Published on Thursday, June 13, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Afghan Women Shock Men at Grand Council
Female Delegates Assail Power of Warlords
by Juliette Terzieff
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Some men snickered, some merely stared open-mouthed, but most male delegates were utterly amazed when a group of female delegates chastised several notorious warlords on Wednesday for attending the nation's historic loya jirga, or grand council.
"They asked them: 'Where are our brothers? Where are our husbands?' and told them they had no right to take any part in the loya jirga," said John West of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
It was a bold strike in a political process that has been plagued by accusations of intimidation and threats, and it came from an unexpected quarter -- Afghanistan's virtually powerless women.
"What the women are showing is that you can be threatened if you play the (power) game," said West.
Never was that more apparent than when former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and warlords Austad Khalili, a Hazara commander, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek general, entered the tent where the loya jirga is being held.
WOMEN WANT RESULTS
"Do we have to vote for people with blood on their hands?" demanded one woman, whose forceful style drew an audible gasp from the assembly.
But she and other female delegates are lobbying for more than just getting men to listen to them. They want concrete results and a government that will guarantee basic rights for women, who compose nearly half of Afghanistan's estimated 26 million population.
"We want ministries, like the Ministry of Defense, like the Ministry of Health," said Zai Karkar, 47, a delegate from Laghman province. "If a French woman can become defense minister, why can't an Afghan woman?"
Under the Taliban's orthodox Islamic regime, Afghan women were banned from working and mostly confined to the home. Women over the age of 13 were forced to wear the ubiquitous burqa to cover their entire bodies.
The last loya jirga convened in 1964 when then-king Mohammad Zahir Shah decided to reform the constitution, which gave women the right to vote, obtain an education and earn the same wages as men.
Now, female delegates -- some 160 of the 1,500 council seats, or almost 11 percent -- are eager to put their stamp on the first grand council in 38 years by promoting women's interests.
The female participants, who have never before been allowed to participate in a loya jirga in such numbers, have impressed many observers by putting aside tribal and ethnic differences to work together -- unlike most of the male delegates.
"We are seeing more and more women coming forward to speak and raise their voices," said Ahmed Wali Massoud, brother of assassinated Northern Alliance military leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. "It is undoubtedly a positive development."
Masooda Jalal, a 35-year-old female physician for the World Food Program, won both sympathy and admiration by demanding at the opening ceremony that her candidacy for head of state be officially recognized. She is currently the only competitor to interim leader Hamid Karzai to head the transition government that delegates will choose this week to lead the country until elections in 2004.
During the week-long loya jirga sessions, women are struggling for power with political cliques, ethnic groups and military commanders in a meeting set to promote national unity and reconciliation.
WARLORDS VS. EDUCATION
The women all agree that education should be a high priority. The wars, poverty and Taliban restrictions have resulted in a nationwide 31 percent literacy rate -- with a 47 percent rate for men and estimates as low as 3 percent for women.
But many delegates fear back-room deals will enable the warlords and military commanders to end up with a disproportionate share of power and ignore the women's demands for greater social spending.
The U.S. group Human Rights Watch recently warned: "Delegates have been handpicked by warlords determined to defend regional fiefdoms. The fate of the process -- and the country -- hinges on whether warlord representatives will outweigh delegates who seek a stable civilian government. An institution that promised the start of a democratic future could instead legitimize a return to the abusive past."
The proceedings here often seem to bear out the prediction of a patriarchal and undemocratic political dynamic. Whenever commanders of the Northern Alliance, the army of mostly minority ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks that defeated Taliban forces with the aid of U.S. air power, enter the room, their delegates abandon cross-tribal conversations to flock around them.
"That may be their entire purpose for being there: to keep the divisions they think benefit them and to demonstrate their power," said a United Nations observer.
Dostum is undoubtedly the country's most celebrated warlord and has often been described as a ruthless thug whose militia members have used rape as a weapon of intimidation in the area he controls. He is deputy defense minister in the present regime and commands more than 7,000 loyal troops in the northern provinces of Jowzjan and Faryab.
The council's core issue involves balancing power among Afghanistan's many ethnic groups. Deep rifts have emerged between supporters of the former king, seen by many as the father of the nation, and those of Western-educated Karzai,
who once resided in the United States and is considered an American puppet by his opponents.
While the power brokers may anger some delegates, jeopardizing the fragile rebuilding process, Afghanistan's women hope they can teach their male colleagues how it's done.
"We came here to push for peace and show the men how to cooperate," said Najibar Absal. "We all have to work together and play our parts for our country. It is the only way."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle