Afghan Women to Obama: We Must Be at the Table!

By Patricia DeGennaro

The author, a global affairs professor who has worked extensively in Afghanistan, talks to Dr. Masooda Jalal, a political leader and the subject of a new documentary. Her message: women must be involved in peace making; the Taliban and warlords are “only powerful because we allow them to be.”

United States President Barak Obama unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan last week. In it he pledged both military and civil support to Afghanistan. “And,” he went out of his way to say, “we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans—including women and girls.” Despite this, Afghan women continue to be absent from the discussion when it comes to their futures and the future of Afghanistan.

As I write this, Brussels is hosting the largest international conference to date on Afghanistan and Afghan women are conspicuously missing. It seems that international rhetoric for women does not translate into any vigorous action.

Ironically, while leaders sit and plan her future, Dr. Masooda Jalal, the only woman who ran for the Afghan presidency, tours the United States discussing a new documentary, FRONTRUNNER, a film that brilliantly illustrates the challenges she faced running for top office.

I was privileged to sit down with Dr. Jalal earlier this week. Like many Afghan women, Jalal is a warm, serious individual. She, however, has an intensity about her that brought her within steps of the Presidential Palace.

Although she did not become the nation’s leader, Jalal continues to work tireless to, in her words, “end racial, ethnic, gender and religious discrimination in Afghanistan.” No easy feat for anyone in the world let alone a woman in Kabul, although Jalal seems to conquer endless and insurmountable obstacles with ease.

She is a symbol of how the world does not put its money where its mouth is. Although a formidable candidate, the world chose to put all its muscle behind a man instead—thinking, as former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad states, “Afghanistan is just not ready for a women president.” Well, I would bet if the current Afghan President Hamid Karzai did not get all that international attention and money, she would have definitely proven him wrong.

Jalal comes from an extremely supportive family. One that encouraged her education and, later, her political campaign. After completing medical school, along with her practice, she became a medical professor at Kabul University. She has spent her life taking care of the people. “We are all human,” says Jalal, “and as a doctor I know it is important to take care of everyone [the same way].”

During Taliban rule women were prohibited from working. Jalal continued her medical practice anyway using her home to treat women, children, and “even men,” she says. She worked for the United Nations as well. When the Taliban found out about her activities she ended up in jail. Fortunately, due to UN pressure, Jalal was released after only two days of incarceration. She was lucky: many women jailed by the Taliban never made it out.

During our conversation, I asked her what she thought about U.S. policy and talking to the Taliban. She was defiant, saying she has no problem whatsoever with talking to the Taliban. “As long as women are included in the conversation,” she said, “we must be there sitting next to them, then we’ll see.”

She continued by saying, “the Taliban, the looters and warlords, the ‘illegals,’” as she calls them pointing out that they are also the drug lords that international forces are tying to eradicate, “are only powerful because we allowed them to be.” I couldn’t help but smiling at this. I often tell my students that people are only as powerful as we all allow.

Yet, the world governments continue to empower them instead of, well, her and others like her. We all stood by while some of the most notorious and brutal mujahidin or Afghan fighters took posts in the government—marginalizing Afghan scholars like Jalal who prefer to give the power to the people.

Now seven years later, the world is wondering why the Karzai government is corrupt. “They looted the country. It is no wonder they continue to loot the funds the government should be spending on water, electricity, law and civil society,” said Jalal.

Jalal went on to say that the government is failing because Karzai “built a coalition with the people who destroyed Afghanistan and they continue to do so.” If these “illegals” had been disarmed and their political participation banned, she said, “they would have disappeared.” Instead they are a powerful menace intimidating communities, promoting mistreatment of women and continuing to take what rightfully belongs to the people.

We agreed that the international community should not have supported a coalition that seemed to honor ethnicity over performance and men over, not some, but all women. Karzai has reneged on his promise to appoint women to the Supreme Court and most recently has been accused of pandering to extremists bylegalizing rape in marriage.

Prior to the Afghan civil war and, of course, the Taliban, women were very active in Afghan society. Women were doctors, lawyers, professors, and ministers and representatives in the government. The doctor is adamant about reestablishing women’s roles in society, most especially in the government. “Women are the clean citizens.” Meaning they did not destroy and steal from their country. “They are deserving of the political powers. If women and the intellectuals [men intellectuals as well] were in charge of the country, it would change politically, culturally and socially in five years.”

Jalal now runs her own foundation promoting programs on adult literacy, girls’ education and halting violence against women. She is constantly trying to train and encourage women to run for office. “It takes just $300 dollars a year for six days a week,” she tells me, “to teach one women to read, provide her with skills and get her to be an active part in civil society.”

Jalal speaks in many international circles about the corruption in the Afghan government and the perils of women. She was one of the few women at the Bonn conference in December of 2001 and attended the Loya Jirga or grand council—people chosen to discuss the constitution and the Afghan presidency in 2002 and 2003. Unfortunately taking up space does not always mean you are in the game.

According to Jalal, women were not consulted during the Loya Jirgas. More recently, they were not consulted about talking to the Taliban and they are not at the largest and most historical international conference helping this moment to plan a secure and prosperous future for their country, despite the U.S. rhetoric supporting women.

Jalal will tell you herself, “we were in the big tent during the Loya Jirga, but most of the deals where made in the small tents, behind the curtains, where women where not allowed to go.” When she and others spoke up about this and other shenanigans that took place during the presidential election, the United States dismissed them. I myself couldn’t help getting angry and then feeling ashamed.

I asked her if she would run again in the upcoming election to be held on August 20, 2009. “I would like to,” she said, “but if I fail, I don’t want women to have a failure as a role model.” I couldn’t help thinking of our failures in Afghanistan. The United States created the mujahidin, ignored the rise of the Taliban, skipped out of Afghanistan preferring to invade Iraq and failed to keep even one promise made to the Afghan people, specifically the women, apparently not caring about failure, or being a “failure” role model.

Jalal still wanted U.S. troops to stay, saying that the Taliban and others, no matter their military strength, fear these troops, and that fear gives the Afghan people security leverage. Her words humbled me. In spite of the chaotic and all too often pointless effort of the international community, which increasingly disrupts Afghan lives, she knows assistance is essential. She also knows that the current leadership will never guide them to where they need to go, toward self-sufficiency and sustainment.

Dr. Jalal knows her country needs healing and care—not more war. Nevertheless, to secure the space for progress in Afghanistan she is willing to compromise her own country’s interests for those of the United States, whose goals have changed yet again and are now “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

My question is will the United States compromise its interest just a little bit by insisting that women like Jalal work with them, lead, negotiate and sit at the tables in front of and behind the curtain so they are involved in every decision. “We need women’s channels,” says Jalal and the rest of us must help develop those channels so women can be part of the leadership working for their own rights.

This entry was written by Patricia DeGennaro, posted on April 2, 2009

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