Riots a setback for women's political progress in Afghanistan Print E-mail
The Daily Times -- Pakistan - Thursday  June 16 2005

Riots a setback for women's political progress in Afghanistan
By Rachel Morarjee

The riots have had a very negative effect on the numbers of people standing for election because many women believe the enemies of women orchestrated it

AFTER pushing through thousands of protesters on the streets of Jalalabad, Sharifa Shahab was determined press on with her political education workshop. Then she heard the first explosion.

"We were just about to begin the meeting when we heard a boom, followed by another boom. We didn't know what had happened, but we were scared," she says. Shabab, a women's activist at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, had invited 120 women to attend the workshop on May 11 - the very day that huge mobs swept through the streets of eastern Afghanistan's largest city.

What began a day earlier as a peaceful demonstration against an erroneous Newsweek report alleging desecration of the Koran by US military investigators in Guantanamo Bay turned into an orgy of violence, leaving at least six people dead in the city, and nine others nationwide.

Rioters torched the governor's house, the United Nations and foreign aid agency offices and the local women's affairs office, while the 22 women who had braved the demonstration to attend the workshop cowered in one of the remaining UN premises. Three and a half years after Afghanistan saw the back of the repressive Taliban, who forced women to wear all-covering burqas, females are finally beginning to feature on the war-shattered country's political map.

Afghans recently got their first female provincial governor - Habiba Surabi in northern Bamiyan province - while there are three women in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet.

But the riots were a major setback to attempts to involve women in the political process in conservative, ethnically Pashtun eastern Afghanistan, where they have few economic opportunities and rarely work outside the home. "We believe it would have made a big difference to the number of candidates in the elections if that meeting could have gone ahead. Women in Afghanistan gain strength from each other," says Isabelle De Ruyt, political officer at the United Nations office in Jalalabad.

Shahab had gone out earlier in the morning to the Amesha Bahaar Hotel where the meeting was to be held, and found 50 of the 120 women she had invited waiting to start. They didn't get far.

"We were about to begin when I heard gunshots and then saw agitated policemen. They said the demonstrators might come here and there'd be trouble. They wouldn't be able to defend us," she says.

Women had come from the surrounding provinces of Kunar and Laghman as well as Nangahar, of which Jalalabad is the provincial capital, to learn about standing in the parliamentary election. As they left the hotel, Shahab sent 28 of them in taxis, covered by their blue burqas as she watched the swelling mob. "It was terrifying. I couldn't see the end of the crowd. There were so many people," she recalls.

The remainder of the group went on to the United Nations office to try to start the meeting but within an hour there were rocks, stones and grenades coming over the wall so the women hid in a basement.

Police could not provide an escort and the women, covered by burqas, had to make their way out of the United Nations offices and thread their way unprotected through the angry crowd fearing for their safety.

Those like Shahab who were brave enough to attend the meeting without a burqa had to send colleagues out to borrow them so they could leave safely. "The riots have had a very negative effect on the numbers of people standing for election here because many women believe it was orchestrated by the enemies of women," Shahab says. Nangahar only has four women candidates standing for the five seats reserved for them on the provincial council, which will be elected along with Afghanistan's parliament on September 18.

"We have encouraged women to stand whatever the circumstances. It's win or lose, all or nothing," says Shahab who has received death threats for her women's rights work in the region over the last year. Not everyone has been deterred though. Safia Siddiqi Asif, an Afghan woman who lived in Canada for four years, is standing for parliament in Nangahar and still walks through the city streets with her face uncovered. "If we don't start working for our rights from today it will take centuries but if we begin now, we can make changes," she says. She hopes to win a parliamentary seat so she can advance women's rights and push for better healthcare and education for women. afp