by Emily Weinstein
(IPS) NEW YORK --
the civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan's women played a vital role in public life -- one they are ready to take up again, according to a number of Afghani women activists now living in the West.
"These women are more than ever ready and raring to go," says Nasrine Gross, who migrated to the United States after receiving a university education in Kabul in the mid-1960s.
Gross is among countless educated Afghani women worldwide who once taught in her country's universities or worked in its government offices and who now seek a new role for women in the Afghan government and the full restoration of their rights.
They invoke the Afghanistan they left behind, where women made up half of all college students, 70 percent of schoolteachers, and 40 percent of all government workers.
Negar/Support of Women in Afghanistan, the Paris-based group for which Gross works, has developed a Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women in conference with 300 Afghani refugee women and women inside Afghanistan.
The Declaration lists 10 inalienable rights, each of which corresponds to a decree of the Taliban that denies women these rights. Negar hopes to make this document an integral part of the peace process and part of the next constitution of Afghanistan.
Also working to put women's rights on the table, through UN-supported peace plans, is the Afghan Women's Council and the U.S.-based Women for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (WAPHA).
The group has a peace plan that in essence mirrors the process being presided over by the exiled Afghani king, Mohammed Zahir Shah: a grand assembly would pick a provisional government to run the country until elections are held, ideally within two years.
Zieba Shorish-Shamley, who came to the United States in her twenties and now heads WAPHA, says she is hopeful that U.S. and UN officials will prove serious about making "proportional, not token" representation of women in government a priority.
"We don't just need women in the Cabinet, we need women's participation in all walks of life," says Maliha Zuflacar, an Afghan-American professor of sociology at California Polytechnic State University. "That was the mistake in the past. We had a few women in the central government in Kabul, some elite women, and for 90 percent of women, there was no sign of it. We have to encourage participation for women at local levels."
The key, Zuflacar adds, is to plan simultaneously for the education and involvement of the average Afghan woman and man, while also lobbying for women's inclusion in the high levels of government.
In her visits to Afghan villages, Zuflacar says she has met women who are natural leaders. They best understand the unique needs of their own communities and these people -- not returning exiles -- can and must be the leaders in the local government, she maintains.
Efforts by Afghanistan's factions, its neighbors, and the United States to come up with a suitable regime to succeed the Taliban so far have failed to impress the Revolutionary Association of Women for Afghanistan (RAWA), which works in the country and with refugees in Pakistan to raise political consciousness, educate girls (illegally, within Afghanistan's borders), and assist women victims of atrocities.
RAWA's work is primarily social and educational, and its message is revolutionary and unwavering. It stands equally opposed to the United Front (also known as the Northern Alliance) and the Taliban, and says that the United Front's claims to respect equal opportunity for men and women conceal their "religio-fascist nature."
"Ideologically speaking, there is no essential difference between the two fundamentalist factions," says a RAWA spokeswoman who identifies herself only as Mehmooda.
Other activists, especially those of the older generation, dismiss RAWA's assertion. Shorish-Shamley and Gross say they are willing to take the United Front at their word: that they support the involvement of women in Afghanistan's future government.
U.S.-based groups such as Women for Afghan Women and the Afghan Women's Mission, along with larger feminist organizations like NOW (the National Organisation of Women) and the Feminist Majority, also can play a vital role in pressuring the U.S. government to make a serious commitment to women's rights in Afghanistan, says Fahima Danishgar, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women.
November 12, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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