To Kill a Sparrow, With Love
Sunday, 9 March 2003
9th of March has been another women’s day in Afghanistan, where we should really be speaking of women’s week, month, or perhaps year, considering the role the Afghan women are likely to have in shaping the country’s social, political and even economic life.
Today we went to a very interesting conference on Islam and women’s rights. The Minister of Women’s Affairs, Dr Habiba Sarabi, a very dignified, articulate and softly-spoken lady, began the day by saying that Afghan women were demanding the rights that had been accorded to them in Islam and within Afghanistan’s culture and existing laws, but had been violated by those in power. Dr Sarabi also warned against trying to do anything revolutionary because that would antagonise the traditionalists and those who hold tribal values above the rule of law. Another speaker said Afghanistan had a culture of sacrifice, pride, self-respect and dignity which had been crushed by twenty-three years of fighting and needed to be revived and strengthened.
The speakers pointed out that Islam had put an end to live burial of baby girls in the Arabian Peninsula, and that the Qor’an considers women as equal to men in front of God and says women should own the fruits of their labour, a right which, as one speaker said, Western women had acquired in the 17th century. They recalled that the first person to convert to Islam was a woman – the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah – and the first Moslem to be killed by the enemies of Islam was also a woman – Somayyah.
They referred to several examples of women at the time of the Prophet who had been in positions of power, including his own wives whom he consulted all the time. And they said that one of the rituals of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca was modeled after the efforts of Prophet Abraham’s wife, Hagar, when she ran back and forth seven times between two hills in the Arabian desert to find water for her baby. The speakers said the account of this effort, alluded to in the Qor’an, demonstrated that Islam did allow women to travel on their own and stay alone, even in the desert. There was also a review of women’s rights in various Islamic countries, including Iran, to demonstrate that the rights that Afghan women were calling for did in fact exist in those societies and there was no reason why they should not be established here.
On the current situation of Afghan women, the speakers discussed inheritance, which none of the ladies in the audience had received, and the mahriyeh, or dowry, which again no one in the audience had received. There were still cases of blood feuds between families being settled by the killer’s family giving away a young daughter of theirs to the victim’s family, a custom that is called, rather appropriately, bad.
[The use of the word bad to describe the practice of giving away a girl as compensation for murder has been interpreted as being related to the description of the act of killing as wrong. An alternative interpretation is based on the fact that the word, when written in the Persian/Arabic script, can also be read as the Arabic word bod, meaning solution or way out. See ‘Bad Painful Sedative’ (http://www.wclrf.org/English/eng_pages/Researches/Badpainful/badpainful_index.htm), published by the Afghan group, Women and Children Legal Research Foundation.]
One member of the audience poignantly recalled her own experience of having been ‘engaged’ to someone when she was one day old, and being forced into marriage when she was in year eleven at school. The next year, her husband’s family stopped her from going to school and she lost the chance to go to university.
We were told this was this the first conference of its kind in Afghanistan, which made it all the more impressive. The speakers, four women and one man, were all well informed and eloquent and the audience responded to them well. The discussions at the end of the day were quite animated, with some expressions of collective sorrow when sad accounts were being given, but also good humour when satirical comments were made. One such comment came from a UNIFEM colleague who criticised the enforcement of seclusion on women as a means of ‘protecting’ them. It is possible, she said, to kill a sparrow that you love, simply by keeping it tightly in your fist – just for protection.
Sunday, 10 March 2003
It’s been a clear, pleasant day, especially at the top of the hill where the second women’s rights conference, the last of the three-day events, was held. Today’s debate was on the constitution that is being prepared. For many women, and men, it was the first experience of discussing women’s legal status. The conference was closed by the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Dr Habiba Sarabi, who answered questions from the delegates and gave each of them a radio as a present, with the advice that they should listen to the news. In fact, she emphasised the importance of radio several times, which makes perfect sense in a society with a very low literacy rate, disparate communities and great transport difficulties.
