Beyond the burqa

December 28, 2003

THE OUSTING of the Taliban from Afghanistan two years ago liberated a country and a people. Afghan women had come to symbolize the repressive regime because of the bright blue, head-to-toe traditional dress imposed upon them by the Islamic militants. But the true measure of liberation is not in how Afghan women dress, but in their standing in a society that remains fundamentalist and male-dominated.

In a tent at a college campus in Kabul, about 500 delegates are meeting to write a constitution for a new and evolving republic. It is in that document that the rights of Afghan women must be secured.

Debate at this grand council - known as a loya jirga - has focused mainly on the kind of government Afghanistan will embrace. Will it have a strong presidency or a parliamentary system headed by a prime minister? That may be the overriding question as ethnic warlords vie with U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai over their country's future. But the role of women cannot be lost in wrangling over power.

Afghan women, nearly half of the country's 28 million people, suffered greatly under Taliban rule and its strict interpretation of Islamic law. They were denied the most basic of rights, deprived of an education and subject to the force and will of their husbands or male relatives.

Since the fall of the Taliban, the U.S.-backed transition government has included women in its Cabinet and in other positions of power. Why, as many as 100 women delegates are participating in the loya jirga. As the constitution develops, there are opportunities great and small to ensure women's rightful place in government and society. An Afghan constitution should explicitly prohibit discrimination against women - the initial draft had no such language.

A paternalistic tone dominates the draft, according to a review by the U.N. Development Fund for Women.

An easy fix would be to refer to women as female heads of households, rather than as women without caretakers. An effort should be made to remove from the constitution any customs and practices that treat women unequally.

There are aspects of Islamic law that consider the worth of women to be less than that of men, and reconciling the differences will be difficult in this tradition-bound, religious culture. But as Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a Muslim woman from Iran, has noted repeatedly, Islam and human rights are not mutually exclusive. Guaranteeing women's rights in Afghanistan is, at its most basic, ensuring human rights.

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