AFGHAN WOMEN: MARCH TO SEPTEMBER 2003 REPORT OF ACTIVITIES
By Nasrine Gross

  1. NEGAR ACTIVITIES
    - Continued to meet with the Afghan power establishment regarding the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women and the equal rights of women in the new constitution. These contacts included the clergy, the military, the women's groups, the provincial delegates, the media and the government, at all levels, in groups or one-on-one meetings. We were successful in adding to the signature list such names as Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mr. Shahzada Massoud, Minister Councilor for Tribal Affairs, Professor Popal, President of Kabul University, Mr. Bahauddin Baha, President of the Commission on Judicial Reforms, and many others.

    - Shoukria Haidar, President of Negar and I had a three-hour meeting with members of the Constitutional Revision Commission regarding the delivery of the support signatures (I have already sent you the letter). It was agreed to plan a special ceremony. So, on August 11, we invited about 150 of our diverse supporters and the Commission sent two representatives, Ms. Hakema Mashaal Siddiqui and Dr. Abdulhai Ellahi to officially receive the first installment of the signatures (We had managed to transport about one hundred thousand of them from Paris and Washington). The ceremony was attended by several ministers, among them Mr. Qanooni, Dr. Farhang and Dr. Raheen, several deputy ministers including Ms. Qamar Wakili and Mr. Mobarez, Deputy Chief Justice, Mr. Manawi, five generals, three of them women, Loya Jirga delegates, school principals, university professors, representatives of foreign embassies including French, American and Italian, women NGO leaders and wives of two ministers, Mrs. Zarghouna Qanooni and Mrs. Marghalaray Pashtun (whose husband has since become Governor of Kandahar), along with scores of local and foreign journalists.

    The ceremony got off to a good start with the introductory Koran reciting performed by Mrs. Said Bibi Naqi, the first girl high school graduate of Afghanistan. Then Shoukria gave a short speech officially delivering the signatures, as twenty women and men, led by Mrs. Najia Zara brought the reams of signatures and put them in front of the Commissioners. Dr. Ellahi then gave an acceptance speech. Mr. Qanooni, Ms. Siddiqui, Mr. Mobarez, Ms. Qamar Wakili, Mr. Manawi and myself also talked about the importance of the equal rights of women as citizens. Shoukria then outlined Negar's plans until the promulgation of the Constitution, with nine seminars in eight provinces and the last one attended by our international friends to be held in Kabul, just before the Loya Jirga that will ratify this historic document.

    - We held the first of the regional three-day conferences in Charikar, capital of Parwan province three weeks ago. We invited only one hundred of those women in the province who might be potential delegates to the Loya Jirga. We actually had a great turnout of about 250 including about fifty men that included Governor Muqbel, Commander Ayar, Mawlawi Fazli and many from the Al Biruni University in the nearby Kapisa province. The speeches and participation of the attendees were so well received that right on the spot the Governor created one hundred and four posts for females at the provincial level!

    - We also had a preliminary visit to Herat where Shoukria met with Governor Ismail Khan and Ms. Bassira Rouhani, the President of the Women's Council of Herat. Herat and its surroundings were beautiful and the people in the streets seemed more liberal than Kabul. We visited the gravesite of Abdullah Ansar, Gazorgah, and the mausoleum of Queen Gawharshad (15th century). At her tomb I stood in great respect of her and prayed that God will give some of her wisdom and success to us, the modern women of Afghanistan. I did not however appreciate the highway that now cuts into two parts the grounds of her famed madrassah and its five still standing pillars. I thought how we can develop a viable vision of the future if we do not respect our history.

    - On our return to Kabul, we learned that the Loya Jirga is postponed until early December. So we had to make modifications to our plans. Our provincial conferences will continue but at a less hectic pace. Our last conference, originally planned for the end of September in Kabul, will now be held very early in December, when we will deliver the other two hundred thousand signatures as well. We will announce the dates as soon as we know the exact date of the Loya Jirga. And you are all invited! (Meantime, continue to collect and forward to me in the USA as many signatures as you can including from your governments. Get the Declaration and the Statement of Support from www.kabultec.org.)

    - The Minister of International Development of Germany visited Kabul. One of her meetings was with several Afghan women leaders and Shoukria and I were invited to it. She was very interested in our activities and of course committed to the equal rights of women as citizens in the new constitution.
  2. UNIVERSITY ACTIVITIES
    - I continued to teach and enjoy it very much. This year the students seem to be bouncing back from the shell shock of having lost several years of schooling, which was the case last year. They are very enthusiastic about learning. We even managed to have a field trip to the National Archives and to see the Arch of Victory in Paghman. For many of them this was their first field trip ever. They were amazed at the wealth of history presented to them at the Archives, especially letters from such luminaries as the Prophet Mohammad, Ahmad Shah Baba, and many other kings of Afghanistan as well as the original manuscripts from Jami and others. They also enjoyed seeing Paghman for the first time and learned that Afghanistan has had a long - - and glorious - - history of fighting for its independence. We still lack textbooks and materials. I would love to have a few videos and books on art history and Islam to take with me. I also got involved a little with the boys and girls dormitories. I donated some money to the boys dormitory to get equipment for volunteers to clean the kitchen and the cafeteria. It would be so good to provide them with examples, by posters and videos, of what student volunteer activities are like in other university dormitories. Anyone interested to help either the girls or boys dormitories, please let me know.

