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Contested TerrainReflections with Afghan Women Leaders$

Sally L. Kitch

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038709

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038709.001.0001

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Addressing Afghanistan’s Problems

Addressing Afghanistan’s Problems

(p.157) 8 Addressing Afghanistan’s Problems
Contested Terrain

Sally L. Kitch

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter assesses the significance of the obstacles Marzia and Jamila identified in 2010 and 2011, which included criticisms of Afghan women leaders and the fear that their limitations would keep ordinary women's prospects from flowering in the desert of their own delayed opportunities. When the author met and spoke to the women in 2010 and 2011, Marzia and Jamila had given much thought to the strategies their country should adopt in order to address the problems it faces. In their conversations, the women offered some pointed suggestions about moving Afghanistan forward on a number of fronts. In their usual manner, their discussion combined hopes and fears, but it was increasingly clear that obstacles were casting a longer shadow over possibilities for change than they had in 2005. The author was impressed that the two women wanted to discuss strategies for change in the midst of their discouragement, but even as she clung to their positive insights, the pain in their voices as they discussed enduring obstacles was unmistakable.

Keywords:   Afghan women, Jamila Afghani, Marzia Basel, women leaders, Afghanistan

When we met and spoke together in 2010 and 2011, Marzia and Jamila had given much thought to the strategies their country should adopt in order to address the problems it faces. In our conversations, the women offered some pointed suggestions about moving Afghanistan forward on a number of fronts. In their usual manner, their discussion combined hopes and fears, but it was increasingly clear that obstacles were casting a longer shadow over possibilities for change than they had in 2005. I was impressed that the two women wanted to discuss strategies for change in the midst of their discouragement, but even as I clung to their positive insights, the pain in their voices as they discussed enduring obstacles was unmistakable.

Persistent Hopes

Of primary importance in the women’s minds in 2010 was the positive role that international donors and governments could play in promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan. They continued to believe that outsiders’ “hands-off” approach toward the country’s cultural and religious practices mostly reflected the fears of the Karzai government. For example, Marzia said that the Ministry of Justice would not put women’s rights at the top of their agenda because they believed, “If we want to touch it, then we will not get political will [either] from international community [or] from the extremists in Afghanistan.” This is a “critical time,” she said, and the international community must see how its reluctance to address religious extremists or so-called cultural issues such as women’s rights was robbing Afghanistan of its future. Jamila and Marzia wanted a newly sensitized international community to become more rather than less demanding and more culturally than militarily focused.

For almost any program an international donor or NGO might be sponsoring, the two women could suggest a better, more long-lasting approach. For example, the U.S. State Department’s Justice Secular Support Program in Afghanistan, (p.158) which was working in a piecemeal fashion, really needed a “full-time adviser [to] work on all capacity-building issues like in the Supreme Court and the president and stuff.” And instead of sending more Afghans to international universities to study—a desire Marzia had simultaneously supported and lamented as a brain drain—some international-level educational experiences should be brought to Afghanistan. That was particularly important, since so many Afghan students studying abroad were declining to return home. The Fulbright program was one possible source of such experiences. Marzia saw the potential for training defense lawyers in Afghanistan through exchanges with U.S. law school faculty. She thought it could start in Kabul and expand to other provinces.

The women also thought that internationalization should be a two-way street. They wanted to consider their own problems, such as sexual harassment, within an international framework that could enhance their understanding and expand their options for addressing them. Marzia saw the benefits of building international legal coalitions on the subject of sexual harassment. She said, “I might receive lots of support from others, how they deal with the issue…. Or maybe there are some things … we should [become] clear [about] ourselves, once we … understand the topic first…. We have to learn [from] many international conventions [as well as] Afghan laws, how we could be protected.” She also envisioned coalitions across borders. Jamila was pleased that Iranian and Pakistani scholars were already coming to Afghanistan “defending their women’s rights issues from [an] Islamic perspective.”

Jamila further touted the success of an international conference in Kabul where delegations from around the world networked about women’s issues. Many international NGOs attended, “and we had a woman there in that conference to talk on behalf of civil society. She talked about women’s rights issues,” and she said how difficult it was now to get the “attention of the world community [now] that Afghan women are [not] a hot issue to take in their agendas.” Jamila was delighted to see how many women from all around Afghanistan were there, but “whether [I] ideologically like that person or not, that is another issue.” She was elated to be part of the conference, even though it occurred too close to the delivery of her daughter for her to attend very many sessions. “It’s not important that everywhere should be Jamila,” she said, “or every discussion should be Jamila…. It is good sign of improvement that women are coming. And hopefully by passage of time and further capacity building, [negative competition among women] will be diminished.”

Jamila also emphasized the changes that could and should occur through local efforts, such as those of NECDO. She had seen with her own eyes how literacy training could transform Afghan women’s desperate situation. It could even change a girl from an economic liability to an economic contributor in her birth family. Jamila said, “One of the reasons that people are selling their daughters in marriage [at an] early age … is money. Because they consider, … ‘If I earn some (p.159) money on her, then that money will be given to brother or to father. They will establish a business or maybe some type of a work they will do, and they will have some lively income.’” But girls’ literacy changes the calculations: improved literacy is “one of the elements which reduced child marriage in remote areas.” Families understood that “because when their daughters were getting education, directly they were becoming teachers … and they were getting good type of salary, and they had good type of income, and they had families.” Especially “governmental families … were preferring that [their] daughters, instead of getting married, complete their education and become a teacher or a social worker.” Mothers in those areas “have ignored men” who think otherwise.

Jamila continued to hope that Afghan imams and religious scholars, like her own husband, would help deepen Afghans’ understanding of women’s rights within Islam and inform people of the varying interpretations of the texts (ijma) and religion. Strict, conservative interpretations, such as Wahabi and Ash’ari, did not “consider that changes in life is natural and with the passage of time there will be different situation. You have to take basic foundation from Qur’an, but you have to take decision upon the need of your time.” There were already well-known and “highly educated, highly professional people who know about Islam…. I can [name] for example, Imam Abd [Abdul Rauf, who is anti-Taliban and] a very professional person…. [Also] Dr. Mohammed Ayaz Niazi—is very well known, he’s leading one of the biggest mosques [in Kabul] and also … Maulvi Hanif [a peshimam or prayer leader in Peshawar] is [a] very well-known person.”1 All of these men were working to broaden acceptable Islamic opinions and behaviors. What such scholars were not doing, but still needed to do, was expand women’s exposure to moderate Islamic teaching at the mosques, Jamila said. Most mosques did not yet have rooms where women could pray, even though women were legally entitled to attend the mosque. In addition, few women drove cars, although that was also not forbidden. The culture must let women know their rights.

Jamila also advocated greater networking among Afghan NGOs, especially those focused on women’s causes. “There’s a need of … strong networking among women organizations. Like as I said, after many years I met Marzia. We don’t have the time, we are very busy with our organization issues, with personal issues, even we cannot get time to be part of a better, larger, networking.”

As she had in 2005, Jamila stressed the need for women’s organizations to arrange for their own succession in a businesslike way. She knew that her organization would last beyond her leadership,

because the last two years I spent in capacity building of my organization…. We use internationalist Internet software for dealing [with] our finance system. We have internationalist standard administrative system, … and everybody knows what to do, how to do, so the system is built up inside my organization. (p.160) If I am there or not, everybody knows what to do. If they are not doing, they will have these punishments or maybe side effects to their career or to their jobs or to their salaries. Everybody is set up, every system is set up, so the system needs to be built up, and there is need of capacity building inside professional level, organizational level; there is need of awareness among community level.

