What Hope for Afghan Women?

Statement of H.E. Ambassador Zahir Tanin Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
At a panel discussion: “Eight Years On: What Hope for Aghan Women?”
A Side Event at the Commission for the Status of Women 2009

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor for Afghanistan to host this discussion in collaboration with UNIFEM and with the United States, and we welcome you all. I would like thank Joanne Sandler, Deputy Executive Director of UNIFEM, for being here today and for her efforts on behalf of women everywhere. I also want to convey my respect and gratitude for the presence and inspirational statement of H.E. Ambassador of the US to the UN, Dr. Susan Rice. The US has been a great friend to Afghanistan, and to Afghan women, and we are grateful to Ambassador Rice for being able to be here today. We are also humbled to be in the presence of guests who have traveled here from Afghanistan to share their personal experiences. Ms. Suraya Pakzad, Ms. Wazhma Frogh and Ms. Najia Zewari, we look forward to learning from you today.

When I was in my twenties, I studied at Kabul University. At that point, Kabul was known as “the Paris of the East,” a place where the best traditions of East and West merged. At that point, Afghanistan was a peaceful, tolerant country, where ambitious young people were encouraged to pursue a full education. At that point, women studied alongside men. There were dozens of women in all of my classes. My wife was one of these women, and she used her education to become a lecturer at Kabul Medical University and then the medical director of the main maternity hospital in Kabul.

But just a few decades later, this reality of my twenties has been threatened.

War and violence has unsettled the dust of intolerance and ignorance. The Afghanistan that finally emerged in 2001 still struggles to regain what was lost. The legislative framework is there, and the political will is there, but the recent increase in violence and insecurity has meant women are, as always, the first victims. More and more women who study, work, or attempt to be a part of social activities are receiving death threats. We were all witness to the stunning ferocity of the acid attacks on young girls last fall. Without a doubt, there are forces in Afghanistan that aim to again usurp the legitimate rights of Afghan women by creating a climate of terror and fear.

As we fight those forces, the Government of Afghanistan is committed to its responsibilities towards its citizens. We have a broad mandate: women must not only be safe from violence, they must also be free from any atmosphere of intimidation and fear. Women must not only secure participation in the political process, they must also be able to forward social and economic development.

But today we will not be daunted by the scale of the efforts ahead of us. Because we are deeply motivated by the following truths:

First, our history has shown that before the war and before the Taliban, women’s rights were recognized by Afghan society. The modernization of our country did not begin in 2001. It began in the 1900s. In the early 1920s, Queen Soraya became the first Muslim royal to appear publicly without the veil. The first girl’s schools also appeared and women began to seek higher education in Afghanistan and abroad. In the next decades thousands of women worked as professors, lawyers, medical doctors. By the 1960s, women had acquired the constitutionally protected right to vote. Many became appointed as cabinet members and elected to Parliament. Success has been in our past; it can again be in our future.

Second, we recognize the global nature of the struggle for women. As is true in much of the developing world, including Asia, Africa and the Muslim world, there are two Afghanistan’s: one is modern and urban, the other rural and traditional. The challenge of modernizing the countryside is one that not only Afghanistan faces. That is why the work we do in Afghanistan is so important: if we succeed, we can offer hope for other countries working on the same challenge.

Third, we recognize that bridging these two worlds will take time. While occurring first in the cities, modernization requires patience and dedication to expand into the countryside. It may take up to a few generations to accomplish lasting change in social and cultural life.

These three truths: our history, the global nature of this struggle for women, and the time required to effect lasting change-form our motivation to reject inaction-inaction couched in excuses of cultural relativism, or “pragmatism.” These excuses strengthen an immoral, Taliban and fundamentalist attempt to convince the world that Afghanistan will never accept “freedom” because of cultural reasons.

These excuses are false because the Taliban or fundamentalism does not represent any real culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban came to power only as a product of war and destruction. To the Taliban and their ideological brethren, trained and indoctrinated in madrasas outside of Afghanistan, women must be controlled and suppressed. This abuse does not represent our country, our religion, our culture. Talibanization is exactly the opposite-it is an anti-culture, an anti-religion. Talibanization is Taliban-vandalism, Taliban-barbarism.

The Government of Afghanistan recognizes that the ultimate responsibility for the rights of our citizens lies in our own hands. We will do our own work. But we ask for international support in our efforts because there is no such thing as a “local” threat against women. Talibanization, whether in Swat or Waziristan, is a serious threat to the universal attempt to improve the situation of women. It is not a local threat limited to physical boundaries.

We also ask for your support to improve the situation of women because we have seen how much we can do together. The UN, the US, the EU and other countries have been invaluable in the strengthening and stabilization of Afghanistan. With your support, we formed a new government in Bonn. With your support, we held elections in which millions of women were able to express their political will. With your support, 81% of the country now has access to basic health care. With your support, millions of girls have returned to school.

There are several opportunities ahead for us to continue to work together. First, in helping the Government of Afghanistan with security, we are taking an important first step to ensure rights for women. Insecurity is the first threat to Afghan women. Second, we have an important opportunity with the upcoming elections. The constitution of Afghanistan contains guarantees for women representation; thus these elections strengthen women’s participation in the state-building of Afghanistan. Third, the fulfillment of the Paris Conference pledges and a sustained commitment with the Government of Afghanistan to support the Afghan National Development Strategy will work for the economic empowerment of women.

As we gather here, today I remember another Afghanistan, the Afghanistan where I studied and worked. We can find this Afghanistan again with our dedication. Suraya Pakzad, Wazhma Frogh, Najia Zewari have come to tell us their stories and to bring the struggles of millions of Afghan women to the light of reality. They will be the powerful reminder to the importance of our task.

The Government of Afghanistan is fully committed to do what it can do to strengthen the position of women in the country. We hope that the international community will continue to work with us.

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