Stepping Out of the Shadows

After years of oppression under the Taleban, Afghan woman are grasping a historic opportunity to enter the political process.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

After years of oppression under the Taleban, Afghan woman are grasping a historic opportunity to enter the political process.

Six months ago, the dark regime of the Taleban was in place in Afghanistan, and women were confined to the prison of their homes. Decrees passed and violently enforced by the authorities ensured that we could not work, study or even appear in public without the heavy burqa shroud.

Women bore the brunt of war through 23 years of bloodshed. They lost their husbands, their fathers and their sons and were denied work. Far too many times, they were forced to flee and endure the life of a refugee. Even their access to medical care was severely restricted.

Now we are free. We are encouraged to study and work and can walk the streets without the burqa if we so choose. It is a time of real happiness.

For the first time in decades - and in the most open and democratic exercise in the country's history - women are directly entering the political process through the Loya Jirga. They have the chance to address the many problems they face in Afghanistan and to play a role in the rehabilitation of the country. It is a historic opportunity.

There are more than 1,500 representatives gathering at the Loya Jirga, and around 200 are female. The majority, such as myself, have been appointed through reserved places by the Loya Jirga commission - of which three out of 21 members are women. But many have been democratically elected through local and regional levels of the process. This women's caucus is a powerful first step for full participation in the political process.

From this starting point, we can identify female leaders for the future and establish new organisations to address our issues in the long-term.

In spite of the obstacles put in our way, many Afghan women are highly educated and energetic and our greatest single desire is to stop the fighting. After two decades of conflict, Afghans are tired of war and are thirsty for peace. Without it, we cannot solve any of our problems.

Despite the gains achieved even in the short months of the interim administration, a climate of fear remains. Afghanistan has too many armed factions. The young men who were caught up in the fighting have missed out on education and training and now have no appreciation of normal life.

Also, there are too many people holding illegal weapons while undisciplined warlords are allowed to threaten individuals and disrupt the peace.

The most important task for the Loya Jirga is therefore to appoint a legitimate administration and create a responsible, trained and unified army and police force to serve the interests of the people. If this can be achieved, it will give women a new sense of security and enable them to enter public life with confidence.

I do not think women participating in the assembly will wear the burqa and I expect that as soon as a government with real authority is established, the majority of us will abandon that garment, at least in the heart of the capital.

Beyond that, education is the key to female advancement and women at the Loya Jirga will seek to ensure that this remains high on the new administration's agenda. Having been excluded from schooling by the Taleban, women need increased opportunities for learning both at high school and university level.

The interim administration made school accessible to girls and young women, especially in the capital, but the system will need investment in the towns and villages. Radio and print media must also be improved so that people can have wider access to information and educational programming.

This will have an impact not only on our place in society but also within family life. In a country were most marriages are arranged, keen students will hope to remain unmarried throughout their teenage years so they can complete their chosen course. Men will need to learn to appreciate the benefits of an educated wife and mother, and in time wish the same level of schooling for their daughters.

Major challenges remain, such as the question of whether all parties - particularly the men with guns - will accept democratic decisions.

The ladies in the Loya Jirga also face a challenge. It is up to us to operate in a politically disciplined and mature manner and ensure that we present a common voice. We will be working not against men but on behalf of all Afghanistan, yet we can expect some harsh responses from many male delegates. Our goal will be to stick to our principles and to effect change.

All delegates must conduct themselves responsibility and make good the trust bestowed upon them by those they represent. Inshallah, we will accomplish all of these things.

We are also hoping for much more vocal and sustained support from the international women's community. Afghans are saddened by the events of September 11 but they also know that but for that tragedy, no one would have come to our aid, none of the great changes in Afghanistan would have occurred and we would still be languishing in a Taleban prison.

Jamila Mujahed is editor-in-chief of Malalai's women's magazine, a TV and radio broadcasters and a representative of the Association of Afghan Women.

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