She repeated that the reluctance she perceived within other organizations to make way for successors stemmed from the way daughters are ill-treated in their families, so “they have … deficiencies [in] their characteristics, and they are trying to impose that on the other stage of their lives, to others. So it is like a chain going on.”

Marzia also envisioned changes to the currently uncollaborative professional environment of the women’s activist community. The first order of business, in her mind, was to heighten the gender sensitivity of women professionals. “Professional women … should be a part of the decision making at their own organizations, like women as prosecutors … [should consider] how they could play an important role as a prosecutor … [and ask] ‘How many women professionals are supported as the prosecutors, as a judge, as a defense lawyer in this department?’ … [Also] we have gender law, I mean, there’s a department of elimination of violence against women at the prosecutor office, but how many percentages of women prosecutors support this?”

Once awareness increased in such matters, Marzia hoped to establish a better “relationship between the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and … the professional groups in Afghanistan.” At the same time, she wanted Karzai held to his promise that “each ministry should establish their gender department.” Finally, Marzia said that “the women should come together.” She explained, “As a board member of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, I was proposing to have such a strong … collection.” Despite the reluctance she then perceived, she believed that professional women should be willing to talk about any issue—“even [if] it’s a law regarding mother’s mortality, or if there’s a law regarding environment”—whether it is related to their expertise or not. “You can have a talk and you can express yourself,” she said.

It was clear from Marzia’s and Jamila’s approaches to their own professionalization and work commitments that they were not revolutionaries. Marzia said, “We shouldn’t go too strong on women’s issues currently because we don’t have the situation ready for us. So a kind of gradual movement for women’s rights is needed rather than to have a strong voice that no one will listen [to], and instead you will destroy yourself rather than to improve the situation.” Equally important, “We should work together with men. Otherwise, it is not possible to just be on our own and be separated from men to have our women’s rights. So we should work with men that they should believe on women’s rights.” Unless men and women reached an understanding of women’s rights together, men would continue to undermine the achievements such as those to which Jamila and Marzia had (p.161) devoted their lives. Marzia realized, for example, that if she were then a sitting judge, “if my other colleagues as a judge do not believe on women’s right or my own right as a judge … they [can] say, ‘Okay, go home,’ and they take bribe on behalf of woman.” In short, corruption would trump fairness if men did not agree.

Persistent Barriers

As realistic and reformist as the women’s solutions for their country’s problems seemed, they also recognized a fairly daunting list of barriers to the progress they envisioned. Those barriers included the fierce competition among women that continued to inhibit professional women’s achievements; intransigent tribal and political factionalism, exacerbated by foreign influence; women’s continued commoditization and dependence on unreliable, even cruel, men; violence against women, especially within marriage; the broken system for divorce; Afghanistan’s dependence on yet simultaneous victimization by international forces; and a weak, corrupt, and unresponsive government.

Competition Among Women

The barrier that Marzia and Jamila felt most deeply was the ongoing competition among women activists working to achieve the same goals. Of course, this problem is by no means unique to Afghanistan, just as it is not unique to women. Nor is competition always bad. Healthy competition can enhance work on social issues as well as business enterprises and academic research. Nevertheless, female-based competition had a particular flavor in Afghanistan that discouraged the two women, even as they recognized their own role in it. “Unfortunately still we are facing discrimination from each other, like, to be honest,” said Jamila, “I’m meeting Marzia after very long time. We are living in Afghanistan working for the cause of women. Like it’s very rare that we sit together and meet each other, even share our problems, being women.”

The causes for what they considered negative competition among women were the same in 2010 as they were in 2005. That is, competition persisted because of Afghanistan’s patriarchal and hierarchical family system, which commoditizes women as expendable “merchandise” in their birth families and as investments and resources in their husbands’ families. Because of the respect for age in the family system and the sequestering of women within domestic spaces, mothers-in-law still had significant power over their daughters-in-law, especially a daughter-in-law married to the family’s eldest son. Confined together, typically in tight spaces, women in extended-family households competed and gossiped, often pitting sisters against their brothers’ wives, mothers against their sons’ wives, and cowives against each other. It was still the case that the less women had to do outside of their homes, the more infighting they were likely to engage in. That (p.162) situation made family life difficult for many women, but even worse, the gendered family system continued to poison relationships among women in every segment of society.

Such negative competition coexisted with the occasional cooperation that Jamila and Marzia noted among activists who worked individually and together to advance the cause of Afghan women. “Fortunately, we have a few women … [who] are … playing their important role for reconstruction. [For example], the acting minister at the moment, Surya Dalil, heading the Ministry of Health … we can see her [on the] news every night or maybe every second night … that she has traveled to some areas and she has established clinics.” I counted Jamila and Marzia among that reconstructive group.

In addition, some women’s rights organizations were functioning well. The Afghan Women’s Network, for example, was still “emerging actively. They are leading women’s issues,” as Marzia said, with “a separate branch for women to deal with [the] violence issue, which has very crucial role,” Jamila continued. Although they had not so far brought any cases to the authorities, “it was because of efforts of women” that the EVAW law was introduced at all. “Different women’s groups were working on this issue of elimination of violence, and … [the] government was under pressure to build up such a unit.”

And then the “buts” began. Jamila said, “Although [AWN was] doing very good job for the cause of women,” internal problems often reduced the organization’s effectiveness. Jamila knew about these problems as a former “active found[ing] member” of the AWN board who had been edged out. She said that over time, “new people came and … our role became lower there.” AWN became “focused on a few specific organizations and a few specific individuals.” Other groups are also “not welcoming to others, or different mentality or different peoples from different communities,” she said.

The traditional gossip culture compounded the disconnection and isolation women activists felt. “Gossiping among women is increasing … instead of decreas[ing],” Jamila said. “When you go to a meeting … they start, ‘You know about Fahima? She has done this, she has done that.’ [They just] start gossiping.” Jamila confessed that this tendency “makes me very disturbed.” Marzia nodded and said, “Negative competition.” Jamila agreed. “Negative competition among women … Whenever active leaders are coming up, people start gossiping after them. [They try] to ruin her image. It seems like a person has to [climb] stairs to reach to a building, and they’re trying to pull out that stair from her legs [so] she should fall down.”

Intense competition among organizations for donors was one reason for this kind of undercutting behavior. Jamila explained that a typical grant applicant might say to herself, “I should be a good boy in front of a donor…. I should say very bad words about Marzia … to ruin her image, and the donor should pay attention to me, not to her or to her organization. …” Lack of capacity among (p.163) women was another. “Women organizations, they are afraid, because they do not stand on professionalism, on international standards. They’re just there trying to take something and get something and utilize something.” Marzia added, even more cynically, “And make some money.”

Examples from Jamila’s experience helped to illustrate the extremes to which this gossiping and undercutting could go. “When I came to the conference in Ohio when I went back from USA to Afghanistan, first of all nobody was believing that, they were saying, ‘You went to USA and you came back?’ I said ‘Yes, what’s wrong with that?’ They said ‘Okay,’ [but] they were making different type of gesture,” which indicated that they did not believe her. “Then one day, [I said], ‘I insist, you should tell me, what is the reason, why you are doing this type of reaction?’” she continued.

