Part 5 of a series about a peace trip to Afgfhanistan. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.
Afghanistan is no island, entire of itself. There’s a constant bleeding of people, money and ideas through its porous borders with Pakistan, Iran, Russia and nearby India. There can be no solution to its problems without involving neighboring countries, which is the point of a women’s “Trialogue” we attend at the Central Hotel.
About 60 women from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have gathered for a two-day peace conference. Radha Kumar, a professor from India, opens the meeting by saying, “Our three countries are linked by the threat of violence, women are being targeted but when it comes to the peace process, we are not at the table. You cannot have peace without involving women. So we need to keep asking: Where are the women?”
To my surprise, there’s no security check at the hotel. Nine of us walk right in, pick up programs and earphones for translation and take seats behind the horseshoe table where the delegates sit. Half of them wear head scarves and half do not. During tea breaks, we talk with the women and when we leave, Rabia says, “No one I spoke with wanted the American military to be gone.” Jodie, Medea and Ann say that’s not what they heard. They’d drawn up a petition urging President Obama not to send more soldiers and to work for a political solution that leads to withdrawing all troops. They asked women at the Trialogue to sign it, some refused but a dozen signed.
Rabia says, “I feel like we’ve been at two different conferences.”
The same thing happens when we visit Camp Eggers, an army base in the center of Kabul. I speak with a dozen soldiers from the Indiana national guard, who are perched on a tank, playing Texas Hold ‘Em and drinking cokes. “We’re here to help people and make a difference,” one says. “It’s not about money — we could make twice as much working for private security, but I’d rather wear the uniform.” When friends back home ask what they can send him, he asks for toys he can deliver to local kids, “who’ve never seen a toy before.”
I ask, “Were you scared to come here?”
He shrugs. “They train us up. You live day to day.”
We also meet female soldiers, including an African-American who says she hasn’t encountered any hostility from Afghan men. “They love me. They can’t do enough to help me. I guess they think I’m exotic.” For these women soldiers, it IS about money. They say they enlisted because, as one puts it, “I get free health care for my family, my kids get a free education, I can retire at 38 and get a pension the rest of my life.”
When I repeat this to Medea later, she says, “Sounds like socialism to me.”
Medea and Jodie say the soldiers they talked with want out of Afghanistan fast. “They told us, `We hate them and they hate us.’”
I say I didn’t hear anyone speak like that.
“Must be the way we ask questions,” Medea says.
And it could be the proverbial story of the blind people feeling an elephant. The person who feels the trunk thinks it’s one thing and the one who feels the ear thinks it’s another.
Two women in their 20s, Shakila and Razia, are telling us about participating in their first political protest in April against a law that restricts women’s rights and condones marital rape. Shakila, a nurse with lovely Eurasian features, says, “I never liked politics. I was always busy with work, but when I heard the terms of the law, I had to do something.”
They knew it would be dangerous. Razia says, “When I remember the situation, my body shakes.” The Mullah who’d proposed the law was appearing on TV every night, warning that Islam is in danger from non-believers who’re protesting the law.
About 300 women had gathered in front of the mosque, holding signs that said, “Women of Afghanistan do not want Shia law. We want equal rights.” Suddenly the gates opened and a thousand men rushed out, throwing stones, spitting on the women, pulling off their head scarves and calling them whores. “We thought we were going to be killed,” Shakila says. But police formed a wedge between them and the mob and escorted them to Parliament where they met with legislators who are currently revising the law.
We asked if they would demonstrate again, given the danger. Shakila says, “I think some times we are too afraid. But this protest gave me confidence. I saw we could really accomplish something.” Farida nods. “It changed my life.”
Their fervor reminds me of the early days of women’s liberation in the U.S. — of Redstockings in New York and Cell 16 in Boston, whose members were called man-haters and destroyers of marriage. The young Afghan women are hearing some of the same objections their American counterparts heard: women are too emotional, they can’t make decisions and their monthly mood swings make them unfit as leaders. Razia says her husband supports her political action but when he saw her on TV, told her, “I said you could protect your rights, but why do you have to stand in the first line?”
We laugh with her. It’s compelling to see, in the darkness and danger, a grass roots movement blossoming for women’s rights. The prospect of withdrawing and leaving these young women vulnerable to the Taliban is, to put it mildly, disheartening.
TO BE CONTINUED.