Democracy sometimes turns up in unexpected places, and we had the honor of seeing it in the raw in Afghanistan in early December. For three intense days, more than 2,000 women from Kabul and from at least 10 of the 32 provinces of Afghanistan met in the Park Cinema in Kabul to debate the recently released draft of a constitution and to propose changes that would better guarantee the rights of women as citizens of an Islamic republic.
The resulting resolution was officially presented to the Constitution Commission and then to the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, that is currently discussing the constitution. The stakes for women are high.
Participating over the three days were representatives from the government, such as the deputy of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, the head of the Association of Professors at the University of Kabul, women members of the Constitution Commission, and, most notably, Massouda Jalal. Dr. Jalal is a woman running for president, a remarkable first that would have been impossible in Afghanistan only a few years ago.
Striking in the meeting was the presence of men and the almost total absence of the burka - the head-to-toe covering that for many is the hated symbol of the oppression of women.
Equally surprising - and disturbing for this historic moment - was the almost total absence of world media. International support for the women's action was provided by about 25 French and American visitors, including ourselves.
Because of the courage and intelligence of these women and their willingness to involve themselves, the effect of this conference on Afghan politics could be far-reaching. They were participating in a political process in a country riddled by lawlessness.
Their participation could bring radical changes to the country in three significant ways.
First, these women are showing by their actions that they consider themselves to be citizens with rights equal to those of men. They believe that their identity as women empowers them in many ways. Ms. Jalal, the presidential candidate, observes that women's basic and democratic message can transcend ethnic differences, cross ethnic boundaries, and thus appeal to a broad spectrum of the population.
Second, the force of the women's movement is sharply reflected in surprisingly supportive recent speeches and actions by Islamic clerics who previously ranked among the most hard-line opponents of liberating women. Can they be trusted? As one woman leader told us, maybe yes, maybe no, but isn't this new discourse already a victory?
Third, if these women succeed in emphasizing specific rights in an Islamic constitution, this could be a victory for moderate - and modern - Islam, an Islam guaranteeing women an equality which many Muslims believe to be the true interpretation of the Koran.
Perhaps in this place where the most narrow and repressive interpretations of Islam have prevailed for many years, this movement of women will provide the impetus for the reform that some Islamic scholars have been calling for, and help to ease the broader Muslim world into the 21st century.
This gathering was the culmination of threemonths of meetings and training sessions for women and men throughout Afghanistan under the title of "Peace Process, Constitution and the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women." The drive was organized by NEGAR (Support for the Women of Afghanistan), a Paris-based organization founded in 1996 by Shoukria Haidar, a tireless activist for Afghan women's rights.
The conference was also the culmination of years of effort across Afghanistan and around the world to describe the atrocious situation of women in Afghanistan, especially after the Taliban came to power in 1996.
A grass roots movement has begun. The challenge for the organizers of this conference and for the movement of Afghan women in general will be to maintain the momentum. They can do this by pressing for voter registration throughout the country for the June 2004 presidential election and then by ensuring that women are candidates in congressional elections 12 months later. More important, the women who were fortunate enough to attend this conference now feel empowered to spread the news to other Afghan women all over the country. This solidarity might just bring them out of their darkest nightmare.
Today the voices of these women must be heard because they represent the true hope for Afghanistan to become a legitimate, independent, self-ruling and honorable nation that respects the equality and rights of its citizens through a democratic constitution. Their example must be held up to others who live in the fear that they have no voice.
The writers are womens' rights activists based in France.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune