winter 2004
table of contents
UP FRONT
Letter from the Editor
Articles Online
Unquote
NEWS

National
Election Postmortem
A Center of One's Own
Abortion/Breast Cancer Link?
The Russian Wives Club
Dispatches
Calendar


Global

From Gadfly to Nobel Peace Prize
DemocraShe in Northern Ireland
Women's Film in Palestine
Dispatches
Networking Corner

FEATURES
Cover Story
Women of the Year
Jersey Girls | Jessica Seigel
Samanta Power | Catherine Orenstein
Betty Dukes | Ellen Hawkes
Saudatu Mahdi | Stephanie Nolen
Kathy Najimy | Ellen Snortland
Maxine Waters | Lisa Armstrong
Lisa Fernandez | Michele Kort


More Features

Women, Democracy and Hope | Kathy Sheridan
The End of Feminism's Third Wave | Lisa Jervis
The Fuck-You 50s | Suzanne Braun Levine
Rocking the Cradle of Jazz | Sherrie Tucker
Cheers and Cringes: The Year in Review
Women Who Made a Difference

DEPARTMENTS

Essay
Back to the Kitchen
Decoding anti-feminist writer Caitlin Flanagan | Hillary Frey

Fiction
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary | Rebecca Brown

Poetry
It was a Good Year for Dreams | Cortney Davis
the seahorse as transubstantiation
|Quan Barry

Passings
Activists, actors, academics, athletes, writers and a great chef

Book Reviews
Patricia Cohen on Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; Jenoyne Adams on Michel Wallace's Dark Designs and Visual Culture; Debra Spark on Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World; Bernadette Murphy on Mary Gordon's Pearl; Valerie Miner on Alice Munro's Runaway

Plus: Winter Must-Read List

Backtalk
We Must Frame the Debate - Now! | Donna Brazile

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FEATURES | winter 2004


Women, Democracy and Hope

 


“Do not try to put yourself on a level with men. Even God has not given you equal rights. Under his decision, two women are counted as one man.”
— Sebaghatullah Mojadeddi, former chairman of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, to Afghan women, in 2003.

“I am here today because after 23 years of war, I want to help my country, I want peace, and the best way I can do that is to help the people to choose a good president.”
— Parween Dalilee, 29-year-old woman teacher and polling-station official, October 9, 2004.


A dust storm had blown up the night before around Kabul, eclipsing the sun and making Saturday, October 9, the chilliest and most unpleasant day of the year so far. At 6 a.m., while the murderous specter of the Taliban still hung over a palpably tense and barricaded city, Parween Dalilee and Zohra were already at their appointed polling station, pulling on their distinctive blue vests.

Parween, unveiled, was sure and resolute. Zohra, just 18, was nervous. “My family are very worried about me. So am I, but I couldn’t tell them that,” she whispered.

At 7 a.m., across the vast concourse of the Aedgha Mosque, opposite the stadium where a few years ago women and men had been routinely executed and beheaded, a figure in a blue burqa strides out of the mist and toward the three polling lines set aside for women.

“I am here for peace,” she says quietly. “Peace”: The word is first from the lips of every woman in the line.

Most are in burqas. Even here in the capital, a woman is always tediously, relentlessly aware of her gender. The gnarled, work-worn hands of the next voter in line suggests that the woman behind the burqa is elderly. In fact, she is 38, rearing eight children in one room in a bombed-out squat and desperate for a home.

The next woman points wistfully to the empty photograph space on her registration card: “I wanted the photograph there but my family wouldn’t allow it. … They thought a man might see it.”

She is 24 and just one of many with the blank space in a card meant to provide vital identification information to officials already stymied by burqa-induced invisibility. It’s the “culture,” everyone says.

Across town, Professor Nasrine Gross, Afghan-born U.S. citizen and no-nonsense women’s-rights activist, is stepping out to vote — in red nail varnish and power suit — with 17 of her neighbors from their apartment block in the Makroryan. The pace quickens as they get closer, tears welling up as they spot old friends from women’s-rights battles, crazy little dances erupting as they celebrate what one describes as “the first day of the rest of Afghanistan’s future.”

In Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where the number of women registered was a fraction of the national average, the women’s polling section is a sea of blue burqas and soaring optimism. To fortify the fainthearted, postcards depicting Taliban atrocities — a 13-year-old showing off severed hands, the destruction of the ancient statues of Bamiyan, the public beating of women — are in circulation.

Political posters on a Kabul wall include female candidate Massouda Jalal.

