Afghanistan: Update on the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women

Negar-Support of Women of Afghanistan was invited to attend the transfer of power ceremonies in Kabul on December 22, 2001.
Shoukria Haidar, the President of Negar and Nasrine Gross, Negar representative in Washington (and President of Kabultec) attended.
1.  As you all know, the transfer of power ceremonies were a great success.  It was the first time in Afghan history that power was being transferred peacefully.   Both President Rabbani and Chairman Karzai were very gracious in their speeches and behavior as was the audience. Chairman Karzai referred to women's rights, issues and needs.

There were a couple of points, from the standpoint of women, that needed attention and we dutifully pointed them out.  One, of the three or so thousand guests only a handful were women.  We asked that next time (for any ceremony) there need to be many many more women invited.  Two, of all the speeches in the three hour ceremony, none was delivered by a woman.  We pointed this out during the event and asked that Dr. Sima Samar give a speech.  Unfortunately, by the time the message got to the right people, the closing Koran recitation was done and Dr. Samar decided that it would not be appropriate to speak.  We pointed out that for the future, such inclusion be incorporated from the planning stage. To show their intent, the authorities invited all of the women to the day's luncheon at the palace - - where we all met for the first time.

During the event, however, we could not find seats, so fortunately we stood the whole time on the side where both the audience and the stage (where the old and the new governments were seated), had a clear view of us:  Shoukria Haidar and Hassina Sherjan Samad were wearing pantsuits and no head covering, Nilab Mobarez a pantsuit and head scarf, and Nasrine a red mid-calf skirt, green blouse and black jacket (colors of the flag) with no head cover.  Anne Marie Lizin and a couple of journalists also standing with us had no head cover.  Our message was coming loud and clear. Outside, we shook hands with and distributed the Declaration to thousands of people and got signatures.  In fact, there was such a clamor to receive a copy that we ran out of copies.

2.  From the next day on, we began our activities in earnest.  Our plan was to visit with each minister and get his/her signature for the Declaration.  We were able to get signatures from most of them - - in fact all those we were able to meet signed the Declaration, including former President Rabbani and Director of King Zaher Shah's Office, Dr, Zalmay Rassoul.

We asked to see Mr. Karzai.  His office gave us a fifteen minute meeting.  When we went there, Mr. Karzai kept us with him for three and a half hours:  After talking with us over the Declaration (in the presence of Mr. Qassemyar, now the elected President of the Special Independent Commission on the Emergency Loya Jirga and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, advisor to Lakhdar Brahimi) he invited us to meet Senator Joseph Biden, have lunch with them and attend the private meeting of the two. Finally, after all that ceremony during which Dr. Samar was also present, he excused himself from the Senator to come and sign the Declaration. To us his signing the Declaration underscored the commitment and direction of the interim government.

3.  In the meantime, we met with other Afghan dignitaries from all factions and provinces.  In all, we met with about 5000 men and 800 women.  Some leaders were anxious to meet us and sent their representatives.  Thus we met with Mr. Sabawoon, the former finance minister from Paktia and also visited Paghman, the headquarters of Mr. Sayyaf.

4.  We also invited small groups of women to restaurants and had lunch and/or dinner at the main hall.  And we went shopping in the busiest sections of town.   Everywhere, people were happy and/or curious to see us.  Once they understood we were Afghans they would become great friends and supporters.  Many of them would congratulate us or welcome us or thank us for bringing back the freedoms Afghans enjoyed before the Taliban.  We also distributed the Declaration in the street corners and asked people to send their signed copy to Mr. Karzai!

5.  We organized two conferences and attended several major events:  In one conference we invited about 150 women of Kabul, such as principals and teachers of schools, to introduce them to Negar and the Declaration.  Here we also asked women to introduce themselves and tell us what each thought the needs for them were.  These needs we categorized into three areas and asked the women to sign up for work in the area of their interest.

