US-grown feminist's pace of reform riles Afghan women

Afghanistan secured $1.4 million for women's issues last week, but differences grow among rights groups.

Few women in Afghanistan dare to be as bold as Nasrine Gross. In front of hardline clerics outside the grand assembly tent, a bare-headed Mrs. Gross in a black pantsuit lights her cigarette and takes a puff.

"What we need is to accept is pluralism," Gross says. "There's not one model of Afghan women. There are multiples."

Gross, who's married to an American, is an anomaly among Afghan women activists. At the loya jirga (the grand council that determined Afghanistan's new government) where Gross was a guest this June, delegates raised eyebrows at her Western clothes, bare head, and cigarettes – all taboo in a society where women were practically banned from public appearances just a year ago under the Taliban regime.

Now, as Afghan women fight to regain rights, debate rages on what those rights are and how they should fight for them.

Even as Afghan women make small but significant gains – on Friday, Afghanistan's new minister of women's affairs secured $1.4 million from the UN to put toward women's issues – contention is growing between Afghan women who want to work incrementally within Islamic law, and Western outsiders who call for more radical reforms. And the most controversial in the latter camp is Gross. After 30 years in the US, her in-your-face lobbying has riled even the most liberal activists here.

"She's too much, too fast," said Rahima Jami, another delegate at the loya jirga whose hair was wrapped in a scarf, a long coat covering her curves. Ms. Jami, principal of a girl's school in western Afghanistan, represents the more acceptable feminist in this country. Jami believes women need to work within the Islamic framework by covering themselves, and by obeying Koranic laws.

Gross and Jami – two of the unprecedented 200 women at the assembly – confronted each other on the issue.

"If you're wearing this because you really believe in it, I respect you, but if you feel you have to wear it, you should take it off," Gross told Jami, pointing to her scarf. "I've chosen to keep my hair visible and I'm sure you respect that too."

Jami nodded but said: "If you just put on a small headscarf, it would be much better."

Gross has been working with a Paris-based Afghan women's organization, Negar, to secure human rights in Afghanistan. Her group succeeded in convincing President Hamid Karzai to sign an equal-rights law. Implementation of the law will be the group's next challenge.

The fact that Gross has been out of Afghanistan most of her life diminishes her credibility among locals. She admits that her class of women – the urban, educated elite – are not representative of a large part of Afghanistan. But they are crucial members of the country who can bring change, she says.

"I don't want to change their values. I want women to have choices," she says.

The activist is unphased by the criticism. She comes from a family of feminist revolutionaries. Her mother was the first woman to graduate from high school in the country, and was a member of parliament during the 1960s under King Mohammed Zahir. She's now 84 and rooting for her daughter.

During the Taliban era, Gross joined thousands of other feminists to lobby for the end of gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Gross says the veil has become a political tool to control women and not necessarily part of Afghanistan's tradition.

"Most of those women don't believe in wearing the veil. They wear it because they're afraid," she says.

Still Gross, who has written two books in her native Dari, does not want to be considered secular – the label is nearly as bad as "communist" in Afghanistan where Soviets killed Afghans for being religious.

Gross's argument is that the age of political Islam has manipulated women to believe in their own subjugation.

She rejects the implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the government because Afghans already live by the code at home. "We're already Muslims, so why do we need the government to enforce Islam on us?" she asks.

Gross graduated from high school in Kabul and received a scholarship to American University in Beirut where she studied educational planning and development. She is president of Kabultec, a nongovernmental organization that raises money for education projects for women and children in Afghanistan.

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