Women of the World, Unite! (see photo essay)
Wednesday, 5 March 2003
As soon as I arrived in Kabul I had the feeling that I had already been here, or somewhere very similar. The general appearance of the city and the people’s looks and clothing were very much like some Indian cities I had seen. Some scenes even reminded me of a working class area of Cairo where I met one of my literary heroes, the Egyptian poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm, last year this time). Bu there was also something missing: the sense of permanence, or perhaps continuity, that one finds even amidst the chaos of Delhi or Cairo.
A few days later, when we were driving through a central street, it suddenly dawned on me that Kabul was very much like the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Even the destruction was reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war. Uncertainty was the strongest feeling that one could sense in people’s movements. So much destruction over such a long period of time has truly weakened people’s trust in future and forms a strong barrier to any effort to tidy up, repair, rebuild or build.
The same feeling came back to me this morning at a very energetic Women’s Day celebration organised by the Afghan Journalists’ Union – not because of the celebration itself, which was very enjoyable and of which I’ll tell you later – but because of the view of the city’s central square from the window of the hall, on the fourth floor of a shopping centre where the event was held. All around the building, there were crowds of people, vegetable carts and other stalls, with fleets of yellow and white taxis, all covered in a haze created by the dust that has once again begun to rise, after a couple of weeks of snow and rain.
For a moment I felt I was in Beirut, looking down the winding alleys of Burj al-Barajeneh refguee camp. The feeling was reinforced when I looked around the hall, with banners proclaiming women’s rights and their central role in Afghanistan’s recovery, and the determined look on the faces of many participants, men and women.
The contrast between the scenes inside and outside the hall was the same as it would have been at a Palestinian celebration those many years ago. The main difference was that then it was the force of arms which was seen as the tool with which the Palestinians would regain their homeland. But today in Afghanistan there’s a lot of home that women will help build peace in a land which has suffered so much because of guns.
The journalists’ meeting was attended by about 250 people, many of them, of course, journalists. In fact there were so many journalists that some of them were interviewing each other. Well, this is somewhat exaggerated, because several journalists interviewed one senior colleague of theirs, Jamila Mujahid, who is Afghanistan’s Kate Adie or Christiane Amanpour, with the main difference that her fame is due to her coverage of momentous events in her own country. She appeared on Afghanistan TV at the time of the fall of the Taliban and announced the news. Now, supported by the Aina Media and Cultural Center, she’s publishing a political women’s monthly, Malalai, named after an Afghan heroine who was involved in a battle with the British in1880.
The star of the day was Mirman (Lady) Parwin, the first Afghan woman to sing on radio, 61 years ago, when she was about 15, wearing a veil. Now she is old and wrinkly, but very sweet. She said singing was God’s gift, women should be allowed to sing on radio and television, and families should encourage their daughters to sing. She also said women had to use all their determination to help Afghanistan. She was given the title of Ostad [Master] and received a decoration and a bouquet. She also read a touching line of poetry:
Yaad-e ayyaam-e javaani jegaram khoon mikard
Khoob shod pir shodam kam kam-o az yaadam raft
The memory of youthful days used to tear my heart apart
Luckily, I’ve grown old little by little and I’ve forgotten all that.
Another attraction of the day was a younger signer, Najibah Simin, whose performance was described as the first time a woman had sung in public in Afghanistan since the fall of Dr Najib’s government in 1992. She was accompanied by a young man doing a delightful little dance. [Later, it was revealed that the ‘young man’ had in fact been a woman, wearing a suit so she could dance in public.]
From there, I went back to the office, through the usual dusty and crowded streets and dilapidated buildings. If only President Bush would send his quarter of million soldiers and their equipment to rebuild all of Afghanistan, rather than destroy some more of Iraq. With such a huge number of men and resources, backed by the eager Afghan people, this renewal could take place in a matter of months and serve as a new beginning for the rest of the life of our species on the planet.
Back at the office I had to translate some articles for the special edition of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ newspaper. I then had to make sure that the two groups of reporters we had sent out to cover half a dozen women’s events across Kabul had their lunch, wrote down their reports and went home. Finally, I had to take the translated articles to the printers’ where the newspaper was being prepared, and translate another piece right there and then.
The printer’s shop was in a building with a sign which said Afghanistan Industrial Development Bank, with few intact windows and doors, let alone any sign of banking activity. Once again, the thought took over my mind that all the resources piled up for war in the Persian Gulf could be used to do a wonderful job, developing industry, and even banking, in Afghanistan.
At the print works I met a sparkly 12 year old boy, Nazif-jan Mohammad-Sharif, who’d lived in Tehran for a while and had a bit of a Tehrani accent. He was very smart and not only got me a document holder for the paper I was translating, but also gave me tips on how the get the computer running, after we had turned it off and then on again, to protect it when the city electricity was cut and the local generator came on.
