Post-Taliban Afghanistan: What Do Afghan Women Want?

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Friday, December 7, 2001

Post-Taliban Afghanistan: What Do Afghan Women Want?
Longstanding efforts by human rights advocates to draw official attention to the oppression of Afghan women under Taliban rule has suddenly borne fruit in the wake of recent events. What most Americans had considered a tragic situation in a far away place has lately become frontpage news. Recently a group of expatriate Afghan women living in the U.S. were invited to the White House to meet with Mrs. Bush when she occupied her husband’s chair for his weekly radio address. Within the same week they also had dinner with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. They were featured at a forum on Capitol Hill hosted by Senator Hillary Clinton. The Bush Administration, according to Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, “supports Afghan women playing a vital role in the political and economic recovery of a future Afghanistan.” In Bonn, Germany, where the United Nations is hosting a series of talks to establish a framework for a transitional government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, several women delegates are participating in order to insure that women’s rights are not overlooked. Meanwhile, in Brussels, Belgium, several liberal women’s organizations, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, the European Women’s Lobby, and Equality Now, hosted a “Women’s Summit for Democracy” Dec. 4-5. Organizers billed the summit as an opportunity “to show support for the involvement of Afghan women in the reconstruction and peace process in Afghanistan.”

The plight of Afghan women has become something of a cause cre for a variety of groups in the West. And it is certainly a cause worthy of our attention. The brutal treatment of women under Taliban rule has done more than perhaps anything else to illuminate for the West the injustice and cruelty of the regime. Nevertheless, it is worth considering exactly what sort of role the women of Afghanistan want to play in the new order, lest we engage in the sort of meddling that has earned us the title, “Ugly American,” in the past. Radical feminists wishing to impose their idea of women’s rights, including abortion on demand, promotion of lesbianism and unlimited access to birth control, even for young girls, have found themselves opposed strongly by Muslim women delegates at U.N. women’s conferences in recent years. They may find their ideas of “equality” equally unwelcome now among Afghan Muslim women. Women did enjoy greater opportunities for educational and professional advancement in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, especially in what Western feminists consider the “glory days” of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Yet even then Afghan women took a generally conservative approach to dress and behavior, and they are unlikely now to embrace radical Western feminist ideas concerning women’s rights. To expect them to do so is unrealistic and the height of cultural arrogance. An account in the Nov. 30 New York Times quotes Sima Wali, one of the women delegates to the Bonn conference, who urged Western women to remember that the most immediate problems of Afghan women are “extreme poverty and the number of widows who have no means to sustain themselves.” She noted that Afghan women were not likely to, as the Times put it, “immediately strip off their veils and take full roles in public life.” Wali also cautioned Western women to “respect the right of Afghan women to choice, including the choice of keeping their chadors and burkas.”

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