Sisters with a vision

Activists say it’s Afghanistan's women who can make a difference—and that Canada must still help

Sisters with a vision

Photographs by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, and an increasingly skeptical international community looks to the future of Afghanistan with one eye on the exit, the women of this war-weary country have something to say to those who answered their clarion call for help a decade ago. They claim that finding the finish line requires a rebooting of the original plan that focuses on human rights and education. That plan requires security. The Afghan army and police force are not yet ready to provide it. And so, as far as the women are concerned, the coming adieu to Canada’s military, which will withdraw from its combat role in July, is bittersweet.

While news from Afghanistan has focused mostly on the insurgency taking place in the four southern provinces, the other 30 provinces are marginally better off. Much has changed. Almost three million girls are back in school, women are back at work, 40 per cent of the media are women and 25 per cent of regional councillors are female. What’s more, the fundamentalist mentality is changing. Only a few women in urban centres still wear a burka. Religious doctrines are slightly less oppressive. The constitution demands that 25 per cent of seats in the parliament are reserved for women. Says Shinkai Karokhail, 49, a long-time women’s activist and member of parliament for Kabul: “It’s the presence of countries like Canada that have made that happen. It has given me the right to speak out and to claim my space. The international community is like a thousand eyes on the government. Even the warlords are more gentle, knowing they’re being watched.”

Her concern, which is shared by most of the women in this country, is that if the international community pulls out, the gains women have made will be wrenched away. Karokhail’s colleague Fawzia Koofi, 35, a sassy, media-savvy MP from Badakhshan province who has ambitions to run in the next presidential election, puts it more bluntly. “You’re leaving before putting an end to the war,” she says. “We can’t function yet as a government. Do you think Afghanistan won’t change back after you leave? Terrorism doesn’t know borders. Your border could be next. You need to wait until we have an effective government and a qualified army and police force.”

Karokhail says the international community has made lots of mistakes. “They didn’t respect the culture at times, and relied too often on misinformation, although they are the reason the women were released from the Taliban and those who think like the Taliban.” And Koofi accuses the coalition of sending mixed messages to the people of Afghanistan. “One says, ‘We’ll leave when the country is stable,’ ” she points out. “Another [Canada] says, ‘We’ll leave in 2011 because of our own domestic issues.’ Still another calls for a 2014 departure because it suits their agenda. They talk with the Taliban; they don’t talk with the Taliban. It’s very confusing to us.”

There’s a lot that’s confusing about Afghanistan. An expression here—translated from Dari—says, “I cannot answer your question because my mouth is full of water.” It means, effectively, “I cannot tell you the truth because someone may get into trouble.” That may explain a nation where so much appears contradictory: a country that embraces religious piety but treats its citizens with brutality; where violence is part of almost every family and men have impunity; where pop music blares from kiosks on the street while mullahs wail from mosques on the corners.

Liquor is forbidden, yet restaurants serve wine. In what may be the worst traffic chaos on the planet, hardly anyone wears a seat belt lest they be accused of copying the West. Garish palaces, built with the illicit gains of drug barons and known as “narcotecture” or “poppy houses,” have sprouted all over Kabul. Laws are written with verbal gymnastics—language designed to dance around religious jurisprudence. Police reform is a priority, but changing the cockeyed judiciary is not (how can you do one without the other?). And Afghans have made gossip and innuendo an art form. If you rise to the top, the likelihood of being accused of religious crime or drug smuggling or election tampering is as common as the call to prayer.

It’s no country for the faint of heart.

Canada has done an immense amount for this fractious tribal land, including being a start-up funder of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which has been hailed as a stunning success story. Canada is also funding the badly needed reform of family law, has invested $210 million in improving government services, including education, and has even provided backing for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a brave initiative to preserve the arts in a country that has been at war for three decades.

The overall investment—$821 million over the last three years (without military and police expenditures), according to the Canadian International Development Agency—has benefited no one more than Afghanistan’s women and girls. Says Karokhail: “Women have a vision for themselves now. They want to be connected to the world, to networks and advocacy groups. They want their voices to be heard as decision makers.” But make no mistake, she adds: “Women in this country are still controlled by men who use Islam as an excuse to keep us down.” And when it comes to President Hamid Karzai and the coterie of men he surrounds himself with, help does not appear to be on the way.

Murwarid Ziayee, 36, a high-energy reformer who worked on gender issues in the president’s office as well as at the United Nations, has witnessed significant changes for women. “Now, in the second parliament,” she says, “women have learned how to deal with the men, to make alliances with other women; they’re becoming influential in some of the decisions.” Ziayee is currently the executive director for a non-government organization called Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, whose goals are to train teachers, boost literacy skills, stock libraries and provide much-needed science kits. “Education is the way forward,” she says. “It is the single item that can turn this country around.” Illiteracy, which overall stubbornly lingers above 80 per cent, is often referred to by women as “being blind.” When asked to explain, one said, “I couldn’t read so I couldn’t see what was going on.” In fewer than a dozen words, she described the reason men in power want to deny women and girls an education.