I was driven back to the office by the same driver who’d taken me there, Abdol-Wasse’ Faqir, from the Shamali plains, the area about which I wrote last week. Abdol-Wasse’, who has four sons and three daughters told me that he and his family lived in Pakistan for six years after the Taliban had taken over and started harassing the people of Shamali, because they supported Commander Massoud, the man who was assassinated a couple of days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Abdol-Wasse’ and his family have now returned to Kabul, but he has a brother in Mashhad, living in an orchard he’s managing for an Iranian, who probably lives in Europe.
Thursday, 6 March 2003
Another early day at work, but before that, much earlier, as I climbed down the stairs at home, I heard the sound of chopping from the kitchen. Agha Sarwar was preparing his usual morning fruit salad – tangerines, bananas and apples – which I sometimes have with yoghourt, also made by Agha Sarwar. He also gives us hommos, butter, jam, honey, marmalade and cheddar cheese, the last was added to his menu when I came over from Britain with blocks of Sainsbury’s cheddar. Those finished a week or so ago, but Agha Sarwar has bought German cheddar, marketed by a Danish firm, purchased in Dubai. I hope one day I’ll find out where he does his shopping.
After some writing and translating and printing at the office, I went to the Women’s Day celebration organized by the All Afghan Women’s Union, an organization with the newspaper, Faryad-e Zan (Woman’s Shout). The event was held at the meeting hall of the Ministry of Health with more than 700 people present. There were speeches by prominent women, and songs by groups of orphaned boys and girls, wearing the most beautiful traditional Afghan outfits.
A group of eight young sportswomen also appeared on the stage, in trousers and tunics, four in headscarves and four wearing sports caps. Their coach spoke of the loss of opportunity during the Taliban years and how much progress they had made in the past year or so. Outside the conference hall, there was an exhibition of handicrafts – clothes and ornaments – one of several that are running in Kabul these days.
There were banners on the walls of the conference hall praising Women’s Day. One was very much like the socialist banners with the word ‘women’ having replaced ‘workers’. The slogan on the banner said ‘Women of the world unite to win your rights’. This is another interesting reading of the women’s movement here, and perhaps in other parts of the world: that it seems to have taken over at least partly from the labour movement, emphasising equality in gender relations, rather than the economic status between classes, as the incentive for social change.
The Afghan women’s movement has been growing in front of our eyes over the past few days, from small meetings to today’s 700 plus. The 8 March celebration on Saturday is bound to be even bigger and more dynamic, because the grounds around the conference hall – the tent in which Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, met last year – will provide more space for activities other than the main programme of speeches, songs by children, and a drama.
The afternoon was taken up with more writing, discussing the day’s work with our team of reporters who keep coming back with more notes and much better pictures. The much younger of our two photographers taught me a lesson in resourcefulness and humility – not for the first time. When he came over to us two days ago and had his photos checked by a very friendly American-Nicaraguan photographer, some of them were found to be out of focus and others without much action in them. Yesterday and today, he not only took pictures full of movement and colour, but also sharply focused. He told me that after getting back home, he had simply read the section on focusing in the camera’s manual.
Later on, another visit to the printers to see the proofs of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ newspaper, Mirman [Lady]. The editor, a wonderful and energetic young woman, has given credit to several of us at UNIFEM and elsewhere who provided her with material, written or translated. The paper looks good, with varied content, including cartoons, and is all the more impressive considering the very limited resources on which the editor relies. 1,000 copies are going to be distributed on Saturday.
The party in the evening at our friends’ house was a fine example of Afghan hospitality, everyone so kind and loving, some of them especially towards me on account of my being Iranian. A singer and three musicians – with a lute, a harmonium (a kind of accordion that is placed on the floor), and a tabla – played traditional Afghan music, including Molla Mammad Jan. The food was excellent, with lamb so tender I had never tasted before.
Our stay was short, because we had work to do. Tomorrow, Friday, is also going to be busy. We still have some literature and kits for the delegates to prepare. We also need to check the conference site to make sure everything is fine. Saturday, Sunday and Monday are going to see some of the biggest Women’s Day events. After that, we’ll have to start working on the production of our full colour souvenir book on the celebrations. It’s going to be great fun.
Friday, 7 March 2003
We’ve nearly done everything we could do for tomorrow’s celebration. All the literature is out, not as much as we wanted, but as much as we could. Several pieces that we have written or translated from and into various languages are being carried by the special edition of Mirman, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ newspaper which is coming out tomorrow.
My plans to visit the Iranian trade fair did not materialise. In fact we did not even manage to leave the office for lunch, but got four big roasted chickens with lots of bread and ate at the office. When we were not eating, we were writing, editing, photocopying and printing a selection of the pictures taken by our colleagues at women’s events over the past three days. The prints, off our own colour printer at the office, look good, with lots of colours, images and locations. Altogether they give a good feel of what the activities have been like. These have now been put on boards and will be displayed tomorrow.
