Education and Afghan Women
In November 2001, the end of Taliban rule, the day was a day of celebration.
Men danced in the streets and others ran to the barber shop to cut off their
beards. The world waited to see if the women would run back to school but
none dared to do such an act. Why? Did, the Afghan women, did they foresee
invitation to the party was lost in the mail and undelivered?
Many people around the world believe that Afghan women and girls rights have been restored. But unfortunately, the war on women continues. Women are still being abused, harassed and threatened all over Afghanistan. Reports from, Human Rights Watch (2002) concluded that conditions for women have improved and they are allowed to go to school and to work. But in many areas still suffer restrictions by government troops and local officials who still follow Taliban edicts on dress code and behavior.
In the 11-page report by the Human Rights Watch (2002) has gathered evidence found that the doors of schools were open to women but the doors were made of false promises. Some girl schools were set on fire. Pamphlets were secretly distributed warning fathers against sending their daughters to school. The courageous women who did return to school faced many restrictions and harassment. Women holding a job was limited and censored. The reports showed that any form of advancement was tampered by the government. Such a case, Ismail Khan, a local governor in west Afghanistan has elimated women's groups, intimidated women in government position, and outspoken women leaders. Restrictions on the right to work mean many women will never be able to use their education if one is received.
I have so many questions: How can change be constructed? At what point does it begin? How can a country following old 7th Century Islamic law be changed? How can you change a society when that society does not welcome change? The people are happy the Taliban has left power but they still continue to enforce the same exact rules. Where was there progress? How can the people of Afghanistan who hate such treatment accept it? Where is the revolution?
My only answer to my questions is the power of education, of the mind and the inner soul. I believe this is the foundation that is needed to bring Afghanistan as whole men and women to succeed. Because how can one consume something when that very thing you want to consume? you let consume you.
There is still a lot work to do to bring Afghanistan from the Dark Ages to Modern Ages but still remaining true to their culture. The two must coincide together in order to bring change. Change happens slowly but a start is needed.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a meeting for a women's organization here in New York. The organization is called, Women for Afghan Women (WAW) and was established in the year 2001.
I took a seat quickly because I arrived late. The speaker spoke on an upcoming event being held in Kabal, Afghanistan in March for International Women's Day. While she is in Afghanistan, Masuda Sultan will lay the ground work for WAW's third annual Conference. She also plans to talk to different provinces to hear voices and ideas and also assess what they want and how the conference could help them in their quest for a better future.
I took up a conversation with another woman. I am sorry that I did not get her name but her message was powerful. Maybe at the end of the conversation I forgot because I was so involved by her words and wanted to write them down.
Unknown: "I'm committed to empowering my Afghan sisters through education. If we're going to reach Muslim women, we must do it through education and through religion."
My Question: "I think education is the key for a better Afghanistan, as well. But how do you reach them?"
Unknown: "Afghan women have been through so much emotional and psychological stress that it's difficult to reach them. This is the challenge for us: how to reach the minds and hearts of my people. Men and women. How do we talk to them? When they refuse to come to us. I believe I have done a service if I can reach three girls and teach them their rights and then they teach the next generation."
I walked over to a table and wrote out a check and in the memo I put, "for education."
In an article written in Working Mothers April 2003 issue, "The Women of Kabul are going back to work." The author Carlotta Gall interviewed a woman name Nafisa Sahar talks about her three jobs to maintain her family. Her most daring work is her writing and acting in comedies on Afghanistan issues. She says, "Despite threats she has receives, I am determined to change things for women." When Nafisa started acting last year, she received anonymous letter warning her to stay home. She ignores any threats and is careful to take the safest route to work. She states, "People still have guns. I am still afraid."
In her plays, Nafisa encourages women to fight and go to school and work. She says, "I try to tell women to stand on their feet, that they are equal to men. I tell them, 'Don't sit under your burqa. Don't sit in your house. Get out and show your husband and children that you are women. You can work and make your own decisions.'"
The history of Afghanistan was not always in such disarray. In early 1920's, a king named Amanollah promoted a series of laws designed to bring about modernization. He sent talented young Afghan youths to study abroad to receive the top notch western education available. He was envisioning to shape and mold these youths into future Afghan leaders. He insisted that women be part of this process as well. He had traveled to Europe and saw first hand that educated and free women could contribute to society.
By the 1960's, another king named Zahir Shah said that all Afghan youths must be educated. In the 60's and 70's, Afghan women were sent all over the world for an education in leading Universities. In return they must return to Afghanistan to become professionals in areas in medicine, law and education. Women and men helped stimulate Afghanistan to step forward socially and economically.
