In Talks on Afghan Future, Women Aren't Present
Many Fear Exclusion Could Prevent Creation Of a Fair Government

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 25, 2001; Page A22

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 24 -- In her 16 years as a professional radio broadcaster, Jamila Mujahed has been at her microphone for some of this city's most memorable news events: the toppling of President Najibullah in 1992 and the march of Islamic holy warriors into the capital, and, four years later, the arrival of the Taliban.

So it seemed only fitting that when the Taliban fled and the Northern Alliance arrived on Nov. 13, it was Mujahed who brought Afghans the news on the evening broadcast of Radio Kabul.

Now Mujahed has another very public message, one aimed at U.N. officials and German diplomats organizing the Afghan political conference scheduled to begin in Germany on Tuesday: Open the meeting to professional women like herself, and give women a say in shaping Afghanistan's future.

"This is very unfortunate that they have not invited women to join this meeting," she said. "No one has experienced such brutality against women anywhere in the world as what happened in Afghanistan. I want to go and tell everyone the things that happened to me and my colleagues these past five years."

The meeting in Bonn is being hailed as a first step toward ending decades of civil strife and helping Afghanistan's warring factions form a truly representative and broad-based government. Representatives of several Afghan factions will try to hammer out plans for an interim government to replace the Taliban and prevent the country from descending into anarchy.

But many Afghans here -- not only women, but also professionals, academics and others -- are chafing at the highly restricted invitation list.

The Northern Alliance, the armed anti-Taliban faction that seized control of Kabul and about half the country during the past two weeks, is the only group from inside Afghanistan that is attending the Bonn conference. A delegation representing Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, will be attending from Rome, where he has been in exile since 1973. And two other groups that have held political talks in the past -- the Peshawar Assembly for Peace, named after the Pakistani border city, and the Cyprus group -- also will attend. In all, just 30 Afghans will meet to begin mapping out the country's future.

In the view of many left on the outside looking in, whatever government eventually emerges from the process will be neither representative nor broad-based. "It will be a less-than-50-percent government," said Sariya Parlika, a women's rights activist. Excluding female representatives in Bonn, she said, "is a clear human rights violation."

"This is only the gun barrel that is sending representatives," said Said Amin Mujahed, a history professor at the Academy of Social Sciences in Kabul and the husband of Jamila Mujahed. "It's not the scholars or the professionals or the other educated people in Afghanistan. It's only the war factions and King Zahir's people. It can make a government, but not a broad-based one."

The United Nations is sensitive to such criticism but says the makeup of the conference is for Afghans to decide.

At a recent news conference, U.N. special envoy Francesc Vendrell said, "This meeting will be as representative as we can make it, given the very short notice." When asked about the participation of women, he said it was up to the invited groups to include women as part of their delegations -- and not up to the United Nations "to tell the Afghans who to invite."

Today, U.N. spokesman Eric Falt told reporters, "The women of Afghanistan . . . have a central role to play in the country's future." He said the Bonn meeting would demonstrate "how much our encouragement to include women in the delegation has been listened to."

Even if women are present at the Bonn meeting, no one expects the number to come close to representing their percentage of the Afghan population. Because of the large number of men killed in two decades of war, women make up about 60 percent of Afghanistan's 26 million people, according to most estimates.

"I think women should have more of a role than men," said Faizullah Jalal, a Kabul University professor who has pressed for the inclusion of academics at the conference. "They have faced a lot of disasters in this country."

Women have long been treated as second-class citizens in this conservative Muslim country, but the Taliban stripped women of the few rights they did have. After coming to power in 1996, the radical Islamic movement prohibited women from working, banned girls from attending school and made it illegal for women to be on the streets without a male relative and without being covered head-to-toe in the traditional long, flowing veil known as a burqa. Women caught violating the rules -- even allowing an ankle to accidentally show -- risked a public lashing by Taliban guardians of "vice and virtue."

Just before the Taliban took over, 70 percent of Afghanistan's teachers, half of its government workers and 40 percent of its physicians were women. There were female lawyers, doctors and journalists, and women helped staff the foreign relief agencies working here.

Jamila Mujahed, now 36, was among those caught up in the Taliban's reordering of society. A journalism graduate of Kabul University and a veteran broadcaster, she was abruptly told by the Taliban that she could no longer work because of her sex.

"We were used to being very free women," she said, describing how she and her colleagues in the pre-Taliban world would remain at the station until late at night working on big stories. "How do you feel, changing to a world where you have no freedom? These five years caused a lot of psychiatric problems for me."

She stayed at home. She wrote poetry. She said she sometimes took her anger out on her children, hitting them. When she sought professional help, she said, doctors told her "the only medicine they could prescribe was going back to your job."

After facing those hardships, women like Mujahed say they deserve a place at the table in forming Afghanistan's next government.

Particularly upsetting, to the women and others, is that so many Afghan exiles will be attending the sessions while so many who stayed in Afghanistan and suffered under Taliban rule will be excluded.

"The presence of women from Afghanistan is necessary," said Parlika, the activist. "Afghan women from Western countries can just tell tales about what a bullet can do. A woman from inside the country can express it with her eyes. She can express it with her body. She can express with her voice how the war has affected her."

2001 The Washington Post Company