No Westerner could even begin to guess at what this day truly means to these extraordinary women. Only a woman like Afghan MP Malalai Joya knows what Afghan “democracy” means in practice right now. Since she criticized the warlords in parliament a year ago for their savage abuse of women, she has had to conceal her whereabouts and travel with bodyguards.

A few months ago, in the southeastern province of Khost, men hammered on the gate of Sahera Sharif ’s home with fists and stones, and threatened to kill her if she continued her work as a U.N. election registrar. She continued — but under 24-hour armed guard.

In June, in the central province of Wardak, a “night letter” directed at women election workers encapsulated the fundamentalists’ vision: “Those women’s centers set up with the support of UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan] are providing a facility for sexual relationships for UNAMA. They [the women] should stop their activities or prepare for death.”

Only a few weeks later, proof that these were no empty threats came in the form of a Taliban attack on a bus carrying women election workers near Jalalabad, 175 miles from Kabul. The bus had been rented by the electoral commission and the women were on their way to set up a voter-registration point when the bomb went off. Three of them and a child were killed. The bus driver, who disappeared just before the blast, was arrested.

The effects of such murderous activities on the wider female community cannot yet be measured. In dozens of interviews with potential women parliamentary candidates for elections in April 2005, Human Rights Watch found that many now live in fear for themselves and their families. Health educators, literacy teachers and women’srights activists routinely see their efforts destroyed by the absence both of security for civilians and sanctions for the perpetrators.

For most Afghans, the enemy now is likely to be the local “commander” and his well-armed militias.


Meanwhile, the country's supreme court, properly the last resort for citizens of a democratic country, is presided over by Chief Justice Mawlawi Hadi Fazel Shinwari, a 70-year-old Karzai appointee who for 40 years taught Islamic law at a madrassa (religious seminary) in Pakistan.

Shinwari is the man who demanded gender segregation at the university, who managed to have cable-TV channels banned for a while, and from whom the charge of “blasphemy” (punishable by death under Islamic law) falls as naturally as breathing.

As for any man who dares to come out to bat for women, they too have been warned. When presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram asked for a debate on the strictures requiring women to obtain their husbands’ consent before filing for divorce and wondered whether a husband could realistically treat all his four wives equally (as required in the Koran), the Supreme Court accused him of blasphemy and demanded that Pedram be disqualified from the race.

Pedram’s courageous stand went to the heart of the state’s abuse of women. He survived the run-in with Shinwari but perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the affair was the absence of support from the other candidates. Even Massouda Jalal, the lone female candidate and longtime women’s-rights activist, remained silent.

Meanwhile, a mere scratching of Afghanistan’s veneer is enough to uncover stories about the brutal oppression of women and the impunity of the perpetrators.

Ms. spoke to a 24-year-old who was kidnapped by a warlord and raped repeatedly until she managed to escape a few months later and went searching for her aunt in the city. While there, she was picked up by the police on suspicion of prostitution (she was a woman alone in the dark, after all), put in jail and forced to undergo a virginity test.

She can name the warlord (who also killed her brother), but answers our question about laying charges against him by wearily naming his “supporters,” one of whom happens to be one of the more prominent presidential candidates.

As I write, Shakila, a childlike 18-year-old, is detained in Kabul prison for the “crime” of having been raped by her landlord’s 27-year-old married son. He too is in jail and claims he wants to marry her. But why would she marry a rapist? Her uncle has threatened to kill her if she gets out.

Seema, a 30-year-old surgeon at Kabul’s emergency hospital, pleased to be allowed to work but tired of “interference” in her country from both Pakistan and the U.S., says, “Bush opened his eyes to Afghanistan and Iraq but he closed them to human rights.”

Follow the money: Out of the $2.5 billion Congress has appropriated for Afghanistan since 2002 (a minuscule amount compared to Iraq), only $72.5 million (less than 3 percent) has been dedicated to women’s programs.

It’s probably unfair to pile the burden of role-modeling on any single woman. But Nasrine Gross notes that “50 percent of my problems as a women’s-rights activist would have been solved if the top politicians took their wives out with them on official duties. …How hard would it be for Mr. Karzai to bring his wife to Independence Day festivities? When these men at the top don’t bring out their own wives, yet encourage ordinary people to let their wives go out to work, what they are saying is, ‘Your wife is a whore.’ People follow actions, not words.”

A voter's thumb is marked with ink.

