- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 20, 2001

NEW YORK As foreign diplomats struggle to bring several dozen disparate religious, ethnic and military communities to a common negotiating table in Afghanistan, women's advocates are urging them not to forget the largest single interest group of all.

Afghan women, mostly expatriates and refugees, are demanding an unprecedented role for women in rebuilding their country. Their cause has been taken up by the first ladies of the United States and Britain.

"Whatever Afghanistan decides to do, I think they have to put their government together from all these different parties," Laura Bush said yesterday in an interview with Reuters. "But I also know the world will insist that they respect the rights of women."

Mrs. Bush spoke at length on the plight of women in a Saturday radio address to the nation. Women's advocates, who have been dismayed at the plight of women in Afghanistan, say that no nation-building effort in Afghanistan will be credible if the United Nations does not uphold its own charter to guarantee full representation for all.

"Neglecting 54 percent of the population would be unthinkable if they were an ethnic group or a racial group," said Jennifer Klot, senior governance adviser at UNIFEM, the U.N.'s lead agency on women's issues. "But somehow, when you're talking about women, that's OK."

Western officials have tried to reassure advocates that women will not be left out of the effort to build a broad-based government in a country that has been savaged by repeated wars. But they also warn against unrealistic expectations.

"Afghanistan is, in some respects, still in the 14th century," said French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. "That doesn't mean we should give in. It means we should understand their line of reasoning, give them a new line of reasoning. We can't wave a magic wand and turn them into a Swedish society."

In a new report on rebuilding Afghanistan, the State Department said that women should have a place in a new post-Taliban regime.

"The Afghan people want, and the U.S. government supports, a broad-based representative government, which includes women, in post-Taliban Afghanistan," the report said.

But U.S. officials warn that it may take time for Afghan women to achieve even limited gains made by other women around the world.

By 1964, Afghan women were granted suffrage and a few held low-level public offices. Urban women also attended school and university, and had jobs in health care and other professions. Throughout Afghanistan, women were the backbone of the elementary-educational system.

Noleen Heyzer, UNIFEM executive director, said there are plenty of qualified Afghan women in refugee camps, living in exile and even inside the country itself. All they need, she said, is experience.

"You didn't have women leaders in the political fields, but you had significant women in other areas," she said in an interview last week.

As a State Department official points out, however, "There have been no obvious prominent women in Afghan politics in the last 10 or 20 years."

Even under communism, women were rarely a moving force in numbers, stature or influence as were their counterparts in other developing nations.

Nonetheless, "Afghanistan needs women to participate as decision-makers in establishing a new constitution," said Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, whose members lobbied on behalf of Afghan women during the years of Taliban rule.

Ms. Smeal hopes that women from every religious, ethnic and political faction will become delegates at the U.N. conference table.

"You've got women Pashtuns, women Hazara, women everything else," she said, naming some of Afghanistan's key ethnic groups. "Why not?"

To hear women inside Afghanistan tell it, their future rests more on the political track than the military one. The Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association (RAWA), which offered clandestine classes to women during the Taliban reign, fears there will be little difference between the old regime and the new both of which took power with arms.

"In the past, [the Northern Alliance] has shown they are the same," RAWA member Sehar Saba told the Associated Press in Kabul. "We do not expect any changes in the current scenario."


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