“If the Taliban return to positions of power, the situation of Afghan women will become much worse; it would be a backward step,” declared elected Afghan provincial council member Bibi Hokmina. In an impassioned appeal to Afghan men and women, she said, “It’s time for us to stand up on our own two feet, to better our lives by ourselves. Who are the Taliban anyway? Who are they to have so much control over our lives?” Her emotional declaration was all the more memorable because Hokmina wore the turban and clothes of a Pashtun man.
“The Most Dangerous Country for Women” flashed starkly across a gigantic screen to introduce Friday morning’s panel on Afghan women. Moderated by ABC Global News anchor and CNN International chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, the panelists discussed how much the status of Afghan women has improved since the 2001 fall of the Taliban—and what challenges lie ahead as U.S. troops prepare to pull out.
Grim statistics bear testimony to the fact that women are still fighting an uphill struggle in Afghanistan, which has been wracked by conflict and instability for three decades. Half of all girls are married before the age of 15. One in three women is subjected to abuse. Indeed, noted Amanpour, before the traumatic terrorist attacks of 9/11, most Americans didn’t know much about the horrors of the Taliban regime except that it relegated women to the purgatory of the burqa, within the confines of home and without access to schools.
The good news is that significant progress has been made since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. An important step forward was the realization that Afghan men, not women alone, had to become part of the process. “I had anger toward men at first. I saw them as the cause of all these atrocities” in areas of conflict, acknowledged Zainab Salbi, author and founder of Women for Women International, a grassroots organization that assists women survivors of wars. She recalled that, one day while working in Afghanistan, she saw two turbaned, bearded men walking toward her. “In my stereotyped image, they looked similar to Taliban. I said to my colleague, ‘Let’s go.’ It was a tense moment.”
But in fact, the two men introduced themselves as tribal elders of the community in which Salbi was working. “They said, ‘We’re here to thank you for helping the women of this camp.’” The encounter made Salbi realize that men can be the victims of negative stereotypes as easily as women can. “There needs to be a shift.” Salbi’s organization began men’s training programs—aimed at men in leadership positions—to teach them to be good community leaders. “You can’t be a good leader if you don’t engage fifty percent of the population.” One recent success: 400 imams were trained to write sermons including a mention of women’s rights.
Panelist Mohammad Nasib, who founded the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, explained how local leaders are “game-changers” and are very influential. His organization focused on working with local maliks. (“These are traditional grassroots elders who customarily resolve disputes and settle legal matters,” explained Amanpour, who is of Iranian descent.) Nasib said his group trained 30,000 maliks and other leaders across Afghanistan, helping sensitize them to women’s issues and to try to end the practice of forced marriages. It has often worked. “Many trainees supported women candidates when they ran for local office and parliament, and were influential in advocating girls’ schools,” he said.
The third panelist was Bibi Hokmina, whose emotional words were memorably conveyed in English by interpreter Shakila Faqeeri. Hokmina explained that when she was young, her father dressed her as a boy to protect her during the Soviet occupation of their country. As an adult, she continued wearing men’s clothes, including the distinctive Pashtun turban. As an elected member of the Khost provincial council in eastern Afghanistan, Hokmina has helped build schools and clinics in her community.
Amanpour raised the big issue facing Afghans, both men and women, today: the impending U.S. withdrawal. “The Taliban was responsible for many abuses. What can Afghan women look forward to with no more U.S. troops?” Hokmina’s voice rose. “This is not the right time for the U.S. to abandon Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to take [various parties] and to sit down and have a meeting of the minds regarding the future of the country. For thiry years we’ve been entrenched in war and bloodshed. We cannot take it anymore. Afghanistan cannot go back to where it was.”
Hokmina began gesticulating with her left hand in a fist, cutting through the air for emphasis. “My message to the people of Afghanistan is: Do not give up, do not give away even a pound of dirt from your homeland. Fight for it, fight to the death. Fight so we don’t have to depend on others.” The glare of the stage lights glinted off the heavy rings on her wrinkled fingers, and applause resounded throughout the theater.