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Kabul's brave new face



... but let us not raise a toast as yet.

SACHIN finding his form and the Indian cricket team's performance Down Under were not the only reason to celebrate the start of the New Year. In war-torn Afghanistan, 502 disparate delegates representing different tribes, language groups and political persuasions at the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) have actually agreed to a new Constitution for their country. Perhaps the spirit of optimism about the future of South Asia emanating from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad was carried by the wind to Kabul. Who knows?

But before we cheer for what appears to be a positive development, we need to look behind the news. As with most developments in Afghanistan as they are reported, there is much that remains hidden, unreported. Ideally, some of the hundreds of Indian journalists who travelled to Islamabad should have taken a little more time to go further west, to Afghanistan. The truncated reports from Afghanistan that appear in the Indian press are essentially written for publications in the West. You have to scour the Internet for sites where more insightful reporting is available about what is happening in that country.

Most readers in India, for instance, would have read that one of the points of disagreement among the delegates was the language of the National Anthem, whether it should be in Pashtu spoken by the Pashtuns (who made up the rank and file of the Taliban) or a combination of other languages. What went almost unreported and which actually caused quite a stir, was a dramatic intervention by a young Afghan woman delegate.

Malalai Joya, a 25-year-old woman social worker from Farah province, sprang to her feet during one of the sessions and reportedly objected to the presence of people she termed "criminals" who had "destroyed the country". She was referring to the strong contingent of Jihadi elements in the Loya Jirga who have tried to bring about many changes in the draft constitution to suit their conservative ideology. Many of them were the very same Islamic fundamentalists who had been involved in mass killings and rape between 1992-1996.

This young woman's intervention led to an uproar in the meeting with those targeted by her threatening her. The chairman of the Jirga tried to throw her out. He was stopped by delegates who pointed out that she was elected to the assembly. Later, when Malalai tried to speak to some reporters, the deputy chairman of the Loya Jirga, Qayamuddin Kashaf told her that she did not have permission to speak to reporters. But she continues to speak out and in an interview to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Malalai — whose name is taken from a famous 19th century Afghan woman who turned the tide in a famous battle against the British by taking up the sword — declared: "I said the facts; I defend it and I reckon that this is my proven right. Even if it costs my life I will defend my speech."

The death threats are real. Malalai had to leave the hostel where she was staying with other women delegates and moved to an undisclosed location. But her intervention illustrates, yet again, the tenuous position of women in Afghan society even after its apparent "liberation" from the Taliban.

In the same interview, Malalai said that she had made three points in her speech: "First, these warlords should have been tried, and if found innocent then they could come to the Jirga. Second, the composition of the Loya Jirga is not appropriate — all Jihadi and powerful people have come. And third, the environment is not democratic."

For saying something along these lines, this young woman is being called a communist and is under threat. She says that other women delegates at the Loya Jirga also support her stand but are afraid to speak out because "fear, power and (men who control) guns were dominant". Indeed, reports on the deliberations of the Loya Jirga suggest that many men, especially those representing minorities, were also afraid to speak out for similar reasons.

Malalai's brave intervention is all the more remarkable in a country where women have been severely suppressed. Malalai comes from a rural province and managed to study up to high school. But she could not go to university. Instead she chose to teach others and studied literature, political science and history on her own. When the Taliban came to power, Malalai worked in the refugee camps in Herat, in western Afghanistan, and in Peshawar, Pakistan, before returning to Farah province where she continues to teach, help with a health clinic and a day care centre for children.

By speaking out, Malalai has given courage to others who are also now willing to voice their criticism. A young man from a village near Kabul told reporters, after hearing about her speech on the radio, "If I get her picture, I will keep it with me, because she has pulled back the curtain to expose the facts."

The facts about the situation in Afghanistan do not give us any cause to raise a toast yet. A filmmaker, Meena Nanji, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (January 5, 2004) narrates her experiences in Afghanistan last year when she was shooting a documentary on Afghan women. She says that not only are women resorting to the burqa again as a protective measure against attacks from men, but also they cannot go out on their own without their husbands. Even the courts are not protecting their rights. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, has apparently called for Taliban-style punishments and the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs is reportedly not very different from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under the Taliban that targeted women in particular for "un-Islamic" behaviour.

The laws passed by the Supreme Court under Shinwari have banned co-education classes, restrict a woman's ability to travel without a male relative or husband, and forbid women to sing in public. Furthermore, married women are not permitted to attend high school. In a country where girls continue to be married off while they are still minors, this will put back efforts to raise levels of female literacy.

All this has happened outside the purview of the discussions surrounding the new Constitution. So for Afghan women, a new year and a new day are still some distance away.

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