We also held a seminar for the professional men and women of Kabul. Here we invited people from each ministry as well as the intellectuals and artists.  We invited 100 people but 270 showed up, 40 of the women including female officers without a head covering.   In this seminar, we had a panel of experts who explained the Bonn Agreement, the Constitution of 1964, the history of women's role in Afghanistan and our Declaration.   We also had a short concert.  This was a great success: Not only the TV filmed and later showed the entire program airing for the first time Afghan women without head scarves talking, but also people would subsequently stop us in the street and offices and thank us for our work and join us in solidarity.

We also attended once, a gathering of 120 university women teachers organized by Dr. Fayez, Minister for Higher Education where he asked us to give a talk about our movement, and another time, a meeting of all Kabul University professors.  As well, we were invited to two showings of a play about the destruction of Kabul and the dove of peace coming out in the form of a young woman.  A very moving play enacted in the total ruins of Kabul Nendarey (once the Kennedy Center of Afghanistan) where we showed people that clapping was no longer forbidden.  We also were invited to a round table discussion of Afghanistan's foreign policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

We met with Dr. Samar many times discussing the mission and projects of her ministry and reported on our activities.  It was in her place that she introduced us to Ayatollah Parwani, the highest ranking member of Wahdat party and one of the most important Shi'a clerics.  We gave him the Declaration and took pictures with him.  This was a historic moment as it was the first time the Ayatollah had taken a picture with women, one of them sitting at his feet without a head covering! Both Dr. Samar and Dr. Fayez have asked us to serve as their official advisors and liaisons, Shoukria for France and the European Union and myself for the United States. And we have gladly accepted.

6.  Other places we visited include the Literacy Program of Afghanistan.  We also met with Minister of Education and visited the Malalay and Aisha Durrani High Schools as well as half a dozen other schools and the grounds of the Olympic Committee, the Kabul Orphanage, the Kabul Correctional Facility and the Shamali internal refugees housed in the embassy of the old Soviet Union.  We also met with the leader of the NGO community and his staff, and attended two of their meetings.  We had visits with over 30 Afghan and non-Afghan NGO's from Kabul and elsewhere. We also met many writers, journalists, intellectuals and crafts people from the civil society.  So many women and men who had created clandestine schools and not just for youngsters, so many people who had written books and manuscripts, as yet unpublished of course, so many who had not given up...

We think our visit to Kabul served an important purpose at this particular moment.   Not only we distributed the Declaration and acquired support signatures, but through our activities and presence people saw once again what Afghanistan was like before the Taliban and before 23 years of war.  We were able to help the Interim Authority by doing things that they are not so free to do.  We were able to give information to Afghans - - most often for the first time - - of the crucial support they had from the women of the world.  And we were able to understand more deeply the situation and the needs of women and assess the chances of the restoration of the rights of women through the next constitution.

7.  So what now?  We believe that the women of Afghanistan and in fact Afghanistan itself are not out of danger yet.  Our efforts need to be concentrated in two major areas:  Garnering and nurturing support from our friends worldwide, and creating women/people empowering activities inside Afghanistan.

Today, there are still groups in the world trying to undermine the reestablishment of Afghanistan as a legitimate and rehabilitated country.  I can think of at least three groups who, now that they are not as free to interfere militarily, are using other venues, especially women's rights:  The extremists around the world, the countries where women's rights are not fully recognized, and the countries which do not want an independent, legitimate and rehabilitated Afghanistan restored. These groups are currently actively working to derail the constitutional process by not letting all the rights restored for women, and to impact reconstruction by showing Afghanistan's position vis-a-vis women in a light not conducive to international funding.

It is very clear that at this juncture our work has to continue until at least the new constitution is in place, in the next two and a half years.  The Declaration has to be endorsed by all the countries now involved in Afghanistan, about 26 in the peace process and about 60 in the reconstruction as we continue to lobby the major players such as the UN, the US and the Interim Authority of Afghanistan.

We must also identify and work on projects inside Afghanistan that are empowering to women's rights in particular and the population in general.  I have come back with a few such projects and I am planning to return by early March, hopefully with some funding and resources for these projects.  In another message I will write on these projects for those who might be interested to help in some way.

In conclusion, I remain convinced that in the next constitution of Afghanistan we have a defining moment for women - - all women everywhere.  And now it is even more critical that we continue our support.  It is my right; it is our legacy.