Afghan women: unsung heroines

THE village of Ghazni is surrounded by Soviet and Afghan government forces. Inside the village women bake bread for 1,200 mujahideen (freedom fighters). The women load the bread onto donkeys for transport to the men in hiding outside the village. These mujahideen will take the bread, their only source of food, for their unceasing campaign against the Soviet occupier. Does the war for the liberation of the Afghan homeland mean liberation for the women? And are the women coping with new burdens? My findings are, as the example above illustrates, that the women in their own way are coping and are expressing themselves by deed and action. As one Afghan woman freedom fighter exhorted, ``I would just like to mention that women and girls today play an important role in the independence struggle against communism in our motherland.''

Dec. 27 marked the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of Babrak Karmal as the head of the Afghan government. Much has been written about the resistance and the refugee population, the world's largest. What has not been adequately addressed is: How have the women fared in this struggle?

Afghan women should be commended for their remarkable tenacity, resilience, and ability to cope under very difficult conditions, both within and outside Afghanistan. This writer witnessed examples of the coping abilities of the women refugees on a visit in May 1984 to Peshawar, Pakistan, and surrounding areas where the majority of some 4 million Afghan refugees are located.

In camps near Peshawar the refugee women must cope with the effects of enforced idleness and isolation brought about by separation from their agricultural domestic work. Faced with meager rations from the relief organizations, the women selflessly award what little they have first to their men, then their children, and finally themselves.

The great majority of the refugees are women, children, and elderly males who cannot participate directly in the guerrilla operations inside Afghanistan. Roughly one-third of the refugees are women and just under 50 percent are children, meaning that three-quarters of the refugee households are headed by women.

The Afghan code of honor calling for women's seclusion for their protection has been reimposed by the influential religious leadership in the resistance movement. Ethnocentric Westerners have failed to understand this code is essential to maintaining mujahideen morale. Nevertheless, purdah (seclusion) has worsened the women's condition in the refugee camps.

Food and sanitation problems combine with stress and disorientation to confront women in their daily struggle for survival. While the rations distributed by the Pakistani and United Nations relief organizations may be technically adequate, the provision of moral and physical support to mujahideen who are actively fighting results in shortchanging women in the supply of food. Crowded living conditions and makeshift dwellings produce serious sanitation and health problems because of inadequate sanitation facilities.

On the other hand, because of the crowded conditions in the tented villages and the frequent absence of the men who are either seeking jobs, working, fighting in Afghanistan, or dead, the traditional notions of modesty have relaxed in some areas. The women must now perform some of the tasks originally done by men, such as the marketing and dealing with the bureaucratic institutions. Among non-Pushtun Afghan tribes, for example, women engage in itinerant trading in cloth; and the very poor women without male support must earn their own living, primarily as tailors for other women.

How do the women cope with their refugee situation while supporting the jihad, or holy war, against the alien regime in Kabul? It is true the Afghan women are endowed with stoicism, resilience, religious faith, and indeed fatalism, as well as pride in their respected role as upholders of the family honor, but the refugee conditions strain these qualities. The popularity of the newly established clinics, set up by the various relief organizations, testify to the strains suffered by the women. These clinics, I found, are providing another outlet for those women seeking a refuge from their daily struggle. An important gain is the meeting of other women at these clinics with whom they can discuss and resolve troubled living conditions.

Reconstructive aid programs -- such as income, health, and education projects capitalizing on the women's traditional handicraft skills and the development of new skills -- have recently been approved by the Pakistani refugee authorities. These projects will use the newly acceptable meeting places, the clinics, as well as the homes as places where the skills and necessary materials can be acquired. The handicrafts and products can then be marketed to the benefit of the jihad; they will serve to acknowledge and reinforce the women's role in putting together their lives and those of their people, without threatening the Afghan cultural norms. Support for these reconstructive aid programs will serve the cause of the Afghan women's struggle against the Soviet occupier -- and their personal fulfillment.

Kathleen Howard-Merriam is an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. -- 30 --{et

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