Critical Afghan Issue: Future Of Women's Rights

Before the U.S. invasion, life under the Taliban was horrendous for women. Morning Edition's Renee Montagne is reporting from Afghanistan at a time when the focus is on the future, and how the country will evolve as the war winds down.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn now to Afghanistan. That's where MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne is reporting at a moment when, as the war winds down, many Afghans are focusing on the future. Renee, good morning.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Morning, David.

GREENE: I understand we're going to hear about one big concern in the country where you are right now, and it's a question that has always loomed over Afghanistan, and that is what the future will be for women.

MONTAGNE: Much talked about here, yes, nowadays. I mean, no one wants life for women to go back to how it was under the Taliban - who, of course, earned a reputation for treating women horrendously. And, in a moment, we'll hear from a leading advocate for women's rights. But, David, first, let's hear from a man who was part of the Taliban government in the '90s. Wahid Mujdah was in the Taliban's foreign ministry, and he still keeps in contact with former Taliban higher-ups who've fled the country. And at his home here in Kabul, Mujdah told us even they think there's no going back to the kind of government the Taliban imposed before September 11th.

WAHID MUJDAH: I think during this 10 years inside Afghanistan, you can see a lot of change. Now, it's impossible one group can control Afghanistan. And we agree with all these parties if they accept Sharia, Islamic Sharia in Afghanistan.

GREENE: Well, Renee, let's sort that out for a moment. Here's a former Taliban official saying, you know, that one group can't control Afghanistan. But given how the Taliban harshly interpreted Islamic Sharia law, to hear a former Taliban official say he's still committed to Sharia, isn't that alarming to women?

MONTAGNE: Yes, it would be alarming, except that, as he pointed out, it would impossible for the Taliban to actually control all of Afghanistan. So, that version, that harsh, harsh Taliban version of the law is not really on the table here when they talk about peace talks. But I will say after talking to that former Taliban official, I sat down in another - and you'll hear rather noisy - courtyard with Nargis Nehan. She runs the organization Equality for Peace and Democracy. And as she sees it, all sides seem to be using this issue of women's rights for their own purposes.

NARGIS NEHAN: Women's rights is so much criticized in Afghanistan. It was put aside by the international community because when they came to Afghanistan, they say they we are here to help the women of Afghanistan. And now the insurgents, in order to show how powerful they are, they are using women's rights and women's issues as a tool to show that - how powerful they are. And the government, reason that the government is so much quiet with regard to women's rights, is to show to the insurgents that the door is open for negotiation. What they really don't understand that women of Afghanistan are not the women of 1990s, that you do whatever you want and you will be quiet. We know how to communicate with the rest of the world, and we do have our own constituencies within Afghanistan - not only women, but also men.

MONTAGNE: And those constituencies that activist Nargis Nehan speaks of, David, include a new generation of highly educated young women and men, and also a very energetic and emboldened media. Let me give you an example. A couple of months ago, Afghanistan's top religious body, a pretty conservative group, issued an edict. It defined women as secondary to men, and it called for a strict segregation of the sexes.

President Karzai briefly endorsed the cleric's recommendations - no doubt trying to curry favor, as she says, with militants he wants to strike a peace deal with - which led to a huge outcry by women's groups, the international community, and also ridicule in the media. Even though Karzai backed off, Nargis Nehan says telling women not, say, to gather in public places or make their voices heard, that's the kind of challenge women's rights activists face here.

NEHAN: When they say you avoid public gatherings, then it's about us. That means that we should limit our societal activities. And then the second then is avoid working in the same office space with men. Excuse me, like, do we have to have, now, two ministries for every sector? One minister of education for men, the other for women? And then they say that co-education is prohibited. That means you're going to have two state universities in each of the provinces, one for girls, one for boys? So you see that they have targeted women. They have recognized this as problem for them, and that's why now they're thinking of how to oppress us.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you: For years, by law, Afghanistan's parliament has had quite a substantial number of women in it, because seats have been set aside by quota. Twenty-five percent?

NEHAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Has that made a difference for women? Some of the women in parliament, people complained, are actually not really there for women's rights. They're there because they are fronting for powerful men.

NEHAN: I would say they are right, but I would say that they're also right in case of men. We don't have strong politicians in this country.

MONTAGNE: You mean men are fronting for powerful men.

NEHAN: Men and women. So it's not that, you know, like you have women as token there. You also have men as token there.

MONTAGNE: They're just tokens.

NEHAN: They're just tokens. So I think it's not about women's capacity or commitment. It's about political maturity of the country. We really need to go through a generation to be able to produce the right politicians, to be able to find the constituents to help them out so that then they can get to the parliament, and then they would be able to present the constituents there. This is the case for both men and women.

MONTAGNE: How important is economic development when it comes to women's rights? The economy already cannot provide enough jobs for a sizeable percentage of the population, especially the young population. How does that fit in to what you're looking ahead to?

NEHAN: When it comes to women's right, I would say within the families, it's very important that, you know, like, they have some sort of income, because there are so many examples that you see that women that, actually, they have managed to work somewhere, to generate some income and to make some contribution. The family, their position automatically changes. Their opinion matters, and their decision matters. Their consultation with them happens. They become part of decision-making.

MONTAGNE: I think it might important, also, to say that women in Afghanistan are tough. Like, I mean, they're...

NEHAN: Very tough.

MONTAGNE: ...they do know their own power.

NEHAN: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: I think people sometimes think, you know, behind - under a burka is a very passive woman, and that's not actually the case.

NEHAN: I sometimes can wear a burka to show people that burka is nothing, and it can never violate my rights. This is the problem that actually we really would like encourage the international community to take women's rights beyond burka and Afghanistan. It's more than that. What is really important for us, to be part of transformation. It's really important. And then we need to understand that Afghanistan is a very complicated and a very sensitive country. Because (unintelligible) Islamic country. And, you know, like, the more we get into these things, the more problematic it's going to be.

MONTAGNE: Are you concerned about the involvement of Taliban or former Taliban in a future government?

NEHAN: Actually, I myself thinking that it's always peace that's ending the war. So we have to turn into a peace process. Concern is definitely there, but not because of the strength of the Taliban, but because of the weakness of our government with regard to women's right and also justice.

MONTAGNE: Thank you. Thank you for talking to us.

NEHAN: Pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And that's Nargis Nehan, an activist here in Kabul for women's rights.

GREENE: And you'll be hearing more of Renee Montagne's reporting from Afghanistan tomorrow and next week here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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