In the 1980's the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, devastating as it was, furthered the power of Afghan women. The veils were completely gone, jobs for women were open and equality was present. But after the Soviet defeat in 1992, Afghanistan was left as a defenseless prey. It was weal and rebuilding of the country was needed. A great opportunity was left in the open for a predator to jump its prey. The carnivore predator, the Taliban seized power. The Taliban lead their country into the Dark Ages, the movement of modernization was abandoned and a cold war began among its people. The deprivation of education made it okay in the eyes of women, their families and Taliban followers because Islam teachings were distorted to make their actions be justified. The uneducated and frightened victims became an easy target to be manipulated as puppets to jump and be frightened at command.
Zohra Yusuf Daoud, was crowned Miss Afghanistan in 1972 beauty pageant. She currently lives a low key life in Malibu, California and still helping her Afghan sisters. She has established an organization in her town and hosts a talk show, "The Voice of Afghanistan." She believes and promotes, "By ensuring Afghan women an education, not only is it critical to their survival and to immediate rebuilding of Afghanistan but it provides future generations of women with powerful role models." She also states the importance of the ability to read the Qur'an. "If these women possessed the ability to read, they would have found the protection their religion provides them. Perhaps they might have questioned what was happening to them. When we stop learning, we stop inquiring." The Taliban deprived the women of an education, but what about now? There is no Taliban?Why do they hesitate to take action? She went on and explained at the WAW meeting the rate of literacy is still low. She encouraged a need to support and motivate organizations such as the RAWA in Afghanistan and here in America. The schools doors are finally reopen and the women should go. They will be harassed and even beaten but the power of many united voices of women is a strong resistance to fight.
The founder of the RAWA organization was a highly charismatic woman named Meena Keshmar Kamal. Meena was a strong committed feminist, poet and health worker who campaigned for women's rights in Afghanistan. To fight for freedom and prosperity for her people became her only goal during her university days. She was so into her cause that she left school and devoted her life to organize and motivate other women.
Her views and beliefs, "That women without their own organization will have nothing". Therefore in 1977 she established RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) as the first patriotic women's organization. This movement was meant to give a voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan. Still to this day this organization of hope runs strong.
The RAWA send me their monthly news letter April 2003, the organization is constructing a new site for a new RAWA school (only girls) in Farah province, Afghanistan. Through donations they will operate the school and employ teachers.
In the book, Zoya's Story by Zoya herself it brought to light stories why women still decided on their own to stay home from school or to respect the wishes of the family not to attend. There was one story of a girl who was attending an RAWA school, was no longer able to attend due to family responsibility. Her father wanted her to stay home and help out her mother. There are other stories of girls coming of age to marry and will stop attending school after they are married because the girl now holds the responsibility of a household. The family of the girl believes if a girl has too much schooling she will neglect her duty as a mother or as a wife.
But the choice to attend school is important. If only for a few years, a girl should have the basic tools such as reading, writing and thought. I think it is important if a woman chooses to stay home she should have a foundation to be able to teach her children their religion and how to communicate through writing and math skills. These skills are needed to survive in dealing with public people. An example is a street market and even reading a letter.
My ideal school to tie together both views of education: Education for basic skills and Education for a professional career. Also my school will be co-ed and a form of equality will be established among both sexes.
Upon entering school: The application will be done either by parent or girl or boy who came willingly. The application for the parents or student will allow the choice of the type of education the child/student will receive. If the Education for basic skills is checked off then the school year will consist of:
* Learning to read
* Learning to write
* Basic math skills (dealing with $)
* Learning the Qu'ran
* Learning about marriage and parenthood
If the Education for Professional Career is checked off then the school will consist of the above courses as well and the required amount of years needed to take for a degree of choice. I believe that change will not happen over night but change will arise from the hearts of the people. Such progress will require decades of careful education and consciousness awareness to take root. The idea of an educated society is not a new idea it was enforced by early kings, so the notion of an education is not foreign to them. In the new Afghanistan, education has to be accessible to all in the country. If this is not taken seriously, Afghanistan will always remain vulnerable to the anti-modern fundamentals who lead their country downward inside of upwards.
A system of education must provide not only ideas but also provide practical knowledge and skills. When people have these basic skills they can earn a decent living and self respect. In the case of women: Education and the importance of acquiring a profession or at least a basic skill they can use in order to be economically independent. When a woman depends solely on the brain her choices are limited. She must endure whatever he does, including physical abuse. A woman who is self sufficient even in basic skills has a wider range of choices.
