From Burqa to Voting Booth

Harvard On My Mind

Three summers ago, as an intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation, I cut out little squares of blue mesh fabric, the same fabric that formed the peepholes through which Afghani women wearing a burqa saw the world. I distributed these cloth emblems to Americans, to wear as tokens of remembrance for and solidarity with the women oppressed by the Taliban.

Three years later, Osama bin Laden has done more to change the situation for women in Afghanistan than any hundreds of thousands of blue fabric squares. With America’s war on terror in Afghanistan and its defeat of the Taliban regime, the world must grasp this unique opportunity to dramatically ameliorate conditions for Afghani women.

On Wednesday it was announced in Bonn that an agreement had been signed creating a 30-member council to rule Afghanistan for the next six months. The council contains members of the four major ethnic groups and, incredibly, two women. The council is only temporary—in six months a loya jirga, an ancient Afghani constituent assembly, will meet in order to draft a constitution, plan elections and start forming another interim government.

Within a month, a special commission will be appointed to work on setting up the loya jirga. They are charged with making sure that “due attention is paid to the presence” in the loya jirga of “a significant number of women,” according to The New York Times.

It is not enough, however, simply to have women in government as the result of a last-ditch deal pushed through by women activists. They must have real political power. In order to ensure that women are part of any future Afghani government, women must first acquire the vote. The international community should be vociferous in its support of a constitution which grants women suffrage, and put pressure on any future government to ensure this fundamental right.

The United States is often associated with cultural hegemony on a global scale. Opposition to United States cultural exports is one of the tenets of bin Laden’s particular brand of fundamentalism, a tenet that has attracted many who harbor resentment towards the United States. It is also true that radical cultural change imposed by external powers is often highly destructive to the social fabric of a nation. Witness the extreme opposition and cultural backlash to Soviet Communist rule in Afghanistan, for instance, a backlash that fed the fervor of the mujahudeen, of which the Taliban were a part.

However, enshrining women’s rights in the Afghani government is not U.S. cultural imperialism, nor should it threaten Afghani or Islamic cultural mores. This is, after all, not the same as telling women to doff the veil, as Ataturk did in Turkey during his drive to Westernize his nation. It will give women the power to change their culture gradually, as they see fit. But more importantly, it will give them the power to make sure that the food, education and peace they have been longing for their children will be delivered.

Women and children are 65 percent of Afghani refugees and their risk of starvation is very high, their life-expectancy lower than that of men. Their needs simply must not be ignored. Pragmatically, women may be more likely to use the government resources to raise the levels of health and education of their children. It is not, after all, a coincidence that two women doctors were selected to serve in the interim government, nor that one of them, Suhaila Seddiqi, will be health minister.

But even if women’s rights weren’t a pragmatic goal, it is a moral one. The United States entered Afghanistan with moral, not simply military, force. If America, or the world, sacrifices women’s rights on the alter of political brinkmanship, it will undermine its current moral high ground, high ground already heaving with the tremors of military tribunals and mass detainment of Arab residents.

Three years ago, when I was cutting out small pieces of blue fabric, few people knew or cared about the women in Afghanistan. Now the eyes of the world are focused upon them. The United States, so often seen as a seducer of women, luring them out of their traditional roles and into lives of dissipation and vice, must take on a more mature role. We must be brothers and sisters to the women in Afghanistan, respecting their culture as well as their sovereignty.

Meredith B. Osborn ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.