|International Women's Health Coalition Hears About Women in Afghanistan|
International Women's Health Coalition Hears About Women in Afghanistan
Earth Times, October 24, 2001
By Jay Newton-Small, Earth Times News Service
About thirty people gathered on the Upper East Side to hear two experts speak about the plight Afghan and Muslim women Tuesday morning.
The event was sponsored and moderated by the International Women's Heath Coalition, a New York based nongovernmental organization (NGO).
"Any political solution in Afghanistan needs to take into account women's rights issues," said Farhat Bokhari, a researcher for the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "There should be a repealing of laws and practices that are against women, and Afghan women's NGOs need to be funded and brought to the table. They are at the forefront of sustaining women there now."
Bokhari spent three weeks at various Afghan refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and returned to the US on September 10. "Coming back to the attacks was just shocking, and it changed the context of our whole trip," she said.
"Our aim was a comprehensive overview of women in Afghanistan," said Bokhari. "We had heard that there were some disparities of treatment between rural and urban settings. How do they resist? There is more fear in urban settings, in Kabul for example. Women's movement is very restricted, they must be accompanied by a man every time they leave home. So what are the levels of resistance? Well, many former teachers manage to operate home schools for women. They are very brave and often the targets of abuse."
The other speaker, Rounaq Jahan, is a Senior Research Scholar and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University. She spoke of a time when her home country, Bangladesh, was also at war and coping with genocide.
"What may happen in Afghanistan is what happened in my home country. The young men all went off to fight, and the women had to live somehow, so they learned to work," she said. "When they [the men] came back...many didn't accept it at first, but they grew to see it as another source of income."
In the question and answer session after the presentations many audience member asked about what they, as Americans, could do to help Afghan women. "I think that we all should write our senators and congress women," said one. "There is a good group of women leaders in Congress right now and we should write them, contact them and see what they can do."
Others asked about democracy. "What about cases like Algeria where fundamentalists actually win the elections? How do we prevent that?" a woman asked.
Jahan responded to the question. "I think that you must understand that in the world Muslims are not the way they are perceived. The images from the media of Muslims are mostly a minority—the Gulf Arabic Muslims. When they really live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim population in the world with 160 million people, Pakistan with 140 million and Bangladesh, my home, with 128 million. Even largely Hindu India has 122 million Muslims."
This is the face of Islam, she argued, not the most familiar image of Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalists.
"Be aware that fundamentalist numbers are small in every Muslim country, but they organize local ministries, forcing the governments to deal with them," she said. "Say 10 percent of Bangladesh is fundamentalist, that's still six million people. Say 10 percent of half the Muslims in the world are fundamentalist, that's still 50 million people. There are a billion Muslims in the world today," said Jahan. "They are African, and Asian, and even American faces—did you know that the majority of the 6 million American Muslims are African American—as well as Arabic [faces]."
Copyright, 2001, Earth Times. Reprinted with permission.