We then went up to the hill where the Intercontinental Hotel is, but drove by and took a right turn to reach the site of the Loya Jirga. The meeting hall is a massive structure built by the Germans. From the outside it looks like a warehouse, but on the inside it is much more elegant, with a ceiling which has been designed to give the impression of a tent, with 700 plush conference chairs and sound proof cubicles for simultaneous interpretation.
All around the hall on the inside, as well as on its front on the outside, staff from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs have hung banners proclaiming women’s solidarity, the importance of women’s equality, and messages from the Qor’an and Islamic religious figures, Shia and Sunni, calling for respect, support and care for women.
To the side of the big ‘tent’, there’s a smaller structure, much more like a warehouse, but with rows of chairs and a podium which is used for smaller meetings. We’ll be using this one for two discussions, one on women’s rights and Islam, and the other on women and politics. A similar building a bit further away is the site of an exhibition by women presenting their handicrafts. Some men had tried to use the occasion to sell their own jewellery products, but they were told by the women to go away.
For a couple of hours all of us were busy preparing folders for the delegates – all 700 of them – with some literature, a pen with ‘International Women’s Day Afghanistan’ inscribed on it, and some sheets of paper for note taking. We’re going in very early tomorrow – leaving home at 6:30, to make sure all’s well, and to take along the Ministry’s newspaper which was published at around 7:30pm, rather than 12 o’clock as had been promised. Given all the problems the Afghans are facing, anything else would have been a surprise.
Happy Women’s Day to you all!
Saturday, 8 March 2003
It’s been done! More than 1,500 women and men took part in the Women’s Day celebration, listened to speeches from Afghan and international figures, heard poetry and watched a short play, all in praise of women. There was also some singing by groups of children in beautiful traditional Afghan costumes. A very important part of the proceedings was the opening Qor’an recitation by a girl, especially since the audience was mixed.
The turnout was at least twice what had been expected. The newspapers produced by various organisations were picked up eagerly by the audience as they came into the hall, decorated all over with banners – in Persian, Pashto, Uzbek and English – and posters. A big poster above the rostrum had this year’s women’s day slogan: ‘The Empowerment of Afghan Women for Participation in National Reconstruction’.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ poster showed a woman, wearing a scarf, in the centre of a map of Afghanistan, with electric pylons, a computer, a tractor and other equipment on either side of her. The woman is building a wall shaped like the word “Afghanistan” in the Persian/Pashto alphabet. A simple and effective idea.
The speeches were interesting, with different perspectives and emphasis, far from routine addresses at a formal function, and kept the audience engaged. There were also several rounds of applause, not only when the speakers mentioned women’s rights, but also when the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Afghanistan, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, mentioned the sufferings of the Palestinian women and the worries of Iraqi women whose land is faced with the threat of a military invasion.
The celebration was covered widely on Kabul radio and television and international radio programmes. There will be more coverage over the next few days, leading to the Minister of Women Affairs’ presentation to the cabinet of a ‘gender responsive budget’ – i.e. one which devotes specific shares of the budget to women. If it is approved, I understand, it will be the first such budget in the world and Afghan women, and men, can feel proud of themselves. If it is not, the debate that has started will have been useful.
But even if Afghanistan does make such a historic breakthrough in terms of ‘gender budgeting’, it will need plenty of time, and international support, to overcome the impact of years of violence and poverty which have limited critical debate in many areas of life and reinforced some old practices that are no longer accepted by many in the country. Life for women is still so difficult that the group of young girls in beautiful dresses who sang a lovely song told a reporter later that they wished they had been boys because they would have had much more freedom. And these are the children of well-to-do, educated urban families. Much more tragic is the fate of dozens of young girls who set themselves on fire to escape forced marriages.
The celebration over, I went to the nearby Intercontinental Hotel to buy a copy of my friend Dr Mousavi’s book, The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study. The Hazaras are one of Afghanistan largest ethnic communities, but the most deprived and most persecuted. I also got some posters and post-cards with natural scenes, and a couple of calendars to give as presents.
In the evening, female UN staff had a dinner party – much to the dismay of some men who found this an act of gender discrimination. I and a few other men had been invited. The party was at a restaurant set up by Seema Ghani, a young Afghan woman whom I had met at a conference on Afghanistan in Oxford, now living in Kabul. The restaurant, Karwansarai, is a beautiful little house in a big, big garden, next to a big, big building with bullet holes on its walls. Inside the house, there are several inter-connected rooms.
The guests usually eat at tables, but for our party all rooms had been covered with rugs so people could sit on the floor. The same band who had played at our friends’ dinner party two nights ago were invited here. Alas I cannot tell much more about the party because I left early to come back home and finish translating a document on ‘gender-budgeting’. This has been a very useful exercise for me to understand some aspects of how budgets affect men and women differently and how equality could be introduced.
Tomorrow and the day after we have two workshops: women’s rights and Islam, and women and politics. After that, the provincial centre that we visited last week is due to be opened. And there will be more activities later, but that’s enough promos for tonight.
[Our report of the International Women’s Day celebrations is available here.]