Part 5 – Women’s Lib, Afghan Style

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.”

Rabia and Sara with Indiana national guard

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.

“Must be.”

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.

Women Blossoming

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.

Men rush at the women protesting

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.




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21 thoughts on “Part 5 – Women’s Lib, Afghan Style

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Sara,

    The analogy you mention to the old joke about blind men touching different parts of the elephant may be one of the best observations about AfganistanPakistanIndia problem. Nobody — including American intelligence — seems to have a coherent grasp of the whole picture. My own thought is that peace does not come out of the barrel of a gun.
    Happy Holidays,
    Digby Diehl

  2. Toni

    Sara, WHY, as informed as you seem to be, are you still using the term “Women's Lib” instead of feminism? As you MUST know, “Women's Lib” has been co-opted by anti-feminists and has come to have a derisive taint to it. Feminists haven't used the term in a very long time.

    Otherwise, though, I am grateful to you all for risking your personal safety to bring us these reports. And I respect your professionalism for including the experiences of some other women that do not agree with your own.


  3. Anonymous

    Sarah- the blogs are so important. Here is my question:How can women in North America support the women's movement in Afghanistan?

  4. Bruce Nygren

    Thanks for your refreshing look from the inside of a very complex and perplexing situation. Like you, I have a hard time swallowing the concept that killing people can really change anything. But then I ask myself what would have happened if we had not fought Hitler's Germany?
    The real danger is that we will collapse inwardly in the face of so many impossible and no-win options: that the absurdity of the human situation will completely paralyze us.
    I know I am beginning to feel like that…

  5. Peter Lake, LAKE Real Estate

    “My own thought is that peace does not come out of the barrel of a gun.”

    That's exactly where it comes from, and the experiences of the American Revolution, our civil war, World War 2, freedom for Jews in Israel, and innumemerable other examples ought to be instructive enough.
    People without recourse to weapons have been oppressed for centuries by those who are better armed and only through the force of arms by the oppressed have they finally been liberated.
    Without the ability to forcibly resist the Taliban unarmed Afghaniis will be forced to remain in the dark ages forever.
    We're a country that forced the English Crown to set us free after our petitions and pleas fell on deaf ears.
    All of Europe's at peace now after centuries of nearly continuous war but that didn't happen without the threats and applications of force and the expenditure of considerable blood and treasure.
    What's different about the Middle East?

  6. injaynesworld

    I just got Greg Mortensen's new book “Stones to Schools.” We need more reporting like his and yours. This is a very worthwhile use of your skills and talent as a writer.

  7. Beauregard

    I read this week that since the early 90s the US Military has known that the video stream from Predator drones could be intercepted since it is not encrypted.
    They assumed no insurgents would be smart enough to capture the video.
    Turns out they had been doing it for some time with software anyone can buy off the shelf.
    What worries me is that the political right seems to love military solutions and they love to support our military (so do I) and paint as a traitor anyone who wants to argue with the generals.
    Mind you, these are the same generals who preferred horses over tanks, opposed automatic rifles for most soldiers until well in the 60s, who thought airplanes could never sink a ship and who assumed “terrorists” could never use a laptop to see what a Predator was seeing.
    First mistake is our Congress is too cowed by the militarists and the arms industry to force a political solution and
    Second, blindly allowing generals to keep fighting either the last war or the war that fits the weapons we have rather than solving the problems we face, which might be better done by civilians or just not done at all by the United States.
    To put the blame where it belongs, we keep electing these people, don't we?
    I do appreciate your courage and reportage and wish your blog would get wider distribution. I forward it to all points.

  8. Anya

    The hostility these women face reminds me of the suffragettes, only their lack of rights extends way beyond simply not having a vote. It's just a beginning, but at least it's starting to happen. What an uphill battle awaits them! Obviously Taliban wouldn't want them receiving any exposure to Western culture and realizing how entrapped they are compared to the rest of the world.

  9. Anonymous

    This situation has nothing to do with the political right or left. We continue to elect these idiots in congress, what do we expect, doing the same thing and expecting different results. Its sad we can all hear the same thing and walk away with a totally a different meaning. As far as the blog about not using weapons, do you really think we can just have a meeting and talk about this leader to leader. The militaries presence is necessary to keep the peace, with weapons, whether we as Americans like it or not. Medea doesn't have a grasp of the situation. Sara as I've said before, you are a woman to be admired, for your tanacious personality and willingness to find the truth. ddp az

  10. BEVKAI

    As a former Vietnam military wife, and mother of two women who made careers of the Air Force, I must reply to Madea, who said that the military benefits “sound like socialism to me.”

