Observers: Plight Of Afghan Women Often Overlooked

As the U.S. continues what has now become an eight-year war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration must decide on its new military strategy. One group that is often largly looked over when considering Afghan policy is the women who live in the region. Host Michel Martin talks with Ann Jones, writer of the recent article for The Nation "Remember the Women?," and Shamim Jawad, who leads the Afghan children's advocacy group the Ayenda Association, about the role of the war in the lives of the country's children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

In a few minutes, we'll try to understand as much as we can about a terrible incident in the Bay Area of California, where a young girl was gang raped outside her own school as her schoolmates enjoy their homecoming dance. Authorities say other stood around and watched. We'll talk to a student and teacher at that school for their perspective on what happened and why.

But before we go to California, we turn to Afghanistan, where the ongoing debate over U.S. policy there has taken another dramatic turn. Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, had been declared the winner of his country's disputed election after his chief rival dropped out of next week's planned runoff. It all comes as top military and civilian leaders here in the U.S. continue to debate their strategy and tactics in Afghanistan.

More troops, as a top military commander has requested or fewer or pull out entirely. But in this debate over policy, one group has been largely silent, the women, and their silence has been emblematic of the deep concern many around the world have for and about Afghanistan and what the U.S. role there means now and what it'll mean if the U.S. leaves.

We've called two people who thought very deeply about the issues pertaining to women in Afghanistan. Ann Jones is an author and a journalist. Most recently �Kabul In Winter.� She recently wrote an article for the Nation titled, �Remember the Women.� Also with us is Shamim Jawad. She was born in Kabul. She is the founder and president of the Ayenda Foundation, the Afghan Children's Initiative. She's also the wife of the Afghan ambassador to the United States, and she works with many organizations that promote women's rights and welfare, and working to improve conditions for women and children in Afghanistan. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ANN JONES (Author, �Kabul in Winter�): Thank you, thank you for having us.

Ms. SHAMIM JAWAD (Founder, Ayenda Foundation): Thank you.

MARTIN: Ann Jones, if I can start with you. You begin your article for the Nation with a quote that you reference as being a famous Afghan saying, it reads, women are made for homes or graves. Why did you decide to start with this?

Ms. JONES: That's kind of the position that women were in under the Taliban and the position they seem to be winding up in again. After some initial promise that life for women might change in Afghanistan, things have been going backwards for them for a few years now. While all the men involved in Afghanistan and in Washington are busy talking about troop levels and military matters, women's rights are just very quickly disappearing once again.

MARTIN: You write that for all the fine talk of women's rights since the U.S. invasion, equal rights for Afghan women have been illusory all along. A polite feel good fiction that helped to sell the American enterprise at home and, quote, �and respectability of the misbegotten government we installed in Kabul.�

I think the question that many people would want you answer is, given all the time you spend in Afghanistan, given what you know about the situation there, what do you think is best for women right now for the U.S. to stay or to go?

Ms. JONES: I think we need to couch the issue in different terms. That question makes women's future depend upon the American military. What we really ought to be talking about is giving women a real voice, getting women really to participate in public life in Afghanistan, and that is something that simply doesn't happen in this militaristic environment. Women have not been included in any of these recent political conversations on how the election has been conducted and what the outcome of the election is going to be. What the distribution of power is going to be in the government. They've just been excluded.

You began, Michel, by saying that the women have been silent. They've been silent because those who have spoken up in recent years have been assassinated or threatened or seen members of their family, usually their husbands, assassinated.

MARTIN: I take your point entirely, but I want to bring Mrs. Jawad into the conversation and you want to make it clear that you do not speak for the Afghan government, that is your husband's job. But we would like to hear your assessment of the situation for women in Afghanistan. Do you feel that they are able to have a voice in their own affairs at this point?

Ms. JAWAD: Well, you know, I agree with, and that there has been limited resources for Afghan women. You know, Afghan women are still largely excluded from political process where widespread religious fundamentalism and cultural conservatism are still posing big challenge to women's advancement. But despite these challenges, Afghan women are really courageous. In spite all these challenges, Afghan women did accomplish many achievements.

I mean, if we start from our first presidential election, you know, women in hundreds and thousands showed up at the polls. And when we had our parliamentary election now, 68 members of the parliament are women. So, have really a very big representation there at the parliament. And seven million children went back to school and 40 percent are girls. So, that's huge for Afghanistan during the Taliban girls were not allowed to leave home.