They said, “We [have] heard that you are a member of some terrorist group, maybe al Qaeda or some religious group. Your name has become on the blacklist of America, and America is after you to cut you up and to put you in Guantánamo.” I said, “For what?” It was astonishing news for me! I said, “Okay, what type of blacklist is [in] America that only they are showing [it] to a few women organizations in Afghanistan? I mean, like, how weak they are when I put my passport in front of them, and they gave me [a] visa and they gave me entry, and I came back from their country and they said nothing to me … like if I’m wearing hijab or veil or wearing my chador or scarf, it shouldn’t be a sign that I’m extremist.”

Luckily, this particular accusation was made in a group that included some of the other women who had been to the United States with Jamila. “They were saying, ‘No, no, Jamila was with us. We went and we came back, like it was.’”

When personal attacks like that did not stick, some of the activist community in Kabul began questioning the integrity of Jamila’s NECDO organization. They accused it of “eating money.” So, Jamila said, “I put all my audit reports in front of donors…. A professional consultant company is coming and doing audit, so their viewpoints are more proper than a person who’s coming from the street having no proof and talking. And one thing else, [when] I got married to my husband, who’s more of religious mentality, … it was another reason for them that ‘Jamila belongs to fundamentalist group. She looks like this and that,’ but you know that there is no change in me.”

Jamila also criticized professional women for turning on one another when they were trying to break new ground. Even though she believed that men and women running for Parliament should have qualifications (she did not personally support “a singer, maybe a fortune teller or a barber [or a] beautician,” who runs for the Parliament), she did not like the fact that “the first negative words for a woman you can hear [are] from a woman in Afghanistan … it is wrong competition.” She noticed that men did not do that to one another: “I have seen (p.164) many warlords, many other people [become] candidate[s] themselves. They are male; nobody’s talking…. Men are supporting each other.”

When Jamila heard people gossiping about another woman, she asked them, “[Do] you personally know her?” In one case, a man of her acquaintance who was criticizing a woman said,

“No, I don’t know her. My relative of relative, one of my relative, he said this.” I said, “How logically it is acceptable if you personally do not know a person, if you don’t have a solid proof in your hand, you’re gossiping after a person? From an Islamic point of view this is very [wrong]. There is big quotation of Qur’an that says, ‘Never, never say a word onto which you are not sure because tomorrow you may get sorrow that [you] have said such a bad thing. And you may put some blame on a person, wrong blame on a person who’s not involved in that issue.’” … And I said, “When you don’t know a person, just you’re like ‘Somebody said this, somebody said that,’ so how you can rely on that?”

Although Jamila had developed some strategies to counter the gossip culture among her friends and professional acquaintances, she was hurt and discouraged by the personal attacks. She said:

Personally I am facing lots of problems, because when I started working people were saying, “Oh, she is young woman, she do not understand, only she understand English, that’s why she is highlighting herself.” … When I start to talk about Islam from Islamic perspective, they were saying, “Oh, she is fundamentalist, that’s why she is talking from Islamic perspective.” When I was talking about political situation, they were saying, “Oh, she wants to get the position, that’s why.” But all these were part of my education…. [Later] … lots of people were not happy when men are praising me that Jamila is doing very good…. Then [they would say], “Oh, she has beauty, she is beautiful, that’s why she’s attracting men.”

When she came back from the United States, people had said that she must have been using her wiles with the Americans who supported her projects. “It means that you prove every stage, every gossip, every blame, you have to prove [yourself].”

As a result of this negative competition and gossip, Jamila felt quite isolated. “Sisterhood among sisters is the main idea…. [If] I faced money problem in my personal life, I cannot share it with Afghan sisters.” Even though her own work was devoted to solving other people’s problems, “when you come to [a] personal issue, then you’re burdened with your emotions, feelings. You feel that somebody else should come and help you in that situation.” But when she asked one of her friends to help her with such a personal issue,

she laughed [and] said, “Jamila, I have a shelter. Just go and kill a person, come to my shelter, I will protect you.” I said, “For God’s sake, I don’t need this type of protection.” … There is no sister in Afghanistan that I can share … my (p.165) personal problem, and they can support me. Rather, they start gossiping after you. Your weak points become more weak, and [you risk] your position in the society. That’s why you keep silent. Instead of supporting you and the idea of sisterhood, I have [not seen] all women [come] together and support each other.

Marzia had also been subjected to personal criticism in a very public way. Perhaps the worst example occurred after a trip to the United States in 2002, sponsored by the State Department, during which Marzia met and was photographed bareheaded while standing with President Bush and other high-level officials. After the trip, she was greeted at home with headlines condemning her uncovered head. Even though the deputy chief justice said that women have a choice about what they wear, Marzia believed that the Afghan Supreme Court High Council used the incident to dismiss her from her position, perhaps recognizing that the Afghan government would not challenge the Court on a women’s rights issue. Afterward, Marzia was “angry, hurt, and depressed about the criticism,” and she feared for her safety.2 No women activists came to her defense. “Having no option left,” she said, “I decided to be silent and … work for the international community where I was offered a good job with UN Child Fund Program, UNICEF Afghanistan.”

Despite her devastating experience, Marzia’s criticism of the negative competition among Afghan women activists and professionals was somewhat more structural than Jamila’s. Marzia emphasized the cultural influences that undermine women’s support for one another: “Women, we are not united with one common goal and gender sensitive because … we grow up by ourselves and we are working by ourselves. Without knowing … what the civil society and woman groups should do, how we should come together, how we should lobby, and how we should support each other. This is something that we have to teach each other. In a country like Afghanistan, always we have war and we have never been active in women’s rights, so how we could blame people?”

At the same time, she also lamented the lack of cooperation, the lack of professional capacity, “and also lack of gender sensitivity and selfishness.” For example, “if there is a legal organization [and] there are many other legal organizations, we do not coordinate. If there is a medical organization or educational organization, we do not know what to do. We don’t learn from each other. Even we are not sitting at one table…. So the first thing is that we should be organized … , learn ourselves what we are and what we could do. That could be acceptable for the Afghan society because the work for the Afghan woman is not even acceptable for our society.” Equally disheartening, “the women professionals are marginalized. And they’re forgotten within these movements,” according to Marzia. “If you go to the AWN, they don’t have … physicians, for example, they don’t have engineers, … they don’t have lawyers on their board, like, they don’t have pharmacists, they don’t have professional category of the society.”

Some of that exclusion could be chalked up to professional jealousy. “Even at the top level, if we have minister, if you go and sit with her and if you have more (p.166) knowledge than her, then she will never ask you to come to that meeting [again]. Because [she fears that] you will [first] be on the list, and the next day you will be her assistant, and then you will be the minister.” I asked her how this could change, and she answered, “Capacity building and professionalism, I think, which comes with passage of time. And going through experiences and facing many problems.”

By the same token, because of their isolation and extremely small numbers, individual women activists in Afghanistan were protective of their status and training, Marzia said. “Because, if we have a single knowledge, then we are very proud, you know? It is not much, and we need more, but we are very proud. And we boast that we know [what we] don’t know…. So this is a bad culture.”

Perhaps for that reason, organizations jealously guarded their own turf. Marzia acknowledged that even her own women’s committee of the bar association would resist focusing on a topic, such as sexual harassment, that was already being addressed by other groups. She thought that the bar committee could play a vital and unique role, by helping victims learn “how to find facts and how to make documents and how to present these documents and how to encourage women to talk the facts, this is also important,” but she also thought it unlikely. Still, she mused, “This could be an issue that I could bring it to the Afghan Bar Association women’s committee.”