    - I also now work full time at the University's first think tank called the National Center for Policy Research opened in early summer, thanks to grants from the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. This is a much-needed institution to both rekindle the mentality and practice of academic research and create some knowledge repositories about Afghanistan by Afghans themselves. I have three research projects that employ professors and students from the School of Social Sciences. We are hoping to develop some specialties that pertain to Afghanistan's current needs, such as the area of gender, conflict resolution/peace building, ethnic/diversity awareness and constructing some databases. We have been trying to build a library from what is available in the local market as well as develop a methodology of social science research and project management. We are looking for donors for our projects.
  3. OTHER ACTIVITIES
    - Privately I developed literacy programs for adults. As you know Afghanistan has more non-literate adults than school age population and right now they all want to learn how to read and write. We have started courses in several deprived areas of Kabul. The students enjoy these classes and demand seems to grow from day one. Finding and/or creating the right materials, training teachers and preventing high dropout rates have been educational. But the joy is to see these adults learning the alphabet and rudiments of counting - - and giggling about it. Some of them are grandparents, others are very young marrieds, most are laborers and small vendors, we even have one mullah and one street beggar!

    - Thanks to friends in the USA, we received a large shipment of a novel about the heroics of Afghans against the Soviet occupation, called Kara Kush written by Idries Shah, an Afghan-British author. We distributed copies to all the Afghan universities and some voluntary civil society organizations, places that have English language classes but are short on reading material. The donations were very well received as we have had several requests for more such material.

    - I was able to take with me in March a few pounds of the vegetable and flower seed packets that many of you sent. We distributed them in Kabul and the outlying villages to several groups of widows with gardens. Thanks to good rainfall this spring, the harvest has been tremendous, especially Swiss chard, radishes, zucchini, okra, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, sage and dill have given good results. What hasn't worked so well are the tomato varieties and herbs such as thyme and rosemary. Maybe somebody can give me tips on how to grow these from seed in dense soil in very dry climate? Afghans are also constantly asking me about seeds for fruit shrubs/trees and unusual flowers that will grow in such conditions.

    - I also attended many government, civil society and NGO gatherings, conferences and seminars, and weddings, engagements, mosque meetings, bazaar encounters, crafts shows, concerts, plays, village picnics and... too many to recite here. I have met many many very wonderful people, men and women, young and old, Afghan and non-Afghan. I have learned a lot from them.

    Some things strike me as especially fantastic: In thirty-seven years of living outside Afghanistan I had forgotten one thing about my people, their habit of hard work. Now, going through Jad-e Maiwand, for example, I never see any one strolling, but thousands of souls busy at some task. This ethics of hard work is a beautiful omen of what is to come. I am convinced that given a small chance, my people will rebuild their country in a much shorter time than anyone gives them credit for. Also, the mind of Afghans seems to me to be a cauldron of ideas. I have now met so many Afghans who never left Afghanistan and who managed to write one or two books, unpublished as yet, but still indicative of their gray matter wonderfully at work even under the worst of circumstances. And no day goes by without a few really passionate discussions - even with the pushcart seller. I keep imagining what intellectual blossoming we will experience if this mind is given half an opportunity. Then too, the spirituality that exists in Afghanistan, the belief in meaning, the quest for a world larger than one's own existence, the attitude that there is more to life than just the daily grind, that ideals exist to die for. All of these make me realize every day why Afghanistan is such a special place and why I am having so much fun there.

    - Speaking of fun, early in the year I rented a three-room apartment, a place for me and my books. The apartment, a third floor walk-up, was not only previously tenement housing for six families who had moved for the first time from their rural area to an urban setting it had not seen any repairs for 24 years either. The walls, ceilings and floors were covered with thick layers of two decades of war grime, all the electric connections were just big dirty holes, the bathroom fixtures and appliances were broken, the kitchen was not only non-operating but even inside the cupboards were smeared with soot as if they were used for cooking and the countertop formica was scratched and torn to pieces as if it was parchment paper; there were no glass panes, no door handles, no locks. Rats, roaches and other crawlies were having a time of their life on every imaginable surface. It took three people three days and seven boxes of detergent for the rooms to show their true condition to the painter. The carpenter and plumber had an easier time; they hauled everything out and started all over again. The electrician had to start with finding the fuses. Well, six months and umpteen trips to every corner of the bazaar for every little needed part and countless missed handyman appointments and untold disappointments later, I have a painted, carpeted and fumigated little flat that is sealed from the elements with window panes, has a functioning bathroom and kitchen, and with all the electrical outlets and connections in place. It has running cold water from five in the morning until five in the afternoon and electricity until ten pm, that is when there is no rationing, in which case I have electricity from six in the evening until six in the morning. And to top it all of I can catch a taxi just outside my door. I feel like I live in a palace - - or at least in a penthouse in Manhattan or the Champs Elysees! And, I get to be the first to hear the fireworks when they happen: The hill in front of my building is reputed to be the launch pad for terrorists' rockets and on a couple of rare occasions I have heard the rockets go over my building and drop somewhere with a loooouuuud noise (Thankfully, each time they missed).

    On a more serious note, our work for women's rights in the constitution is by no means a foregone success. I am really concerned about the impact of the enemies of Afghanistan. Those against a democratic, stable and successful Afghanistan are powerful and determined. Limiting women's rights is still the easiest route to derailing the constitution, and all the while making it look like it is really the Afghans themselves that are the bad guys. Oh, our enemies are so savvy at that... But make no mistake, we are even more determined to help Afghanistan make the right decisions for itself whether our enemies like it or not. I ask you to join us in this decisive rendezvous with history.

    It is my right; it is our common legacy!