Her words find flesh in a pre-election Asia Foundation poll, which suggested that 87 percent of all Afghans surveyed said women would need their husbands’ permission to vote, and 72 percent said men should advise women on their voting choices. Thirty-five percent of the women said they might not be able to get their husbands’ or male family members’ permission to vote at all.

For men, the logic behind this is simple: tradition, religion, plus the notion that women cannot possibly think like men. This is not simply about education. A 30-year-old English literature teacher at Kabul University admits cheerfully to Ms. that his wife must wear a burqa, that he would never allow her out to work and that she may never speak to guests who are not family.

Put this in the context of 80 to 90 percent illiteracy among Afghan women and consider that in remote areas, some had to be taught how to hold a pen during the voter-registration process, and the fact that 42 percent of those registered to vote were women must rank as a near miracle.

So on election day, there is enormous excitement but few Pollyannas. Not even the most gullible believes that the election is flawless or that it marks “the end of the rule of the gun,” as U.S. Commander Lt. Gen. David Barno said in October.

Reports of voting violations begin to pour in. The ink markers, supposed to last for 72 hours on voters’ fingers to make repeat voting impossible, was easily removable. UNAMA-trained officials were observed advising people to vote for Karzai.

In some areas, there were no screens for voters. In others, observers were ejected before the ballot boxes were sealed. Later, it will be noted that some boxes are so neatly packed that ballot papers could not have been dropped in, in the normal way. One after another, the overseeing bodies step up to declare that the election was perhaps flawed, but legitimate overall.

No one wants to upset the (mostly) happy voters, or the triumphant sense of a turnout that beats Pakistan’s or any western democracy where voting is not mandatory, or perhaps the White House itself, for whom this is the longed-for foreign policy prize.

Ms. spoke to independent observers, editors of women’s publications with reporters around the country, and a plethora of organizations, including the fledgling Foundation for Free and Fair Elections, and all report no evidence of systematic intimidation. The problem is that with only a few hundred international observers to cover tens of thousands of polling stations, we may never be sure.

While Nasrine Gross is reserving judgment on alleged fraud, she cannot contain her pride in the women of Afghanistan. After years of Taliban oppression of women, justified by so-called tradition and religion, the women demonstrated how quickly so-called tradition can be swatted aside. “Just by showing up, they showed what liars the Taliban and al-Qaeda were … The next president owes his election to the women of Afghanistan.”

As Ms. goes to press, it appears that Karzai has won over 50 percent of the vote. The woman candidate, Massouda Jalal, appears to have gathered more than 80,000 votes, itself a stunning number.


But the real news for women is their percentage of the vote. The 42 percent female registration is reflected in actual turnout in all but eight of the 34 provinces. Their greatest showing, 53 percent, was in Daikondi, in central Afghanistan, where Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the candidate currently in fourth place, holds sway. In Faryab in the north, General Dostum territory, 52 percent of the vote was female. In Herat, the former fiefdom of Ismail Khan, they contributed 49 percent of the vote.

Only in the southeast, as expected, did the percentage fall below the mid-30s. In Kandahar, where security was at a premium, women comprised just a quarter of the vote.

And while no one expected miracles from Helmand or Uruzgan or Zabul, which produced abysmally low registration figures, a female turnout of just 2 percent in the first two and 11 percent in the third surely begs serious questions of U.S. forces responsible for security in the region. The soothing voices of reassurance failed to work. The warlords rule.

Overall, however, the figures reflect much of the hope and excitement of polling day. But how meaningful are they in terms of women’s participation in this infant democracy?

Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), explains the fabulous female turnout in Faryab by the fact that great numbers of their menfolk are away working in Pakistan and Iran. The same applies to central areas where agriculture is on its knees due to drought.

And Kandahar? He attributes the comparatively decent turnout here to “the ethnicization of politics and electoral calculus by the men, i.e., ‘You will be at a disadvantage if you don’t let your women vote.’”

Sure enough, more than 90 percent of Kandaher’s electorate plumped for Karzai.

The AREU’s Wilder is uncertain whether this election is a success. “I’ll know when we see the next cabinet. If there are new faces, that is what will legitimize the process.”

Overall, he sees the election as merely “a first step … There’s a lot of excitement about the act of voting, but in terms of women’s rights, by far the most important thing is education, and the quality of that education. The international community is going to need real patience. It should not see this as ‘mission accomplished.’”


comments


Kathy Sheridan is a feature writer for The Irish Times, where she covers stories from around the world.

Funding for this article came in part from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and
Ms. donors.


 
           
     
   
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