Jamila reinforced Marzia’s observations about the self-protective aspect of the situation among women activists and professionals. “Like if somebody says, ‘I got word about Jamila or about Marzia,’ the other person [doesn’t] like that. She wants … praise before Jamila and Marzia.” Marzia agreed, “We don’t want to … see others’ promotions.” She laughed as she continued, “I think sometimes they are right, because they have been deprived…. It’s not like United States that everyone is [already] a professor, and everyone has a master’s degree, everyone is researcher. Here in Afghanistan they are very limited. And everyone would like to be in the same position. It is a kind of negative competition … because of … the scarcity.”

When I asked Jamila if she included collaboration skills in the capacity training she did for women in NECDO, so that they could begin to see their common interests, she replied, “Exactly. We do aim of all our activities … on the issue of working for women and bringing women up to level.” She knew that without “capacity,” people would worry, “If we bring [women] in higher position … they will be busy … fighting with each other, with other women, so what is the benefit of bringing those women on the good positions?” Her goal was to help women gain sufficient skills so they would have enough confidence in themselves and not try to bring other women down by gossip and backbiting.

Jamila and Marzia had some disagreement about another topic related to activist women’s competition, however. Marzia associated the existing desire for personal recognition, understandable as it might be under the circumstances, with women activists’ weak connection with the needs and interests of ordinary (p.167) Afghan women. “There are many, many women who are expecting us [to be] leaders. We usually are not among them to ask them, ‘What is need of you?’ … We are not talking on behalf of those women who … have been deprived of their rights and they don’t know what is their right…. They [might] say that ‘Okay, we think it’s all right for the men [to] do that. Why are you telling me this?’ … So this is why we are not achieving things.” Instead of working at the grassroots, Marzia offered, “We are mostly focusing at the top levels, which is wrong. I think for the Afghan woman we should [connect with] the lower levels…. This is the big problem. Or maybe security will be one reason that we are not, but mostly selfishness also a very huge topic among professionals.”

This concern was at the root of her critique of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Although Marzia had invoked the founder, Meena, as a model of activism in 2005, five years later she did not think that RAWA really represented Afghan women. (Though the group was founded in 1977, Marzia thought RAWA dated only from the 1990s. Perhaps her understanding indicated the group’s invisibility within Afghanistan, even though it does operate in the country, albeit clandestinely.)

Marzia’s criticism of RAWA focused on two problems. First, she thought its exclusivity and foreign headquarters in Pakistan were no longer useful. Such tactics appeared to separate the group from ordinary Afghans who “don’t read about their movement and the activities that they’re doing. It will not be a credit for them, for their future.” Marzia understood that RAWA’s public criticism of warlords might be one of the reasons that many members lived outside of the country. As “you know,” she said, “the Parliament consists of those warlords.” But she admitted that RAWA did some good work. “They are right in some points, some positions that they take, they’re right,” she said. As things stood, however, RAWA was “not accepted by other groups that they are working inside Afghanistan.” Thus, their perspectives “will not affect directly to the people.” It would be better if RAWA were “part of the Afghan women’s movement,” Marzia concluded, by which she meant a team player along with organizations like hers and Jamila’s, rather than a self-contained, umbrella-style organization.

Second, Marzia thought that the “shouting” that often characterized RAWA’s approach was not the solution for Afghanistan. “Like, they go too far,” she said.3 Instead, “we should also think of what are the ways that we could bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.” For example, RAWA never pointed out what was right with the government or what changes in Afghanistan were positive, things that people based in the country would appreciate. “Like when they are criticizing the government, they … criticize everyone … they say everyone is corrupt or everyone at the government is opposite of education for the Afghan girls or like that…. But I think they should justify also positive … things.”

Although Jamila agreed that Marzia’s view about activists’ disconnection with ordinary Afghan women applied to some groups, she stressed that her (p.168) organization had a different emphasis. “We [at NECDO] are [working] on grassroots level,” she said, speaking also for some other Afghan NGOs. But even so, she added, “Different organizations work in different areas of Afghanistan, and everybody tries to support ten, twenty, hundred, one hundred, [one thousand] women on the community level. But as Marzia just said, we who are doing these activities we are not collected and united among ourselves. In order to make a proper triangle, to reach to a proper level, … we [cannot be] disconnected with each other.” Organizations should address women’s needs on multiple levels through collaboration and cooperation.

From their comments about organizations such as AWN and RAWA, it was clear that Marzia and Jamila did not think that umbrella groups were the ultimate key to advancing Afghan women’s rights. They wanted collective efforts to work, and they were always touting collaboration, but they believed that such groups suffered because Afghans do not trust organizations with all-encompassing titles and missions. “It had very bad name during the Communist regime,” Marzia explained. “Youth association, … women’s association, like any association that you are talking [about], still the people would think of the Communist regime associations.”

What was needed, according to Marzia, was an organized “network within all the sectors, you know? One is report writing; one is working to improve the situation.” Lobbying was also important, but “we don’t have [a] system actually.” Sometimes Marzia felt overwhelmed by the odds against success. She summarized the problems: first, “the number of educated people are very less, and, second, the competition is very negative, and, third, we really do not know what is gender and what [it is] to be sensitive in a common understanding.”

The Karzai Government and Parliament

Jamila and Marzia gave President Karzai’s government some credit for Afghan women’s advancement. They were encouraged by his support for the violence-against-women legislation. Marzia also thought Karzai respected women, although that attitude had backfired because it made him unwilling to “speak harshly” (that is, truthfully) with women as he did to his male executive partners. She hoped that his deference to women might ultimately serve as a kind of opening. If “woman should go first, for example, if you are in official things, … these are some kind of formalities that women could use [to] bring” their issues to men “at the top level.” But she did not see that happening yet.

But the women’s praise for Karzai was highly circumscribed. They criticized the absence from his government of women with sanctioned power. They also criticized the president’s failure to really empower the women who did serve with him. One example was physician and human rights advocate Sima Samar, who, as we saw in the prologue to part I, was briefly deputy president and then minister of women’s affairs in the Karzai interim government in 2001 and early 2002. Apparently, (p.169) Karzai did not consult with her very often or give her any power, and she was not included in his permanent government, which was established in June 2002.4 Since then, most women had been appointed as “acting” ministers or deputies because of the complexities of Karzai’s relationship with the Parliament and the Taliban, neither of which wanted to see women truly empowered. The controversial parliamentary election of 2010 only exacerbated the situation, as it caught Karzai between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of corruption.5 As a result, women in government were kept powerless by circumstances, if not by intent.

The lack of women in the government was not the biggest problem Marzia and Jamila identified with the Karzai administration, however. Of even greater concern was the government’s failure to connect with women activists and professionals. The problem was two-way, according to Marzia. On the one hand, many women professionals were not interested in attending a governmental meeting about women’s rights or issues that were not directly concerned with their area of expertise. On the other, even the Ministry of Women’s Affairs had “no connection with women professionals.” Furthermore, there was a lack of “common understanding” of gender issues between the few women who were in the government, such as the minister for women’s affairs and the acting minister of health. For example, Marzia doubted that those ministers meant the same thing when they talked about women’s health issues. In addition, she said, they “are not good with each other; negative competition is going between them.” Moreover, as we have seen, they felt threatened by women whose credentials matched or exceeded their own.