Ultimately the need for education is needed for both sexes. The more men who are educated, the more likely they will support their wives and daughters to attend school. Education and exposure to ideas will enable the people of Afghanistan to choose an alternative to a better culture than a culture of violence and oppression for men and women.
Abdul-Ati, Hammuda Ph.D.: The Status of a Woman in Islam. Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan. March 2003.
Antonowicz, Anton.: Zarmina's Story. The Mirror. CO.UK Issue: June 20, 2002. From Kubal.
Ashraf, Saimah.: Shattering Illusions: Western Conceptions of Muslim Women. Islam for Today.< www.islamfortoday.com. > March 2003
Coursen-Neff, Zama.: Afghanistan's Women Still Need Our Help. The Washington Post, December 17, 2002.
Ensler, Eva.: Women Risking Their Lives for Education. Marie Claire Magazine, May 2001 issue.
Edwards, Lucy.: Why Burqas Still Stifle Afghan Women. The Telegraph. Jan.2, 2003.
Gall, Carlotta.: The Women of Kabul Are Going Back To Work. Working Mother Magazine, April 2003 issue. (Pages 48-53)
Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper.: Taking Cover: Women in Post Taliban Afghanistan. May 2002.
Seymour, Jennifer.: Women at Risk in Afghanistan. Editorial in Boston Globe, July 30, 2002.
Sifton, John and Coursen-Neff, Zama.: Falling Back to Taliban Ways with Women. International Herald Tribune, January 21, 2003.
Schmidt, Susan.: Female Foes of Taliban Seeking Support Abroad. Washington Post, October 8, 2001.
International Center of Photography: Under the Veil: RAWA. Pictures from Afghanistan. Nov.2002
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University, 1992.
Benard, Cheryl. Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance. New York: Broadway Books, April 2002.
Mehta, Sunita. Women for Afghan Women. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Zoya, Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle For Freedom. New York: HarperCollins Books, 2002.
RAWA. Payam-e-Zan, Internet. February 2003. <www.RAWA.com> Click on Meena.
Afghanistan Online. Muslim Women's Perspective on Women's Plight in Afghanistan, Internet. March 2003. <www.afghan-web.com> Click on: Women and Taliban
My Silent Prayer..
I first saw, "Zarmina's Story" being shown on display at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Nov. 2002. I had an oral presentation for my photography class, I had to pick three photographs I enjoyed and say why and vice verse for three photos I disliked. I wondered around, honestly bored because the photos were mostly of Americans doing ordinary everyday things. I felt like I was looking at my photo album!
But it would be downstairs where I would find my photos that would invoke a powerful movement within my soul.
An exhibition: Under the Veil, RAWA photos from Afghanistan. I stood in a small room with photographs blown up to life size portraits. Each photo I passed made my stomach turn inside out. There were pictures of women in full body veils lying on the ground dirty and begging. Other photos where of women being beaten with sticks just for exposing too much skin. I stood in front of the portrait of Meena, the founder of the RAWA. She held her hand high in a protest march and her blue veil slightly falling from her hair. As I stood there, I felt a chill beside me as if Meena herself stared at her own photograph with me. I felt a slight prick of jealousy?Would I have ever started an organization such as hers and lead women in a march to fight for a voice of freedom. Would I have been that strong to lead that struggle? And as I stood there for what seem like eternity staring into her eyes, I felt the answer come alive! I would have stood right beside her to the death.
I walked over to the picture that disturbed all that was in the room. The picture was of a woman called Zarmina, she was in her full body blue veil hunched over with a rifle pointing to her head. And to make the experience worse, there was a video that accompyed this picture. To heighten this gruesome experience you are lead to see how a Toyota pick up truck dropped the woman inside this Olympic Stadium in front of crowds of people. Some people even had popcorn in their hands as if they were at the movies!
You could see the woman trembled as she kneeled down and even tried to run to her family as they watched on the side lines. But the Taliban soldier made her kneel, then not taken a moment to breath, he shot her in the head and walked away. Her lifeless body fell to the ground. Her family rushed to her, to feel her body for the last time. The movie ended and the events started again. I stood there motionless, with tears running down my face. Why was she executed? What happened? I wanted to learn more?
In an article I found on the internet, by Anton Antonowicz featured in "The Mirror" he wrote that the scene was recorded by a hidden video camera by a brave woman that belonged to the RAWA. Later, it marked the opening scenes of Beneath the Veil, Channel 4's award- winning documentary of the life inside Afghanistan under the Taliban rule.