These are all achievements and accomplishments for Afghan women in the past eight years. Of course, if the situation in Afghanistan changed, this all will be in jeopardy.

MARTIN: Ann makes the point in her piece that the security presence in some places is so suffocating that really normal life cannot be lived. But to the degree that you feel comfortable, what would enhance the ability of Afghan women to live the lives that they want to live?

Ms. JAWAD: Well, the major issues, that the major challenge that the Afghan people have right now is security, poverty and illiteracy and so women don't feel secure and that's why they cannot be out there to do what they want to do. And poverty is another issue because they are really suffering from poverty and most of - 70 percent of women in Afghanistan are illiterate. So, when you have all these major issues, this really, really prevent you from what you want to do.

MARTIN: Ann, I'm going to press you on this question because you are not bound by the constraints of attachment to a government. I'm going to read again from your piece. You say, I confess that I agonize over competing proposals now commanding President Obama's attention because I've spent years in Afghanistan working with women and I'm on their side. What does it mean to be on their side? I mean, someone has to make the decision about the way forward here. And I think that a lot of people would like to know, what is your view of what it means to be on the side of Afghan women?

Ms. JONES: It means to be on the side of giving them the voice which they have not had and which is now being increasingly muffled because we're in a situation where we have a government run by the same sort of fundamentalists, warlords that are well-represented in the Taliban. So, while everything that Mrs. Jawad has said is perfectly true, and I don't mean to minimize any of the achievements that many courageous Afghan women have made, but really from the point of view of Afghan women, our enemies in Afghanistan and our allies in Afghanistan are pretty much the same kind of guys.

And as a matter of fact our own government seems to consist a lot of the same kind of guys who simply exclude women from the conversation. And I want to make clear that this is not just a women's issue. We think of women as a kind of add on. Once we bring security, then we can think about the women. Women are central to the civil society in any country. And no country can make progress as long as women are excluded from public life and from economic life in the country. And for the great majority of Afghan women, those conditions still pertain.

MARTIN: Mrs. Jawad, to the degree that you feel comfortable, do you have an opinion about whether U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan or not?

Ms. JAWAD: I have to say that Afghan people are not short of courage. We have a lot of courageous Afghans that they want to fight and this is our war. And it is - we have to fight our own war. But the problem we have right now is that our national army and national forces are not properly equipped and trained.

So we still need your temporary presence in Afghanistan because we are grateful, I mean we are, for the sacrifices that the Americans and your men and women and boys and girls are doing for Afghanistan. They are sacrificing their lives to fight for our freedom, and we are so grateful for that.

And Afghan wants to do this fight themselves. But we still need the resources, and we still need that training and that equipment. Unless we get the proper training and the proper equipment and build our army, then the country will suffer from violence, and the people that who will suffer from this will be women.

MARTIN: A final question for you, Ann, if I may, last week we spoke to a man named Matthew Hoh. He's a former State Department official who is believed to be the first U.S. official to resign, publicly resign in protest of U.S. policy. His view is that the U.S. should withdraw. And I asked him whether - what about the women, the things you wrote about in your piece? And he said that that is important, but it's not in the U.S. interest. So is it, in your view, in the interest of the American people to prioritize the status of women in Afghanistan?

Ms. JONES: It's not a question of prioritizing the status of women. It's a question of prioritizing democratic life. Women are half the population. We can't keep talking about a democracy, and we can't keep talking about security and improvement in life in Afghanistan unless we are talking about the entire population.

When you start talking about women, you start to talk about education and health care. When you start talking about getting corruption out of the government and bringing in security, you're just talking about the army again. And as long as that's all you're talking about, you're not talking about anything that could bring security to that country or to ours.

MARTIN: Ann Jones recently wrote an article for the Nation titled �Remember the Women?� She's the author of �A Winter in Kabul� among many other books. She's currently working on a book about the impact of the violence of war on women worldwide. She joined us from New Haven. We were also joined by Shamim Jawad. She is the president of the Ayenda Foundation, the Afghan Children's Initiative. She's also the wife of the Afghan ambassador to the United States. She spent much of her career working to improve conditions for women and children in Afghanistan. She joined us from our studios here in Washington, D.C. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JAWAD: Thank you.

Ms. JONES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: If you want to read Ann Jones's piece in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Go to programs and click on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, after a 15-year-old girl was gang raped outside her high school's homecoming dance, a classmate and teacher express their outrage.

Ms. NORMA BAUTISTA (Student, Richmond High School): In this life, you pay for everything. You will never get away with the bad things that you do.

MARTIN: That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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