreign Policy Program. She's also the author of a new book about women in Afghanistan.

And from NPR's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, we're joined by Samira Hamidi, country director of the Afghan Women's Network. Ladies, thanks for staying with us.

Gayle, you've written about some of the specific gains that women made after the fall of the Taliban regime. That's what your new book is about. Could you just talk a little bit about that, if you would? Set the table for us and tell us what some of the changes have been.

LEMMON: I think you see women really using the most of the international community's presence in Afghanistan to make gains not just for themselves, but for their whole community. So you see women as midwives, as doctors, as teachers, as engineers, all of which, by the way, they were also before the Taliban. And you also meet women who are serving in parliament, women who are working in business. I've interviewed a number of entrepreneurs who are not only the supporting members of their family, but people all around their community. And the thing that they talk about most is that, look, we are really hungry for peace. We want peace. But we don't want it to come at the price of our rights.

MARTIN: Well, what role did U.S. troops play in this? Is it just - is it mainly stabilizing the country so that there isn't constant violence? Because there is still violence as we know. So, what role did their presence play, in your view, from your reporting?

LEMMON: From my reporting, I mean, what you see is that women have used whatever pockets of stability they have been able to gather. And women are working even in places where there is a fairly active insurgency. Women are sort of going around the obstacles just as they did during the Taliban and just as they will again if they have to.

MARTIN: Samira, I mentioned that you were a part of a group of delegation of Afghan women who came to the U.S. last week to talk to members of Congress and other members of the government. What was your message?

HAMIDI: We talked about how the consolation process needs to be more inclusive, where Afghan people feel the ownership of the peace process. And they feel that they are part of the process, which will end up for the benefit for them.

We also discussed on the integration part on how the reintegrates should be considered to come back and join the communities with their families so that they do not misuse the instances and go back and join insurgents. We talked about the Bonn Conference - the Bonn 2 Conference, which is going to be held in the month of December in Germany. We discussed on how important it is for Afghan woman to be present there and to have their voices.

MARTIN: Just to clarify for people who aren't sure what we're talking about, the Bonn Conference is planned for December 2011. And that's a conference where the security handover from international forces to the Afghan government will be discussed.

So, Gayle, do you want to talk a little bit more about that? What are some of the other concrete suggestions that people who are particularly concerned about this issue are making to assure that the status of women does not erode further and hopefully will be enhanced?

LEMMON: Well, I think usually, Michel, you have conferences like this which are men in suits talking to men with guns. And the question is will women get to be seated around a table that will determine the future of their own country? And I think so often the international community sees women in places like Afghanistan as collateral damage rather than contributors.

And what the women who were here last week - which you just heard excellent discussion about the discussions last week - said was, you know, we want to be seen as contributors. We are your allies in creating a more stable Afghanistan. So why would you leave us out?

And I think Hillary Clinton was in Afghanistan last summer - last July, I was covering the Kabul conference - and even the night before, women had no idea whether they were going to get a speaking role at the conference. And it was a combination of Hillary Clinton's pressure, the EU's pressure that actually won them a speaking role at this discussion.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who make the argument that the preoccupation that Americans have with women's rights is just a reflection of their own values and interests and not really relevant to, you know, the culture of Afghanistan, and that's part of letting go. It's part of letting them run their own country.

LEMMON: I say spend time on the ground in Afghanistan. I mean, I just finished, you know, years of research on a book about a young girl whose business supported her family throughout the Taliban years. These were years when the international community had entirely forgotten Afghanistan. And these young women were breadwinners during years when they couldn't even be on the streets. And all these women are asking now is: We are here to help your aims. Why won't you help us, basically, to have a voice?

MARTIN: So their argument is that they should be treated as the important stakeholders they are, like members of the business community, like, you know, a key player in civil society, as opposed to just kind of a preoccupation or...

LEMMON: Or a sideshow, right?

MARTIN: ...a sideshow.

LEMMON: I mean, I think I have always been amazed at how women can be both half the population and a special interest group, and yet it's true. That's how we treat them, particularly in discussions about war, because the truth is that because they're good actors, they are penalized. If they pick up guns they get a better voice, right? They get talked to. But because they're the one who made sure the communities are there to go back to, they get shut out. And the question is: What happens now?

MARTIN: And speaking of what happens now, Samira, I'm going to give you the last word. President Hamid Karzai has made it clear that he intends to reach out to Taliban leaders, hoping to come to a peace agreement. It's interesting that there have been statements made by members of the Taliban recently, saying that their attitudes were not misogynistic, that their decisions were made to protect women, and that they actually do support women's education and that they do support women's rights. And I just have to ask: How do you respond to that?

HAMIDI: Well, I will refer back to the experience we have had with Taliban for the six years. Those women who lived in Afghanistan, they suffered the most. And then I would also look at the 10 years of how the situation has been for all Afghans, including women. Letters were sent out to the families and to the communities warning them to avoid the girls going to schools. You have to see practically. The day when the process will be open, when I would - when woman like me and many others like me and many others who are working to help Afghanistan, will be able to sit around the negotiation tables and discuss the peace process, and discuss the future of Afghanistan and the part of the decisions. That day will be a day that we will - we can talk about the change. But at the moment it's very difficult to comment about this change.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go - and thank you for taking the time. I know it's much later there than it is here. Do you feel optimistic that you and women like you will have a seat at the table?

HAMIDI: Well, I do feel optimistic. I am optimistic, in fact, because the woman movement that we have at the moment is not that the power that we were 10 years ago. The number of women we have at the government level at the Afghanistan parliament is an achievement, and the movement is there. Also, I think we will have our voices. We will carry on our advocacy. And one thing which I would like to mention is that there is a recognition for the work of Afghan women somehow by the government of Afghanistan now, as well as the international community. And this we go - move ahead with this recognition, I think we will succeed. There's a representation of nine women in the High Peace Council in Kabul is a very good sign for us. They have a very loud voice, and they are doing lots of hard work. So I am optimistic. Definitely.

MARTIN: Samira Hamidi is country director of the Afghan Women's Network. She was kind enough to join us from our offices in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an author, journalist and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relation's Women and Foreign Policy program. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Her new book is called "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe." Thank you both so much for joining us.

LEMMON: Thank you, Michel. Pleasure to join you.

HAMIDI: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk, and I look forward for more communication with the people of America, talking about how woman's movement are moving ahead in Afghanistan.

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