Marzia was even more critical of the Parliament, where only a few female members had any voice at all and where the warlords who dominated that institution never really supported women’s participation in the first place, despite the constitutional mandate to include them. That “is a big challenge between government and the Parliament,” she said. The Supreme Court and the legal system had also been extremely disappointing to Marzia. She knew firsthand “how much [the] chief justice will be happy with having a women judge’s association or how the chief prosecutor will be happy with having a [women] lawyer’s [or] prosecutor’s association,” which is to say, not at all.

Not only had the Court disbanded Marzia’s Afghan Women Judges Association, but it had also failed to provide training for female judges. Moreover, the Court had demonstrated self-defeating xenophobia by resisting the kind of internationally sponsored capacity building that Marzia saw as so essential to strengthening the judiciary in Afghanistan. For example, the Court had refused to participate in training workshops given by the Italian- and U.S.-sponsored Independent National Legal Training Center (INLTC). Those workshops were designed to help graduates of Afghan law faculties integrate their knowledge of civil and Sharia law and advance their understanding of the “practical aspects (p.170) of legal and judicial practices” before they started their first official jobs.6 “The Supreme Court said, ‘We are independent, we want to keep this our own, and we want to keep the appointment ours,’” explained Marzia. They wanted no “meddling” from outsiders.

Perhaps the biggest governance problem for the nation from the two women’s perspective was Karzai’s desire to stay in power for both of his terms no matter what it took. (Even when his second term is up, they thought he would try to hold on to power, a prediction that appeared to be coming true in early 2014.) That tenacity had a lot of consequences, including his stated intention to include the Taliban in his government. Karzai’s “flexibility” on this point reflected his willingness to sacrifice women, Jamila and Marzia said. It also indicated his perception that international donors wanted such inclusion. Equally unsettling, the public recognized that the “application of the law is weakening day by day, and this brings President Karzai’s power under question,” Marzia said. The media were full of questions about “law and good governance” and corruption. Obviously, corruption undermined the government’s legitimacy, “because no law applies to corruption within the government and also private sectors,” Marzia explained.

Overall, she continued, “illegality is very common nowadays.” What used to be a ten-dollar bribe to the customs office “while you bring clothes from abroad or other things … now they take you to thirty dollars.” Petty corruption also infused the courts. For example, the Supreme Court refused to go along with a new effort to verify the educational levels of civil employees. They would not do it because they knew that “these staff people [who might be relatives of the justices] should be out of the employment of the Supreme Court.” Apparently, there was no agency with the power to make the Court comply.

All of these examples must have struck Jamila and Marzia as déjà vu all over again. They had both lived through governments that had engendered chaos, broken or ignored promises, undermined public trust, and sacrificed the collective good—especially women’s collective good—for dubious benefit. Afghanistan’s long history of such governmental disappointments must have made the two women and many other Afghans wonder whether all efforts to create good governance in their country were destined to come to this. Even more disturbing to Jamila and Marzia, attempts to assert civil law were still easily squelched by religious leaders. They had repeatedly seen how a cleric could silence a room and end a debate by citing a few words from the Qur’an or a hadith, however distorted or decontextualized his interpretation might be.

Security and the Returning Taliban

“If security returns to Afghanistan …,” Marzia had said after her lunch with Justice O’Connor in 2011, and I thought, “That’s a big if.” In story after story, both women had been telling me for years that security was the biggest problem for Afghan women. Marzia said in 2011 that it was getting worse. Women “cannot go out. (p.171) … maybe after seven or eight at night. Rarely they can go for a party, and they are also worried if they are returning from [the office] to the house what could happen. So you can see that things are not according to choice and according to welfare of the Afghans. This is another kind of reason this war, which is continuing, … is trying the nation. I just … It makes you crazy.”

Of course, no one could blame Marzia for dreaming of peace and imagining what Afghanistan would be like with fewer guns, bombs, thieves, and armed insurgents. And hope and dream she did, despite all the violence she had witnessed in her life. Sometimes she evoked the promise of an earlier time: “Fifty years back was much better than today. Because at least we had security fifty years back; people could travel around Afghanistan all the night.”

Marzia emphasized that Afghans were not acclimating to the violence. Rather, “no one can get used [to] guns and … fighting,” she said. Now, when “there is a blast … you can see people are running to that site, and they are watching, you know? This is not like everyone is protecting themselves, but they are rushing for support, how to get the bodies to the hospital. So this is a kind of thing that you can see.” Some might say it’s God’s will, but in that case, “Okay, if it’s God [or] it’s our destiny, take us all [or] give us life…. Mentally it [has] traumatized all of us. [Everyone] … can imagine the result and feel the situation. It [is] … harder … because we were hoping day by day that the situation will improve, that we will have good news actually, not just fighting, killing: ‘This one was killed from opposite side or from government side.’ … We don’t know [when] this war ends. This is something that we don’t know.”

The two women’s stories of perpetual public violence were horrific. Jamila reported in 2010 that “just a few days ago [terrorists] killed … thirty-five people from private companies of security…. [O]ddly, they cut [off] their hands [and] feet. Pictures were on TV … the bodies were just sliced up.” This was something she could not understand: “For me I can’t kill a small ant that [is] walking in the way. If I was allowed, I wouldn’t kill even sheep and [other] animals to eat their meat…. How it is possible for a human being to get a gun and then cut all the bodies and destroy it and take out the eyes? I mean, how simple it is for a human being? What happens, actually psychological[ly speaking]? … No one is created a criminal … but this is the situation [that] criminalize[s] people.” Jamila thought that terrorists such as those in the Taliban “were brought up as a killer, you know? … They grow up, those who never had a book, never friendship or friend environment, all the time fighting. Now they are already hard people; they can destroy easily.”

The two women blamed the Taliban for most of the public violence. Marzia reported that “they kill[ed] a young … woman [accused] of spying for internationals in Ghazni. It’s not an isolated incident.” She also reported that “members of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs get night letters telling them not to come [to the ministry].” These threats were personal and hard to prove, so little was (p.172) done about them in contrast to public shows of concern at sites of mass violence. “Even if you have a gun behind your door and you just call and shout that I am at risk, … no one [w]ould come to you to protect you because they’ll say, ‘What should we do for you?’”

Jamila added to the growing heap of horror stories by reporting that the sister of one of her students had been killed on the pretext that she had some relationship with government officials, although the girl’s biggest offense was visiting an agency to deliver some documents. “She was shot, and she was killed,” Jamila said. “And then all the family member[s] were on that threat that ‘We are going to kill all of you, all of your family members.’ Then they escaped, and they came to Kabul with very miserable condition that they don’t have money, they don’t have [a] place.” The Taliban do not know what they are doing, Marzia emphasized. “Like a very young boy, like at the age of eight or nine, is just exploding himself…. Does he know what is the real goal of being a Muslim, for example, and the [purpose] of Islam?” The women also had contempt for those who gave the Taliban succor. Someone is “feeding them,” Marzia said. Without that, they would die.