Ziayee admits that life has improved in a variety of ways for women. But the recent increase in urban suicide bombings, particularly the brazen January attack at the Finest supermarket in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, has ratcheted up fear and the perception that reform efforts in Afghanistan are failing. “I go to the supermarket late at night hoping to avoid a bomb blast,” Ziayee says. “I watch my four-year-old daughter’s every move. Others send their kids to school in a school bus. I send mine with an armed guard. I am what is known as a soft target because I work for Canadians. The market isn’t safe, the streets aren’t safe, the workplace isn’t safe. There are security barriers everywhere that are constant reminders—you are not safe. This is not a life. We know what will happen when the international community leaves—we will lose the rights that we gained.”

But Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, thinks it’s the women who can yank this country into the 21st century. “Women are the main source of change,” she says. “So we need to build their capacity as teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians. We tend to promote people who are showy or rich or powerful rather than change-makers who can really serve the country.”

She says Canada has been a champion of human rights, women’s rights and education from the get-go. “I certainly hope they will continue with that after the military leaves,” she says. What’s more, she thinks Canada should focus primarily on education. “Rather than diluting their funding by including computer training, carpet weaving and a dozen other projects, they should make the difference this country really needs and get everyone educated,” Samar says. “The primary schools are crowded with students, 50 to 60 to a classroom, but look at the dropout rate for senior students—Grade 12 classes have only five or six girls. We let primary children walk two hours to school but forbid the teenagers because they might be kidnapped. Furthermore, there aren’t qualified science teachers for the senior students and not enough female teachers, so families refuse to send their marriage-age girls to be educated by men. You can’t bring a country forward with primary education. You need tertiary education as well—and you need to make it a priority.”

Ziayee, who works in the thick of the education file, says, “Education is not a priority for anyone, not even the minister of education, who has three other jobs to worry about. After 10 years there is still a shortage of teachers, three shifts a day for students [teachers cannot accommodate all of them at the same time], and serious security problems.” Her job is to address the outdated pedagogy that still uses rote learning. But in the process of instituting modern methods of teaching, she realizes the teachers lack information: “Anyone who has finished high school can be a teacher.”

Education, of course, is not the only sector that should be prioritized. Among other things, road construction remains sporadic. And the health care system must be built up. While the president claims 85 per cent of Afghans now have access to health care, what he means is there is a clinic to go to. The fact that there are no doctors or nurses is a separate issue. Says Samar: “Our report at the human rights commission shows a more realistic 50 to 54 per cent have access to health care.” A case in point: China built a $12-million state-of-the-art hospital for the people of Kabul. But the doors are locked because there aren’t enough trained technicians and medical personnel to staff it. In the meantime, three flights leave Kabul every day for India‚ and at least half the passengers are going for medical treatment. “Aren’t we able to have one hospital in 10 years?” asks Samar. “It’s about commitment and planning. Make it a priority to spend the next month getting this hospital running. Just do it.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, though, Samar is hopeful. “I have to be,” she quips. “If we respect the value of human rights, we can move forward. Otherwise we will continue to be a corrupt, poor, undereducated people.” She points to young people who have no intention of giving up their rights, to women who are determined to alter their status—and to the recent uprisings in other Islamic countries such as Egypt. “It’s given a lot of hope to the people here,” she notes.

But Afghanistan needs to heal its internal wounds before it can stand on its own feet. Although Karzai offered an amnesty to those involved in the horrid crimes of the past—even as he has taken to calling the Taliban “my brothers”—anxiety continues to fester as victims and eyewitnesses question the immunity. Samar may be holding the ace that can jump-start a new beginning. The Mapping Report that is about to be released by her human rights commission details the mass killings, attacks, torture and executions that have plagued Afghanistan’s more recent past: it names perpetrators and victims, places and dates, from the 1978 coup d’état to 1996 when the Taliban seized control, and then to 2001, when the U.S. and its allies overthrew the fundamentalist regime. It contains interviews with eyewitnesses and families of victims. According to Samar, this is the best piece of work the human rights commission has done to date. “The common thing is that all the people suffered in every corner of this country, in different ways at different times,” she says. “Admitting that could heal wounds and lead to reconciliation.”

The second post-Taliban decade is about to begin in a country the world is weary of watching, and where its own citizens are fed up with the failures and the ever-increasing corruption. And where the women are saying, “We won’t go home again.”

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