Afghan Women as Co-Leaders

While the men who lead the various rebel and tribal factions in Afghanistan are getting the most attention in discussions of how to rebuild that country, Afghan women are part of the solution to a better future.

Before the Taliban took over in 1996 and tried to turn back the clock, Afghan women had made significant strides. By the early '90s, most of the teachers in Afghanistan, half its government workers, and 40 percent of its physicians were women.

The Taliban's medieval fanaticism had no place for progressive, well-educated women. Half of Afghanistan's population was relegated to the home and the burqa, a head-to-toe shroud, regardless of academic degrees or career ambitions. Many just-liberated women have described the past five years as a lengthy jail sentence.

Now that this sentence has been lifted, how can a battered country's many talented women fully participate in building a more just and tolerant society? A small but important minority of Afghan women are primed to take part. Over the years, they've formed nongovernmental organizations in the refugee camps in Pakistan to provide education, healthcare, and job training for women and have advocated change in their homeland.

Some women who stayed in Afghanistan had the courage to risk the Taliban's wrath by holding classes for girls in their homes. Women trained in medicine did what they could to sustain health facilities for women. Sadly, life expectancy for Afghan women is only 44 years, according to the UN.

These highly committed women ought to be key consultants to all those who want to ensure stability and form a new government - from Western and UN diplomats to regional leaders to private aid agencies.

If women are to move more freely in society, openly attend school, and speak out, they want assurances they won't be harassed, or worse, by men who still believe a woman's place is out of sight. Such attitudes are not confined to the Taliban. The now-triumphant Northern Alliance includes some very conservative elements. An initial international presence in Kabul and other cities, including some peacekeeping forces, could be a major factor in convincing women it's safe to leave restrictions behind.

Also important will be the international community's insistence that women's rights be built into the new Afghanistan. The advocacy of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, who've spoken on the plight of Afghan women, is a step in the right direction.

As more aid flows into the country, it's critical that local women's social service groups be given an active role, so that the food and other aid gets to the often-secluded women and children who need it most.

Attitudes toward women may not change quickly. Forced liberalization will not work any better than forced religious fundamentalism. The immediate goal should be a country with a stable, representative government that tolerates traditional and modern ways. Some women will continue to wear the burqa by choice. Many, particularly in the cities, will happily be rid of it.

Afghanistan now has a long-postponed opportunity to progress beyond reaction and violence. Its women, regaining a voice in their own society, should be a force for positive change. If they're allowed to take that role, the ramifications could reach beyond Afghanistan to other countries that are mistakenly holding back half their populations.

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