Even Jamila’s brother had recently been detained by the Taliban. Because he was carrying papers written in English, they thought he was a spy. “They trapped my brother for long days, and then they demanded $20,000 USD,” Jamila explained. “From a common person how you can ask [for so much money]?” She thought the Talibs were simply criminals serving their own purposes. She also thought they were deeply embedded in the society. “I have heard from my own students, from my own colleagues. They are saying [that] during the day, they are government employees; at night they are Taliban. At night they are holding gun after the same person [the] government is supporting. At night they are going and say[ing], ‘We are Taliban, you are Afghan,’ and this and that. This is very ambiguous situation in Afghanistan.”

Jamila and Marzia decried the Taliban’s willingness to sacrifice the good of Afghanistan in their quest for power. Jamila said that the “creation of good Talib is a new phenomenon to reduce the tension of bad Talib over all the world.” But she considered that a ploy that would not “be supporting Afghanistan political situation.” She suspected that some in the “international community … are supporting Taliban by providing them weapons and money.” She had also heard that weapons headed for U.S. or NATO military forces were being siphoned off by the Taliban. “Thirty percent of them are missing on the way,” she said.

Jamila worried in particular that the internationals who were saying “the Taliban should … come in and they should have part in the current government and structure of Afghanistan” were being duped. “Although they name those Taliban who agrees on constitution of Afghanistan, those Taliban who are fed up with fighting, … how you clarify who’s good Taliban and who’s bad Taliban? We don’t have that mechanism, that capacity.” She heard “Mr. Obama and others (p.173) [say] that we are supporting Karzai for bringing those Taliban who are accepting constitution, the good Taliban…. [They claim,] ‘This Talib will be different,’ to keep interest of international community, to keep a little bit interest of those Taliban. But I think it’s a creation of new face and new structure of Taliban and political scenario that is [all for show]. I think those bad Talibs always remain in their places, at the background.” “We don’t want such a peace that women will be targets of the Taliban,” Marzia said. “Peace at that price is not worth it.”

The two women agreed with heavy hearts in 2010 that the Taliban was stronger than ever—“more support, more financial support, more powerful like”—mostly because of the international recognition they were getting. Among other things, they had made many election sites unsafe. “So you can see the security situation,” Marzia said. “It means that the Taliban makes the life tighter and tighter. They are coming closer, closer…. It is destroying … whole families, especially for a man [who] leaves ten children [and a] widow woman, and then all the family’s destroyed. So this is not a good news anyhow,” as the vast majority of Afghan women were still dependent on men for their survival. The Taliban were clever at undermining the government, “so the people will be displeased with the government and they [will] take the side of the Taliban,” Marzia said. And if they get into power, “The first target will be human rights workers and women’s rights advocates.”

Marzia herself had already received death threats from them, delivered to her door. At the same time, both women held out hope that Afghans were too smart to welcome the rule of the Taliban for a second time. Most people “want to produce, they want to work, they want to bring things from abroad, they’re working for international organizations,” Marzia said, perhaps projecting her own views a bit too widely. “So [they know] if Taliban comes, this opportunity will be gone … then people are wise enough that they wouldn’t allow.” In addition, Afghans had learned from their compatriots who had lived in Iran and Pakistan. Jamila said, “They have new learning, and they … have experience that women can work and their daughters can be better than their sons.”

Moreover, Marzia said that Afghan “women [despite their lack of unity] are more organized than [in] 1992 and before that, because now even women have rise[n] to international organizations through their friends, through their relatives … and we can get more support, and they are more wiser. In that time, we were ignorant … but now the situation has changed. I mean, everyone would like to not repeat history, and there are many, many messages to President Karzai from women’s organizations. Just if you could go to Internet, you could find this writing in English. There was a declaration issued by women, many organizations they signed it … [telling him] not [to] make this mistake to sign any agreement [at the] cost of women’s ability and bring Taliban to that.” As she also said, however, it is unclear that Karzai would really fulfill any promises to women, even though he was “promising time to time … while he’s visiting women’s organizations … (p.174) that women’s rights and human rights are things I will observe with all situation that I have.” But had he? Would he?

In addition to the resistance the women hoped the Taliban would face, Marzia and Jamila were also quite skeptical that the group could really “provide [the] jobs or education, let alone social protection,” they promised. Many people joined the Taliban because “they pay a good salary.” They can pay their soldiers more than the government can. So, “if you were jobless and if you have a child and your wife says, ‘Bring me food,’ what would you prefer? To die or to bring money?” Jamila asked. “And then they just go the military, and one night [they] just die and then all the family is weeping…. It’s sad, I mean.” The Taliban looked good only to the extent that other options looked bad, the women said. Despite the West’s determination to bring a military solution, the best way to fight them was to strengthen those alternatives—better security, stronger civil society, and greater opportunities for ordinary Afghan men and women.

Poverty and Security

As bad as it was for Afghanistan, however, the Taliban was not the only enemy of increased security for the country. Another was the people’s relentless poverty. “Poor families … have to send their children to make money rather than to study…. These children I see, these are the criminals for the future of Afghanistan,” Marzia said.

Because I have a luxurious car, I’m going up the street, and [a child starts] cleaning my car; how hard it will be for him … just begging for one dollar, while I will say, “No, close my door.” And then [he] will call many times, “Can you bring me a loaf of bread?” So it is difficult. Because [this] generation will be a kind of, you know, they will be sensitive. They would like to have these things. How then [to keep doing] lawful things [when] illegally they can have them? And they can be used very fast by the narcotics [thugs] because they could be dealers with them … because they are children and they are not receiving much punishment [if they deal drugs].

Such children also made good recruits for the Taliban, Marzia continued, “like they’re using the children to just go and commit suicide, just for God, you know…. ‘Kill yourself and kill others, it’s holy, it’s holy. It’s holy jihad.’” Although Marzia was convinced that the Taliban were originally from Pakistan, “now they merged…. They are in the community now.” And they were spreading their lawlessness throughout the population.

Afghanistan does not have to be a poor country, Marzia pointed out, because their land is rich in minerals. And she was right. Afghanistan’s steep mountains contain huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals such as niobium and lithium, which are used respectively in manufacturing superconducting steel and laptop batteries and smartphones. (Indeed, the Pentagon (p.175) reported in 2010 that Afghanistan’s lithium deposits could be larger than Bolivia’s, currently the largest known deposits. “Afghanistan could become the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium,’” it said.)7 In addition, Afghan land harbors oil and gas. For centuries, clandestine mining and drilling operations have basically stolen those resources from the Afghan people.

Marzia continued, “But because the leaders are foolish, the central government is weak, and no coherent policy about mining has ever been drawn,” outsiders, such as the Chinese, have been given contracts to mine minerals, and the gas has been siphoned off to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Small-time mining operations flourished “in these ancient wild places,” and some people were getting rich. Lapis lazuli, for example, was being mined with primitive axes and sold for personal gain. In addition, a long-standing plan to siphon off Afghan gas to Pakistan was still in operation, Marzia noted.

Because of that particular piracy, most Afghans had no central heating in their homes, only small charcoal braziers tucked under their tables to keep them warm. Such devices barely made a dent in Afghan winters, when nighttime temperatures even in Kabul average only 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures in mountainous areas routinely dip well below zero. “This is only in one room people just come together” in the winter, Marzia said. “Even if you are five or ten people, they come all sit in one room to eat, and during the sleeping” they put heaters in their rooms in order to “at least [warm] the environment.” “Believe me,” Marzia said, “I have salaries and dollar[s], [but] I cannot keep twenty-four hours my room warm,” let alone “heat all the house.” No one can afford to heat a whole house. Even a wood fire going all the time in one room “would cost me hundreds of dollar[s] just one month.”