Dr Sarabi set out her Ministry’s strategy for improving Afghan women’s position with respect to the legal system, education, health and the economy. But she stressed that the Ministry could not meet all of the women’s demands – such as sewing classes that some had asked for – saying these should be achieved through other, ‘appropriate’, ministries and their provincial representatives. Still, some delegates asked her to sort out problems with transport and obtaining mobile phones. One can understand both the demands and the Ministry’s exasperation because of its limited resources. It is also possible to imagine these demands being put to other local and national officials, with similar resource problems, and making them resent the women’s movement!
You can guess from the above paragraphs that this has not been a day for sight-seeing of any sort. One place I would have liked to visit was the exhibition of Iranian goods, but I just heard a report on Radio Azadi (Freedom) [The Afghanistan service of Radio Liberty/Radio Europe], which said contracts worth about $200m had been made for imports of Iranian goods, as well as machinery and expertise to produce goods such as foodstuffs, stationery and furniture in Afghanistan. Considering the improvement in the quality of such goods in Iran, this should be an area of mutual benefit.
Back at the office, I found out that we now have more than one thousand pictures of the past week. With about a hundred pages of notes form our reporters, newspaper articles and other material, we should be able to produce a very good account of this fascinating experience.
In the evening, I had an invitation to visit the BBC Persian/Pashto office to discuss a series of programs they are making about violence against women. They have also produced a series on Afghan women singers, and have plans for other programmes on women. Interesting how the subject is catching on. Over the past few days I’ve been hearing reports of women’s day meetings in all sorts of government departments, which is very positive, even if there’s an official side to it.
This note has been very much work-related, but I hope I’ll have more townscape stories to tell you again. Tonight, all I can say is that the Kabul night sky with millions of stars is an enjoyable sight. As for the day, it should soon be possible for us to go to the top of the tallest hill in the city, the site of Kabul radio and TV’s transmitters. There’s a restaurant at the top of the hill which in the olden days used to revolve but has now stopped. Still, having a meal up there, or even a glass of water, with a panoramic view of Kabul must be fun.
Monday, 11 March 2003
We attended a conference on women and the constitution, again very informative and lively. I also read a report on the Women’s Day meeting in Tehran’s Park-e Laleh – the first time in 24 years that such a gathering was taking place in a public place.
The day has begun well, sunny and clear. The garden in the guest house looks more alive, now that Ashraf has dug up some of the flower bed. Talking to Ashraf this morning, I was impressed by the account of his wife teaching all their children mathematics and Persian at home, after the boys have had two hours of Qor’an lessons at the local mosque, 6-8am.
Their neighbourhood has electricity one night in four. The residents use bottled gas for cooking and gas oil for firing the heaters. There’s no TV, of course, and no radio either, batteries being so expensive. So at a time when so much is happening all over Afghanistan, many people do not seem to have the means to hear the news – sad, especially since yesterday the women delegates at the conference were given radios as gifts, with the hope that they would pay more attention to news.
Tuesday, 12 March, 2003
I spent almost all of Tuesday at the review of gender training over the past year at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The training has been very successful, with transformations at least in people’s personal lives, such as men helping their wives with housework. A Moslem clergyman said such training should be offered to all his colleagues.
Listening to the women participants introducing themselves, I had another chance to think about the sound of their names. The first such experience was yesterday when the delegates were being invited to the platform to receive their presents. At the time, the row of names being called out sounded musical.
Today, looking at the names, I realised that although a few of them – such as Zarmina – were new to my ears, the rest were very much like the names one would hear in Iran or in many other Moslem countries. Only then did I realise that what was new and evocative was not the names themselves as such, but the fact they were being announced in public.
Thinking back to some thirty years during which I have had Afghan friends and colleagues and learned more about Afghanistan, I realised that only a few of my Afghan acquaintances had been women, and almost all Afghan names featuring in the coverage of Afghanistan had been men’s. So, it’s really as much the public appearance of women and their names that capture the imagination as the names themselves.