    I am restraining myself as I write a reply, because steam is coming out of my ears. Must the label “socialism” cut off all debate?? Are Scandinavians somehow suspect because they are Socialist countries who make it work???

    Military benefits are PAYMENT in lieu of taxable cash.

    And don't tell me that these kids who enlist don't earn everything they get.

    Next time you folks see a photo of a returned soldier with feet blown off, are you so glad your taxes contribute to caring for him for his sacrifice?

    I have lived in police states, Singapore, for one, where people are afraid of their government. They are afraid to criticize in public because the restaurant table may be “bugged”.

    Ever since my return to this country I have not, repeat NOT felt that my taxes are “punishment” for the money I earn.

    Instead, I am happy to pay for the privilege of being a free American. I am honored to pay for the highway I take to the beach, for the police who are in harm's way every day. I am happy to pay for the salary and benefits of those kids who enlist to keep me free, and freedom means that I can speak my mind in public without fear. That is what the costs of war bring to me.

    I was in Malaysia during the Gulf War, a Muslim country, far from Arab. Women are free citizens. I was well-treated. .

    I couldn't take on the whole bar, restaurant, community; people expressed regard for me as a mother who had family at risk.
    One thing I remember that went through my head, something that makes me so glad to be an American. Even in that community which was “for Saddam, because he stood up to America” (not Malaysian Gov't policy BTW);

    I couldn't say “Ef– President Bush” out loud without fear of arrest for “disrespecting authority

    These nations are one-party states with rubber stamp Parliaments. Socialism. Real real real Socialism.

    I am so happy for the privilege to be an American citizen that I would pay double my taxes and somehow get along..

    I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, Honolulu. We talk about “the price of Paradise,” pay for it happily.

    It isn't hard to understand this.

    So why the big deal about the cost of keeping us free???

    How could ANYONE begrudge a combat soldier the benefits that go with her service? How could ANYONE dismiss these benefits with the misuse of one word.

    I saw Jane Fonda in her blooming youth, parroting Red phrases at the Army base of Fort Lewis. . she was there supporting the troops and organized the young wives to demonstrate for childcare.The wives HAD to work.Army pay was too low.

    Jane Fonda was an idiot pawn, and she had no excuse for her politics… but she DID support the kids who were drafted, against their will, to go far away and fight for what we believed in.

    If I believe my country is wrong, I am SO grateful for the freedom to say it out loud. But I am not going to insult the kids who keep me free so I can bitch and piss and moan and complain. We don't pay them enough.

    love and Aloha,


  11. Sara Davidson

    Bev, I appreciate and agree with everything you said about our troops deserving the benefits they receive. In fact, I don't think there's any way to adequately compensate them for the risk they take and sacrifices their families make. But Medea's comment, “sounds like socialism to me,” was said with irony. Many people in the U.S. are against health care reform because they say it's “socialism.” And yet the women in the military are grateful that they get free health care for their family. They don't think of it as socialism, which is the point Medea was making.

    Thanks to all of you for your provocative comments. It's a joy to read them.

  12. Anonymous

    Thanks so much for what you are doing to educate us as to the real conditions in Afghanistan, especially the almost unbelievable extent to which the Shia law is dangerous to the very existence of women.
    Hard to make up for centuries of enforced religious ignorance and intolerance.

  13. Anonymous

    US should leave.

    If US feminists want to help, they should import handguns & ammo to the Afghan women. Have a contingent of US feminists who can teach how to unjam a jammed weapon.
    Given the burka, women can easily haul around guns & ammo, and arm other women. Your $$$ you spent to get there should go into this expenditure.

    Mao said political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.

  14. BEVKAI

    I must be losing my sense of humor in my old age. Madea's irony went right over my head. I apologize for rebuking her in public.

    My choice of Jane Fonda as an example was not the best, either. After organizing the wives of draftees, she went on to Hanoi, for which she apologized some 30 years later.

    The young people in Muslim countries are curious about America. In Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Egypt, the young men who staffed the tourist huts would talk to me after dinner in a way that they couldn't talk to anyone in their villages.

