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Advocates Say More Improvements Needed for Iraqi, Afghan Women

Originally published in:

By Kerry Sheridan

Leading women's activists from Afghanistan and Iraq say U.S. intervention has had only limited success in liberating women in their nations. Too often, they say, women continue to be targets of abuse, kidnapping and oppression, even after military operations have ousted tyrannical leaders. Several women's advocates visited New York this week, to share their concerns and ask for help during a conference on women and power.

President Bush often mentions freedom for women as a symbol of success in the war on terror, particularly in Afghanistan. "That country has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school," he says.

Women's activists from Afghanistan acknowledge that some progress has been made since the removal of the Taleban regime. Young girls are going to classes in the capital, Kabul, and in some areas, women are allowed to work outside the home. But Zoya, a member of a group called the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan who does not use her last name for security reasons, says the recent improvements are limited, and that the situation for women is worsening in the rest of the country. "They cannot go without a male relative outside their houses, and they have no access to education and there are health problems for them. So we think that the bombs in Afghanistan - the bombing by the U.S. administration - has not changed the situation because they replaced one fundamentalist [group] with another one," she says.

Zoya says the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance is responsible for 50 thousand civilian deaths between 1992 and 1996, and has committed many crimes against women. Now, she says, most Afghan women are still forced to cover themselves by wearing the burka, and an alarming number of women continue to be kidnapped and abused by warlords in power.

Zoya shared her story with U.S. women at a leadership conference in New York. She and other women activists from Afghanistan and Iraq are urging American women to fight for sustainable freedom for women abroad. "We are not liberated and we still wanted the solidarity of all the people around the world with us, and especially the women around the world. That is why this conference was very important for us. To bring again the situation of women in Afghanistan to the media and the attention of the world," she says.

Zoya is not the only one who says the spread of Islamic fundamentalism is preventing equal rights for women in the region.

Yanar Mohammed is the editor of Iraq's Al-Mousawat newspaper, which means "Equality." She has helped create shelters in Baghdad and Kirkuk for battered women seeking protection against so-called "honor killings," cases in which male family members kill a female relative if they suspect her of adultery or consorting with men.

Ms. Mohammed says groups who oppose women's rights had greater power in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted. "With this war on Iraq, unfortunately, the freedom that we witnessed was the freedom given to Islamists, to have their way around Iraq. These groups that we are speaking about are political groups. We call them "political Islam," [groups] that use Islam in order to impose themselves on the political arena. They control many areas of Baghdad and the south of Iraq and once the area is under their control, they impose their vision. They go over the minarets of the mosques and they preach that all the women should be under veil and in Islamic dress. I heard it myself, that even Christian women have to wear the veil because otherwise they would be spreading evil in the society," she says.

The U.S. administration has remained publicly upbeat about the prospect for democracy in Iraq, even as reports surface that intelligence officials are skeptical about the potential for stability. Some observers fear that the ethnic divisions within the country could sharpen due to rifts between those who promote Islam as a source of legislation and those who believe in secular law. Activists say women have a lot at stake in post-war Iraq and Afghanistan.

Afghan member of parliament Malalai Joya knows that being outspoken in the fight for women's rights comes at a price. Ever since she gave a speech in parliament at the end of last year criticizing Afghan warlords for their abuses against women, she has had to hide her whereabouts and always travels with bodyguards. Her purpose in coming to New York, she says, is to ask American women for solidarity. "They can help us and they can do something for their painful sisters in Afghanistan and please do not forget about us," she says.

Ms. Joya says fair treatment of women can only be achieved if the international community sustains the battle for women's equality, long after the major military incursions are over.