Wednesday, 12 March 2003
Today’s Tassu’a, but there’s no sign of it round our office, nor in our part of the town. Tomorrow, Ashura, will be a public holiday and the Shia community will be holding mourning services, quite similar to Iran, I am told. I hope I can go to see one, perhaps after an hour or so of work at the office.
There is a lot to do during Thursday and Friday, including producing English versions of two proposals I received today from women’s groups who need help with expanding their activities, including classes for literacy, sewing, and computer skills. One proposal is from La’l wa Sarjangal (Ruby and Forest Head) district in Ghor Province, a Hazara (Shia, Persian speaking) province, whose local officials came to the office about ten days ago with the detailed account of their province that I told you about. The other is from a women’s group based in Kabul, but also active in the provinces.
Then there’s some six hours of video recording of the 8 March celebration that we should watch to see how it could be edited down to about an hour or so for general viewing. I also have some 150 pages of hand-written reports from about a dozen celebrations and other events to read. This is part of the raw material for a record of the Women’s Day events that we are going to produce, also selecting pictures from amongst some 1,200– most of which, fortunately, I have seen already!
Agha Sarwar will be off tomorrow and Friday, but he has made lasagna for us, with the instruction that it will have to stay in the oven for 45 minutes for the cheese to cook. Tonight he gave us a wonderful ghormeh-sabzi. He also made our small community very happy by saying that from next week he will fry eggs and sausages for breakfast and make pancakes, as a diversion from the salad fruit, hommos and cheese and butter.
In the afternoon we had a big meeting at the office to decide what we should be doing over the next couple of months. Lots of ideas were generated. The most interesting observation, for me, came from a colleague who said that last year this time no one would have believed that in a year’s time UNIFEM would be producing such a list of future activities.
During the day, two of our colleagues went to inspect a location we had thought of as the venue for Nowrouz lunch – the restaurant at the top of the Radio and Television Hill, which used to revolve and provide a 360 degree view of Kabul. Today, our colleagues found it in ruins, part of the destruction caused by the bombing of Kabul to drive out the Taliban. Arriving in Kabul six weeks ago, I saw another part of such damage: the wreckage of several planes from the small fleet of Afghanistan’s Ariana airlines, heaped up in a plot of land not very far from the runway.
So the hill is out as a Nowrouz venue. We have also decided not to have any music for several reasons: the lady who sang at the Journalists’ Union’s Women’s Day celebration is said to have received threats; Nowrouz this year falls in the middle of Moharram; and, finally, our gender- and nationality-mixed group is curious enough, without any dambol-i-dimbol in the middle of Kabul. We are therefore going to have a more reserved picnic or such like, outdoors, if we can find a secure enough venue, and Iraq is not being bombed.
The ideal place would have been Mazar-e-Sharif, where Googoosh, among others, would also have liked to go, along with Molla Mammad Jan. Mazar’s description as a land covered in roses and tulips at the time of Nowrouz is sufficiently romantic to make one want to go there without delay. But, sadly, there are problems, including transport – an expensive flight, or one day’s drive each way – not to mention security, including the mines that continue to claims lives and limbs in Afghanistan on a daily basis. Still, so many people will be going to Mazar – seyle gol-o laleh-zar – that roads in the area are expected to be jammed.
Nowrouz in Afghanistan is a one day event, unlike Iran’s generous fortnight of did-o-bazdid and shirini-khori, etc. But there is also much in common, including haft seen, made up of seven dried fruits with all kinds of names, rather than names beginning with seen. There’s also samanou, called samanak.
Note about the photograph: Prof. Hamida Barmaki (4 January 1970 – 28 January 2011) was a renowned Afghan law professor and human rights activist. She and her entire family were killed in a suicide attack on a supermarket in Kabul – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamida_Barmaki