In addition to creating a fire hazard, generating foul smoke and ash pollution in the cities, and reducing productivity in winter months, depriving Afghans of the basic necessities for survival “opens a way of corruption, that one is eating the other’s born blood to keep himself alive,” Marzia said. In addition, the high price and scarcity of fuel rob children of education. For the poor, “if you provide water, then there’s no food. If you provide food, there is no fire. If there is no fire or wood, then there is nothing else. The small amount of money that will be left at the end, they don’t give it to the education because they’re hungry, and they won’t do it.” This vicious cycle meant that more people were vulnerable to exploitation and extremism, which in turn threatened security.

Marzia had some respite from the cold that most other Afghans did not have, since the GTZ office where she sometimes worked had a “good system, because there [is] a lot of money there. They heat all the building, and you feel more comfortable,” she said. She also let her memories keep her warm. “While I was a child,” Marzia remarked, “I remember that we could heat our corridors; we could heat our rooms. I mean even with two … fireplaces at least…. It was not too big, but we had something.”

(p.176) The solution was not to heat Afghanistan one room at a time, Marzia said. Rather, the country needed a system. “If you’re rich, you have very good life. I mean, you have very good cars … you can heat many rooms, and you can have all that…. [But] all the people are not like that. This is a minority of the people that have such a life. [That’s] because the system is lacking.” Ironically, the only residential district that had a twenty-four-hour-a-day heating system was one built during the Soviet occupation.

The International Presence

Whenever I heard the U.S. news media report the views of “ordinary Afghans” about the presence of international donors and forces in their country in 2010 and 2011, I noticed that they never asked women, including women leaders who might be accessible to reporters. Instead, they quoted the men they had easier access to, who tended to express negative opinions, especially about the presence of foreign troops, which threatened their sense of national sovereignty, identity, independence, and possibly their manhood.

Such worries were of less concern to Marzia and Jamila, even nine years into the U.S. war, as they had been for the women who attended the Ohio State conference in 2005. Then the women seemed uniformly hopeful that the presence of internationals, even troops, in their country, especially from the West, would promote women’s rights as well as peace and security. By 2010 Marzia and Jamila clung even more tightly to that hope, despite their harsh critiques. As already discussed, they continued to hope that international involvement would increase security and build their country’s professionalism and social and political capacities, as with the efforts of the INLTC to professionalize the Afghan judiciary and legal community. They were discouraged when such opportunities were missed.

The women were especially concerned that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces would decrease security in the region. For one thing, if it happened before 2014, they thought the Karzai government would collapse, which would be worse than having it in power. (By 2013 it became clear that Karzai’s second term was truly his last, as the constitution requires, so planned troop withdrawal would coincide with an election and a new president.) In addition, the women believed that security problems would increase for the rest of the world because Afghanistan would become an open training ground for the terrorists who had found a home in their country. (For this they could have blamed the U.S.-sponsored war, although they did not.) The women further believed that the Afghan people were so traumatized by generations of war that they could not function without external support. Marzia estimated that 80 percent of the population was that traumatized. Moreover, a large proportion of Afghan men had become addicted to drugs, they said, which also endangered the nation. “Afghanistan needs a lot of support,” Marzia said. “We have a long way to go to enjoy women’s rights and human rights.”

As much as they dreaded the withdrawal of international troops, however, the two women also decried meddlesome interference by foreign governments (p.177) in Afghan affairs. Interestingly, the nations the two women identified as the real culprits for Afghanistan did not fall on one side or the other of a Muslim versus non-Muslim or East versus West divide. They said that India, Pakistan, China, and Iran threatened Afghanistan’s future most immediately, primarily because they saw Afghanistan as an attractive market. They did not want Afghanistan producing or exporting its own products or commodities. Jamila said that all Afghan markets featured “Indian materials, Pakistani materials, Chinese materials, and Iranian materials. If it is food item, if it is clothes item, whatever. Like Afghanistan is a market for all of them. If Afghanistan is cultivating their own vegetables and developing their own factories and they’re producing, then who will buy the material from Pakistan and other countries? … Afghanistan is poor, because … our wheat belongs to Pakistan, our oil belongs to Pakistan and Iran; like, these are for their own benefit, for their own strength.”

At the same time, the two women were still critical of the uncoordinated and short-term programs of U.S. and European NGOs and of international support for the “informal justice system” of shuras and jirgas (which, Marzia said, were still “disappearing after every decision, they are not documented”). Marzia believed that many internationals “intentionally keep us in tradition, do not want us to be developed and to challenge things according to the constitution of Afghanistan.”

Jamila and Marzia also attributed the increase of tribal and political factionalism to misguided historical international intervention in Afghan affairs. Having never lived outside of Afghanistan, Marzia said in 2010, “Now at forty-three I can see that these words Tajik, Pashtun have never been words among us. While I was a law school student, I had best friends from Hazara, I had best friends from Tajiks, I had best friend from Pashtun, they’re all sitting together—I mean, the government was for all of us.” But since the rise of the mujahideen in the 1990s, thanks to international financing, “the Hazara couldn’t walk on Pashtun area, the Pashtun couldn’t walk on” Hazara areas. The international sponsors of the mujahideen, including the United States, intended to promote “every nationality, every tribe, every ethnic group … like the constitution of Afghanistan states,” Marzia conceded, “but Afghanistan is not at that stage to make up one group and make down the other group…. I think for the common understanding and the fate of Afghanistan, we are all Afghans, and people are thinking of that.” In addition, ever since 1919, when Afghanistan got its independence from Great Britain, “some part of Pakistan is belonging to Afghanistan.” She believed that “it should be returned back,” but she also understood why people “need also sometimes to have their independency and they request for it…. So this is a hard question—which is out of Afghanistan, but within Afghanistan.” In the end, however, she said, “I’m sure that people don’t want to be separated and have a small, small government, separate from the Afghan [nation]…. For this time, I think we need a strong government.”

The women’s comments helped me to see how the problem of factionalism had been exacerbated by Western sensibilities about multiculturalism, which in some (p.178) ways prompts people of all backgrounds to reify their racial or ethnic identities when they might otherwise be more interested in assimilation and social unity. I could also see how attention to women’s issues could exacerbate gender tensions in a situation where men believe that they are thereby unappreciated, ignored, or dismissed. But as Marzia also said, this is a perplexing problem. When different groups have unequal status and access to resources and opportunities, how do you improve their situation without alienating others? Afghanistan offers a cautionary tale about the promotion of social justice. If such efforts are reduced to elevating a particular group or groups, pushback from others may be inevitable. Ways must be found to make social justice a winning situation for everyone in the society.


Chapter 10 will offer some grounds for assessing Marzia’s and Jamila’s ideas about ways to address Afghanistan’s problems and about remaining obstacles to women’s progress, the conditions of Afghan women’s lives, and possible solutions for the country’s future by discussing the ideas of other Afghanistan observers, activists, and scholars. But before I close chapter 8, I want to explore the foundations of some of the two women’s perspectives, including the Islamic precepts that support many of their positions.

