I met Zakia in the restaurant of the United Nations compound in Kabul, partly because it was convenient and partly because there are still not that many public places for a western man to sit and talk to an Afghan woman alone.
Zakia (not her real name) is a former director of an Afghan non-governmental organization (NGO), the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan (HAWCA), established in January 1999. It started as a simple humanitarian assistance group, helping vulnerable women and children, but now lists its objectives as promoting the role of women in society and supporting the reconstruction of the country .
If Afghanistan has a future, it will be due to the efforts of people like Zakia who form part of a small but emerging civil society, determined to challenge the warlords and fundamentalists who still dominate the country s official politics.
We need peace, says Zakia. The Americans bombs are not the answer.
The two sides will have to sit down and talk some day, so the only question is how many of us have to get killed before that happens. I press her about whether she would accept a role for the Taliban in government and she paused before replying: Yes, this would be a big price to pay, but if they lay down their guns and accept the constitution, why not? After all, people with the same attitudes are already in the government. What is happening at the moment is worse because while the conflict continues our whole society is being Talibanized and corrupted.
Zakia has worked with a network of Afghan women s groups and human rights organizations to press for legislative reforms, such as a law on ending violence against women. Along with the Afghan independent human rights commission, she was involved in a conference that drew on the experiences of a number of other countries with sharia-based legal systems (meaning those which are based on Islamic principles of jurisprudence) to look at best practices for a new law on family relations.
She also lobbied against a proposal in a draft penal procedure code that would have introduced a lower age of criminal responsibility for girls than for boys. After a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, he refused to sign these discriminatory proceedings into law.
HAWCA has also helped to establish refuge centers for women escaping domestic violence – an enormously controversial issue in Afghanistan, where many judges and prosecutors still consider running away from home a criminal offence. It also participates in the Afghan women s network and a network of women parliamentarians.
It runs education projects as well as health and childcare, counseling and protection, emergency response operations and support for income-generating activities. With its main office in Kabul, HAWCA also operates in seven other provinces in Afghanistan and with refugee groups across the Pakistan border in Peshawar.
Voices like Zakia s are still comparatively isolated, but they are beginning to make themselves heard. In a country where girls are only beginning to receive an education again, it is not surprising that there are so few women professionals and decision-makers. This will take time to change and social attitudes will take even longer.
Afghanistan is a proud country, hospitable to guests, but has seen off many foreign invaders. Its people are as unlikely to be subdued by western bombs as they are to accept the imposition of what they see as alien values. Zakia stresses that she is a Muslim and a patriot who is as sickened at the corruption of true Islamic values by the fundamentalists as she is by the continuing destruction of her country by foreign forces.
Many western liberals seem to have a particular problem understanding people like Zakia, but the views that she expressed are representative of hundreds of conversations that I have had with Afghan friends and colleagues over the years. These express relief at the overthrow of the Taliban – and real gratitude to the international community for its initial intervention – tempered by frustration that the opportunity was not used to break the grip of the warlords and gangsters who have consolidated their position over the last six years.
More recently I have also felt a growing anger at the ineffectiveness of the international community s assistance strategy and the inept and brutal conduct of its military campaign. There is still a window of opportunity to change the broad direction of western policy towards the country, but it is getting smaller by the day.
Conor Foley is a humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. The full text can be found at www.guardian.co.uk.