By Carolyn Reicher
Picture after picture of faceless, burqa-clad Afghan women continue to beat at the conscious mind of the Western world. Non-descript figures, depressing in their anonymity, persistently remind us of the plight of millions of women and girls half a world away. Indeed, for many outside observers, this shrouded image has come to represent the very essence of the oppression and degradation inflicted by Talib forces on the Afghan people during the last five years.
It's easy to shake one's head in dismay and frustration over the forced isolation this has meant for all of Afghanistan's adult female population. But, moving beyond the burqa (the head-to-toe covering) to the multitude of deeper, more pressing issues that plague Afghanistan is a challenge - one that the women of Afghanistan are urging us to take up.
When asked about their predicament, Afghan women will often respond in a way that is surprising to many Western women. They repeatedly downplay the constraints inherent in the burqa, insisting that while it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable, it's often the least of their worries. The real issues revolve around their inability to work outside the home, gain access to health care, and educate themselves and their daughters.
What difference would it make to walk about with your face exposed if you are not allowed a dignified means to feed and educate your family? What would it matter to wear Western clothing when your country is devastated by poverty, drought, landmines and the aftermath of war? If, as a mother, I was asked what would scare me more - the inability to dress and move about as I wish, versus the complete ban on educating my children, instead, keeping them home with virtually no source of stimulation - the decision would be swift and definite. My first concern would be the development and education of my children.
Many Afghan women agree, and are bravely risking their lives to run small, clandestine schools for girls. Between the devastating headlines shouting of human rights abuses, are the increasing stories of courage, whispering their defiance of the Taliban's edicts against female education. In Kabul's Shashdarak neighborhood, the Naswan School opened its doors to girls in grades one to six. The materials for teachers are almost non-existent, but the hope they bring to their students is not. The Afghan Institute of Learning, supported by the Global Fund for Women also runs secret home schools throughout Afghanistan. Through CARE's Community Organized Primary Education (COPE) Project, which creates and supports informal village schools, Noria Sadia provides basic education to more than 30 girls in her own home. To date, COPE has established more than 250 such schools with more than 19,000 children attending.
Increasingly, international agencies are acting on what development organizations have known for years. The education of women and girls has a profound impact on the well being of the family and society as a whole. In 1999, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan supported the education of 30,000 girls. School twinning programs have become a way to provide both an education for Afghan children, and an understanding of human rights issues for children in other countries. Through programs sponsored by the Feminist Majority, more than 200 school groups across the United States and Canada are raising awareness and funds on behalf of their student counterparts in Afghanistan.
In March 2000, the United Nations estimated that 10,000 girls attended home school in Kabul alone. Like a seed sprouting into new life, the numbers, and the power within, continue to grow. Fatima, a woman in Kabul, risks the wrath of the Taliban by operating a school for girls. Despite the decrepit facility, lack of equipment, and constant Talib spies, she and her co-workers continue to teach science, math, geography and religion to more than 250 children. And new students keep coming, all with an insatiable hunger for learning. For Fatima, their eagerness, and her unshakable belief in the importance of education, mean that no risk is too high. Getting an education no longer stands for the simple acquisition of academic information. It has become a sacred task to supply an education to these young girls. It is her jihad. She thinks not of the constraints of a burqa, rather of how critically important it is to open young minds to truth and knowledge, and young hearts to hope and healing.
Lauryn Oates, Montreal Chapter of Women for Women in Afghanistan (W4WA)
Women for Women in Afghanistan is a Canadian solidarity network, working to restore the rights of Afghan women under the Taliban. Since 1996,women under this regime have lost all human rights and have been termed sub-human. W4WA has its head office in Calgary, Alberta with chapters in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia and Waterloo, Ontario. As the founder of the Vancouver chapter, I was devastated to be leaving, with so much work to be done for our sisters in Afghanistan. Montreal, my new destination, being one of the most multicultural cities in the world and home to a vibrant civil society, seemed an inevitable location for a new chapter.
This fall, the new Montreal chapter will focus on raising awareness of the plight of Afghan women, while building a membership in the province of Quebec. This will be done through education in schools and and sponsoring displays and booths at public events. In addition, we will sponsor fundraising projects to support empowerment projects in Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
The most common question W4WA members are asked, is "What can I do?" We have aimed to create an opportunity where this question can be fulfilled. We provide letter-writing resources for appeals to governments and UN bodies, informative and accurate information coming out of Afghanistan, educational
tools, projects in need of donations and many volunteer opportunities. W4WA members meet monthly to create action plans, discuss the situation and share information and ideas. Others keep in touch over our e-mail listserves, participate in special events and fundraising projects, or chose to send donations.
We are excited to extend the invitation to Montrealers to take action for the women of Afghanistan. The current contact information is .
Certainly, advances have been made in recognizing women’s rights. The legal framework is increasingly responsive to the experiences of women and girls in conflict, especially in cases of sexual violence, as we have seen in the important work being carried out by the international criminal tribunals. But there remains much to be done, particularly to improve prevention and to combat impunity.
-- Kofi Annan
October 28, 2002