When Hamid Karzai became Afghanistan's first democratically elected president in 2004, the new government established a constitution that proclaimed equality for men and women, promising to enforce international standards of human rights. But throughout his 5-year term, many have viewed the government as corrupt and ineffective, and the women of Afghanistan continue to be oppressed. The situation only seems to be growing worse now that President Karzai is up for re-election in August.
Recently, in a bid to gain support from the conservative Hazaras, the biggest bloc of swing voters in the country, President Karzai oversaw the passage of a law that effectively legalizes rape. Directed at the minority Shia community, the new law denies Afghan women the most basic human right: the right to be in control of their own bodies. Stating that "The wife is bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires," the legislation is eerily similar to the edicts mandated by the Taliban in a campaign against women that has been referred to as "gender apartheid."
The passage of this law illustrates the deep-rooted inequality between men and women in Afghanistan. But the fact that women are still enduring apartheid under the Karzai administration shows how necessary a grassroots culture of change is for improving women's lives in Afghanistan.
Laws that guarantee equality are irrelevant unless the people who are going to create change are empowered. This opportunity was missed in 2004 when Dr. Massouda Jalal lost her campaign to become the country's first democratically elected president. As the August 2009 elections approach, Dr. Jalal's message remains just as significant for Afghanistan now as it was after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
As representatives from nearly ninety countries prepared to gather earlier this month in The Hague to discuss strategies on how to stabilize Afghanistan, The Paley Center for Media in New York City held its own discussion. The conclusion? Empower women.
This was a predictable response considering the event was a screening and panel discussion of filmmaker Virginia William's documentary film, Frontrunner, which follows Dr. Jalal's historic presidential campaign. But the resulting message seems to fall on deaf ears. According to panelist and founder of the Nooristan Foundation, Dr. M. Nadir Atash, "there is a huge resource gap in working towards gender equality...linked to a lack of political commitment in the international community."
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the United States' plan to commit $40 million to the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan, Dr. Jalal expresses little hope that democratic elections will change the plight of women in her country. Instead of this top-down approach to political change in Afghanistan, Dr. Jalal asserts that money would be better spent in "support [of] local institutions...and community based groups."
This grassroots approach would shift the focus from fighting the Taliban to empowering a society that is still struggling with corruption, the drug trade, terrorism, and instability. According to Dr. Jalal and the other panelists, if the international community wants to stabilize Afghanistan, it will need the support of women because "women are in favor of bringing peace, ending drug production, corruption and discrimination."
All of the American women I spoke with at the screening support Dr. Jalal's opinion. When I ask friends Avonne Seideman and Monica Holmes why women should be in positions of power in society, Avonne replies, "Because we're fifty percent of the population. Women develop new businesses, new schools. When you empower women, you change the world." Monica agrees. "Giving women the power to start their own small businesses has been proven as one of the most effective ways to end poverty." A female professor at Columbia University who wishes to remain anonymous says that female empowerment is vital because women have a "different way of negotiating. I hate to boil it down to a male versus female thing, but women are good at bridging the gap."
I understand this woman's desire for anonymity - it is a sticky business attributing specific qualities to a person's gender. And yet, I have to agree that women are uniquely "good at bridging the gap." Women have learned how to listen, and listening, even to perspectives one disagrees with, is the first step in moving beyond conflict and toward compromise.
In Frontrunner, it's clear that Dr. Jalal is less inhibited in making her gender one of her qualifications to become president. As she travels throughout Afghanistan's cities and rural regions, she begins her speeches by saying, "Vote for the Mother!" During one speech, she tells men and women that "voting for your sister is voting for development, peace, and a plentiful life."
Dr. Jalal says that Karzai's presidency is a failure because he is playing "politics as usual." She served under his administration as the Minister of Women's Affairs, but quit when she realized that he asked her to become minister not because he was concerned about women in Afghanistan, but rather because he wanted her to fail in public. As Dr. Jalal puts it, "He wanted to say to Afghanistan, ‘See? She cannot run the Cabinet of Women's Affairs, [so] how can she be president?'"
It is precisely this kind of hunger for power that Dr. Jalal's campaign sought to defeat. She, perhaps more than anyone else in the Paley Center's theater that evening, had experienced what power can do to the powerless. Living as a woman in Afghanistan under the oppressive Taliban regime, Dr. Jalal was one of the many women who, as one Afghan woman in the film puts it, "were being stepped on - we were never counted as human beings."
Waiting quietly at the conclusion of the event, Dr. Massouda Jalal stands out in the crowd only because she is the sole person wearing a headscarf - pale blue, the color of Afghanistan's burqas. Shifting her weight beneath her black, floor-length skirt, Dr. Jalal looks on as the American crowd buzzes with the idea of female empowerment.
Humility is not a characteristic I commonly associate with presidential candidates. But Dr. Jalal is not the average politician. As she discusses her decision to run for president in Frontrunner, she describes herself not as a leader of her people, but as a servant to them.
In the end, I don't know if Dr. Jalal is humble because she is a woman any more than I know whether she is brave because she is a woman. What I do know is that the world needs more women and men who are both humble and brave, who are dedicated to communication and peace.
It occurs to me then that Dr. Jalal did not come to New York City seeking some kind of applause for her heroic run for president. She does not need our smiles or our awe at meeting an empowered Afghan woman. What she does need is support - in the form of funding and political will - to, as she put it, "help the women on the ground."