First, it is important to realize that part of the women’s enduring hope for their country stemmed in 2010 and 2011 from their realization that they and other activists like them had contributed to their country’s progress on women’s issues. Partly through their efforts, Afghan women could better negotiate their marriage contracts, more women and girls could get educations and learn about their rights, and more women could work and achieve some economic power. In addition, by 2010 the legal age of marriage for girls had risen and a law prohibiting violence against women had been approved (and would finally pass). Even some rural families were beginning to recognize the value of educating a daughter for the family’s economic well-being. Some Afghan women could choose what they wore outside their houses, and even some men, like the two women’s own husbands, understood the benefits to themselves, their families, and society of increased education and recognized rights for women.

Marzia and Jamila were also hopeful because they believed that Islam was ultimately on their side. They understood that the subordinate or even abject conditions of Afghan women’s lives were not their Islamic destiny and the idea that female submission and obedience to men during their lives on earth was not required for them to enter paradise. Such ideas only reflected men’s interpretation of God’s word and were un-Qur’anic. As Amina Wadud explains, the Qur’an defines men and women as equal in Allah’s eyes (as they were equal at Creation) (p.179) and considers their social roles, though complementary because of reproduction, equally valuable (1999, 35, 73).

Furthermore, Afghan gender ideology undermines the Qur’an’s message about equally valuable gender roles, because, according to Jamila, there are not equivalent controls on male and female appearance, behavior, and actions in Afghan life. Indeed, there are few prohibitions for men, and those that exist are fairly flexible. For example, apart from the Taliban period, men’s dress and beards have never been routinely policed by families or public authorities. Men pursue their sexual desires with impunity, because many (wrongly) believe that is their religious right. An Afghan man can divorce by repeating a simple phrase, as the Qur’an allows, but the shame and hardship of divorce devolve primarily to the woman he renounces. And while the Qur’an enjoins men to support their families so women can fulfill their responsibility for bearing children (qiwamah), Afghan men do not always perform that function, as Marzia observed (Wadud 1999, 73). When that happens, Afghan law offers little help, although it too requires husbands to provide food and shelter for their wives and children. A wife’s only recourse in the absence of financial support is divorce—a self-defeating alternative—rather than any form of court-enforced solution to her situation.8 And because an Afghan man has the right to forbid his wife to work, even when jobs are available, or to control whatever income she might have, many women are left to figure out for themselves how to maintain their homes and feed their children. None of this is Qur’anic.

Of course, the concept of honor that dominates Afghan lives is not Qur’anic either. That honor code can result in women’s deaths or imprisonment for real or suspected infidelity or for premarital sex, seeking a divorce, being raped, refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, fleeing an abusive marriage, eloping or even talking with an unauthorized man, and engaging in any kind of disobedience, such as defying dress codes. Sadly, honor killings have been on the rise in Afghanistan, although accurate numbers are elusive because so many killings go unreported. But there are concrete clues. For example, in June 2009, Amnesty International reported a record twenty-four cases of honor killings in Afghanistan by that midpoint in the year. By July 2012, Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission recorded forty-two such killings (out of fifty-two murders of women and girls) just between March and June.9 The United Nations Population Fund estimates that as many as five thousand women worldwide may die for male or family honor every year.10

All of these practices and trends must be understood in the context of a fractured country devastated by war. Increased controls over women’s behavior in recent years are, on one level, a reaction—albeit a counterproductive one—to increased insecurity across the land. Stricter marriage mores, for example, coupled with the continued stigma of divorce, keep women more dependent on men, regardless of their treatment by them, in the name of protection. But as the (p.180) lives of those men become more tenuous, women actually face greater dangers. If their husbands die, women’s forced dependency drags both them and their children down. Marzia has said that a man’s death typically means the death of a whole family. She noted that the shocking level of male deaths from the country’s protracted wars and growing lawlessness had pushed 120,000 children onto the streets and forced many small children to work instead of attend school.

Such complex interconnections of particular issues with much larger political, social, and personal calculations and fears make strategizing for significant change in Afghan women’s rights, economic opportunities, and civic participation very difficult. Do you promote incremental change from many directions—law, education, industry—on the theory that directly targeting underlying ideologies that keep women from progressing will only foster backlash and retaliation? Or do you directly address the deeper beliefs about gender distinction and women’s inferiority and educate about the “true” Islam? In other words, not, “You should let your daughter go to school so she will be a teacher and make money for the family,” but rather, “You should start treating your daughter as Islam really endorses, like a person whose life is valuable for its own sake and matters as much as her brother’s.” Or is there a way to do both: to get the girls in school in the short term and to promote their long-term intrinsic value as human beings at the same time? Jamila and Marzia were trying to do both and to make women, newly educated in their rights, allies in the quest for change. As we parted in 2010, they were still committed to that approach, even though it was unclear what those efforts would ultimately produce.


(1.) According to the International News, Maulvi Hanif identified a would-be terrorist to the Crimes Investigation Department in Afghanistan in January 2010. His “pointation” led to the suspect’s arrest and to the recovery of “60,000 US dollars, three satellite phones, laptop, computer software and important documents.” See http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=26852&Cat=13&dt=1/24/2010.

(2.) Comments combine Marzia’s testimony and observations in a Los Angeles Times article in December 2002. The article also contains Marzia’s denial about being fired, as well as a statement by the deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, about women’s right to choose what they wear. See http://articles.latimes.com/pring/2002/dec/08/world/fg-chador8.

(3.) One example of what Marzia meant could be RAWA’s unstinting opposition, since 2001, to U.S. support for Hamid Karzai and his “Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.” See http://www.rawa.org/rawa.html.

(4.) Samar’s description to reporters of her time in the Karzai cabinet points to some of the problems she encountered: “I didn’t know that it would be this much difficult,” she told one. After a month in office, “she still had no staff or budget, and the male ministers appeared to ignore her in cabinet meetings. But, as always, Samar refused to conform. ‘After the meetings … people say I make too much noise, so I say: why did they appoint me? I am not confrontational … that doesn’t work … but I have to say what I want for women.’ She continued her calls for equality and justice, including demands for more female ministers in the government, schools for married women, and an end to arranged (p.244) marriages.” She finally decided that her mistake was simply that she is an outspoken Hazara woman. “That is enough, I guess,” she said. See http://www.answers.com/topic/sima-samar#ixzz1W43L6A2u.

(5.) As of August 2011, the parliamentary election of September 2010 was not fully resolved. Results were widely condemned as tainted by corruption. Karzai’s attempt to circumvent the Independent Election Commission, which had constitutional authority to rule in contested elections, through the appointment of a special court was finally defeated when he abolished that court and affirmed early in August 2011 that the commission could be the final arbiter in the controversy. The eleven-month uncertainty paralyzed Karzai’s government and prevented him from making permanent cabinet appointments or appointing Supreme Court justices. But even the commission’s ruling in late August that nine candidates should be removed from Parliament and another nine should have their seats restored was unlikely to resolve the crisis, as many members of Parliament protested. Nordland and Wafa 2011.

(6.) The quotation is from the INLTC website, which also contains more information about the organization: http://inltc.af/home.htm.

(8.) For a description of the state of Afghan law regarding marriage and family, see http://www.ecoi.net/188769::afghanistan/314491.312370.7893 … lk.312375/marriage-and-divorce-law.htm. For information about the Eliminate Violence against Women law, passed in 2011, see http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=37003 and http://unama.unmissions.org/Portals/UNAMA/Publication/HTP%20REPORT_ENG.pdf.

(10.) UN Women, UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, “Facts and Figures on VAW” (http://www.unifem.org/gender_issues/violence_against_women/facts_figures.php?page=4).