    As a grandmother (read: not desirable) I was approachable for frank speech. They assumed I had wisdom with my years. I made sure that once out of my beach attire, my shoulders and upper arms were covered, and my shorts were long and baggy. This was to show respect for their feelings; a lot of skin makes village men uncomfortable. They are not used to it unless they work resorts.

    Even in nations where women don't cover their hair, they are objects of curiosity. I told the village boys that yes, I wore bikinis at American beaches, that I was free to travel the world alone without an escort, and that my life was my own.

    I didn't tell them of clothing- optional beaches. That would have been beyond shocking and ended my credibility. It would have been taken for granted that I had been a slut.

    Women are dept so far away in social dealings that couples don't even hold hands on the street. A man doesn't even dream of putting his arm around his own wife in public. That is for the bedroom.

    I stressed that I wore sleeves and long shorts out of respect for their culture, and they seemed to appreciate it.

    For all their stance against the US in the Gulf War…. if given an opportunity to live in the US, these young people would fall in line, eager to live the free American dream.

    One thing I did appreciate: in Cairo, there are special subway and train cars set aside for women. Not to keep them veiled- – but because in a commuter crowd, they would have been subject to physical touching, and perhaps abusive touching. I could always find a seat in the women's car

    I dared not get on a bus. They were always crowded, overflowing with men only. Anonymous proximity can overcome the inhibitions of a saint. Thus I walked or used taxis for my own well-being.

    One thing I sorely miss – — the call to prayer at sunset. A hush falls, people stop activity, the sunset is lovely, even through the smog, and the call to worship pierces the heart with its beauty.

    Love and Aloha,

  15. Anonymous

    Of everything you wrote, I read Medea's comment to my husband. It was clear to me. Hey, it sounds like a system I'd like to live under!

    On a separate note, I'm very concerned about the various women hearing different messages (the “two conferences”). Is there even a “one” truth among women? I'd think if everyone were being honest and there were two points of view, you would all hear them both. I guess I feel right now that I can't trust Medea to be open minded. That's too bad.

    I'm finding this black and white way of looking at the world, feminism, Israel, Afghan war, health care, taxes, “too big to fail,” etc. to be very troubling and irrational.

  16. Mary Kate

    Thank you for your most informative and educational letters. I have passed these onto friends throughout the country with the thought… if you do not wish to receive these, let me know… instead I am receiving comments that the letters are vital and information is welcome. Just as you revealed in LEAP a side to those over 60, you are giving us another view of the country where the US has decided to send more troops. Wish they would also include 30,000 teachers…with guns.
    Where can we send the toys that the soldier asked for?
    Thank you for what you and the other brave women are doing. You are protected….
    Mary Kate Denny

  17. Beauregard

    OK, OK, I'm a Vietnam vet and Jane Fonda was a dupe and a dope.
    But for my money, Robert Mcnamara and Lyndon Johnson, both sincere public servants who otherwise did a lot of good, were guilty of much greater crimes because of hubris and ego.
    They better represent the problem of leadership we face today which I fear President Obama is falling prey to and that is the fear of doing what is right when you have all the information and simply have not the stomach or ability to win political support in the face of a willfully uninformed public, a commercially driven and overwhelming info-tainment media and a profit driven military industrial complex/PR machine.
    Bless our soldiers, sailors, airfolk, marines and coasties but the worst policy mistake we made was to resort to an all volunteer force.
    This creates an irresistable psychological willingness, even imperative, to fight and to find reasons to fight and continue fighting.
    It creates a vast special interest group of political support for fighting and for “making sure our losses are not in vain” and continuing to shed blood and treasure in dubious cause (see Vietnam).
    Mothers now weep for sons and daughters maimed and killed but have the sad justification that they were doing what they loved or were serving their country.
    I'm sorry for the losses and I'm more sorry to say they are in vain (see Vietnam).
    The actual topic is women and I can't help but believe empowering women in the third world and, perhaps more importantly, here at home will help.
    A couple of aircraft carrier's worth of money could educate Moslem women and change the world much faster than the ordnace the ship would deliver.
    I recently attended a speech by Madeleine Kunin, author of Pearls, Politics and Power – How Women Can Win, and I commend her book to you.
    It seemed to me she was puzzled why so few women are in power here in the US compared to the rest of the world.
    As am I.

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you for your refreshing perspective and reporting. My daughter is deployed in Iraq right now, so I appreciate the support you give to our troops. If anyone could see some of the conditions that our troops endure, I don't think anyone would begrudge their benefits. I am speaking as a military mom who has seen life in the barracks.

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