The article went on to say Zarmina's story was left untold. The truth was kept hidden and only bits and pieces of the story were being uncovered. What was the desperation that leads her to kill her husband one night? She was in jail for three years and constantly beaten for the truth?Why was she silent?
Neighbors told the reporter that in the beginning of their arranged marriage there was obvious love between husband and wife. But one day it began to fall apart. The bombings, mass rape and murder brutalized her husband's mind. Infecting it with poison and it killed him slowly. A neighbor said, "He had been a mild man but slowly he turned into a monster. Perhaps as a policeman he had seen too much."
When the Taliban took complete control in 1996 that elevated her husband brewing madness to new heights. When once his wife was his friend, she turned into an instant enemy. He began to beat her every night. The rage was now in his soul where once loved lived for his wife and family.
The conclusion to the night of the murder and the drive to commit murder is still left unanswered. Some neighbors say it was Zarmina, others say it was done by their sixteen year daughter, Najeba, who killed him instead. Or maybe both? What drove either of these women to commit murder? Was it physical abuse or sexual abuse? What was it that they could no longer bear?
Since the story left me with so many unexplainable questions, I wanted to find my own answer. The vision of her execution had to be explained to me because I needed a motive for her death. I needed some tangible evidence that this woman was executed and not just murdered. I sat down and meditated and actually envision myself as Zarmina. I wanted to feel her thoughts. I went back the night before her execution where she would sit and have a conversation to Allah. I wrote her prayer and confession:
Oh Allah, I am before you with my heart and soul in my hands. I am your child and have done wrong in your eyes. I am asking for your forgiveness... For I killed my husband I am without remorse or regret. I stood over his body and felt relief. A peace that was long forgotten, I welcomed that night. For that dear father, I ask for forgiveness-Not for killing him but the joy I felt from it! Oh forgive me! Oh Allah.Please forgive me..
Where did my hate come from? Oh how I curse the days and nights when I was by his side. Loathe the feeling of his touch or presence.
I remember the day the news came about my close cousin Fatima. My cousin burned herself alive in order to escape her awaited fate. She had learned that her father was going to sell her to the Taliban soldier as a wife-to-be to pay off some debts. Her last words she wrote, "I rather die, than be a slave." She knew as everyone else did she would end up becoming a sex slave for the whole army. She knew what awaited her but death was sweeter. Oh how I cried for you husband to let me go to the funeral! Curse you in your grave! You said to my face, "Your cousin was a whore; she knew it, that is why she did not want to get married. She was a whore." A whore? This remark that comes from the same fuck that smells of sweat from street women and then crawls into my bed. Forgive me Fatima.
I remember the day I was walking in the market with my friend Siara. The day was unbearable heat...My husband left us to talk to some men and we decided to find a water well for water. We went over to an alley and lifted our veils to splash water on our faces to cool off. Just before we could slip our burqa over our faces we heard footsteps. My husband runs out of the alley and calls the men to come. They surrounded us with wooden sticks in their hands. My husband pulled me towards him and I am left to watch. Siara began to scream to me and I try to run to her. I wanted and deserved the beating just as much as she did. But the monster held me back as I watched the men repeatly hit stone, laugh and kick her! Siara fell and they drag her to a cart. My husband whispered into my ear "Let that be a lesson to you." My sweet Siara the next time we meet, that once beautiful face was left distorted and unhappy. I was to blame for those deep scars that could not heal. I was the one who took your arm down the alley. From that day I did not see you again. Guilt could not let me. Forgive me Siara.
Oh Najeba, my daughter, my love...Forgive me. Your smile that lightens the house vanished one day and I ignored it. I refused to see what your eyes wanted to say. I let you suffer alone, unable to carry your suffering as well. I was weak?But that night came as if the spirits in the house did not let me sleep. I walked past the rooms and that is when I heard you cry! I opened the door to your room and I saw you smash your father's head with a hammer?He fell off your innocent body and you cried, "No more!" But he did not die he tried to get up. I quickly ran to the kitchen and gathered the poisons. I ran to the bedroom and opened his mouth and forced him to drink them. I could not think, I wanted the task to be over with! He spit and still lived. We ran around the room like two chickens with no heads. I then took a pillow and forced it over his face. Najeba held the other side of the pillow. Then he stopped, he no longer moved. I held Najeba in my arms all night. Forgive me daughter for waiting to long to save you.
Oh Allah... Let your will be done with me. I will accept the blame alone! They will come for me tomorrow...I am ready. For I do not fear death and now my soul can rest and be forgiven..Your child, Zarmina.