Give Us Back Afghanistan!

— Sharifa Sharif

AS I SIT here carrying the shattered images of Afghan women that have dominated the media recently, I think about my childhood, my intellectual and my professional background in Afghanistan.  The country, whose images of ruin and destruction have all of a sudden struck the humane conscious of the West, has a different image in my mind.

At the age of six I went to a school in the northern part of Afghanistan.  I continued my school in various provinces and cities, sometimes in girls' school and at times together with boys.

The intellectual striving in those years, for me and many other feminist educated women like me, was to broaden the scope of access and freedom for the girls in the entire country, the villages, the remote areas.

I went to the university and studied in a class among thirty men as the only woman, because of my own choice of a non-traditional discipline.  There, my struggles sought ways of incorporating gender studies, a struggle much beyond a concern for the right to education.

I didn't then join the Academy of Pashto Studies out of necessity, but as a choice to enter a male-dominated academic institute.  Then my resistance centered on removing gender-biased boundaries for career women, a resistance way beyond fighting for the right to work.

My cultural contribution to the society was my part-time job as the National Radio announcer/poetry reciter, writer along with many more women.

As I grew intellectually and professionally and as a citizen of that country, I fought for a broader scheme of freedom and justice for the entire population, the poor, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and I hoped for a more just, free and democratic society/country.

I wasn't alone in my struggle.  There were thousands of women, university students, professors, writers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists, members of the parliament who had the same hopes and were moving the wheels slowly but surely towards better tomorrows.

Women were not only getting education, but were challenging the non-traditional careers.  Women doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, even judges excelled in their positions and represented women's needs and concerns.

There were barriers, but the poor economic infrastructure and backward cultural attachments were defied easily on the strength of strong legal institutions and democratic constitution that was established through Loya Jerga [traditional assembly—ed.] and the elected parliaments.  I then went to the United States, not to flee death and war, but to enhance my education with advanced scientific measures.

From Hope to Ruin

I do not want to suggest that Afghanistan was a free and just society.  It was a developing country striving towards democratization and development, carrying the full baggage of a Third World country.

An infrastructure was being built for incorporating women into the developmental projects and for developing democratic schemes through the legal system, education, media, art and urbanization.

As a woman, I struggled for more justice and freedom for women in all walks of life. As an intellectual I worked for democratizing the infrastructure.

Today, twenty-two years later, as I speak to you here, I am sure that in the mind of every one of you the striking images of terror, poverty, destruction, and death have been carved beside the word Afghanistan.

An Afghan woman has become synonymous with invisibility and oppression; a top-to-toe covered deprived woman with no right to education, work, no space in public and no say in her life. The images may not be true for the social/ historical framework of an Afghan woman; nevertheless they are documentaries from Afghanistan today.

But these facts haven't emerged from the social, economic, cultural decisions or choices of Afghan people.  They are the outcome of twenty-two years of terror and war carried out by different powers for pursuing different interests in and by Afghanistan.

The world powers used various tools and means to use Afghanistan to achieve their imperialistic and capitalist goals.  As destructive they were, they led to equally destructive outcomes.

The barbaric act of terrorism that shook the Western world on September 11 is tragically and ironically the return call of terrorism that was thrown to Afghanistan by these powers supporting Bin Laden and harboring Taliban.

The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in essence started then. The Taliban were the darkest and deepest cave into which civilization and the dignity of the Afghans were cast. Today's terrorism is an ugly answer to an ugly crime.

Terrorism has not been born in Afghanistan.  It has emerged from all these wars. It has been brought and raised there for other wars. The Taliban who are the messenger of barbarism and destruction have not grown in the cultural and social womb of our society.  They too have been brought and supported for yet other power-driven goals.

Who Suffers?

Women in the midst of all these turns are the targets of any and every policy, with only regressive and backward intentions.  The share of Afghan civilians from all the years of use and abuse has been terror, death, destruction and regression.

The world is getting its share.  Justice is calling for the world's attention, however through a criminal voice.

The people of Afghanistan have not been only victimized tragically, but have been put in a most historical paradox.  How should they react to the situation in which they have had no say?  How should they respond to a foreign bombing which is a response to an internal bombing?

An Afghan biweekly newspaper Zarnegar has suggested: "The invasion of the United States has not happened today, but it happened when they created the Taliban.  But today, the United States has come to defy its own invasion.  The bombs that are exploding in Afghanistan were in fact hitting the people of Afghanistan seven years ago through the existence of Taliban.  The United States should apologize to the people of Afghanistan not for its present bombing, but for its initial bombing."

Maybe the United States is apologizing to the people of Afghanistan by destroying the Taliban, but it is an apology with bombs.  What is there for the Afghans to decide?  Accept the apology: destruction and death.  Refuse the apology: destruction and death, with a different face.

We Demand Our Country!

The nation of Afghanistan may not be able to answer the paradoxical relations of politics today.  But they are certainly asking for their stability, their dignity, their constitution, their human rights, their art, their families, their culture, their music, their destiny, and their struggle for progress and development.

They demand that the dark and heartbreaking images of the Afghan woman being beaten for her appearance, or the starving devastated mother of three murdered sons, be exchanged for the portrait of the Afghan woman doctor treating patients and the women engineers designing homes for the poor.

The Afghans and those supporting their cause would certainly stick those portraits over today's impoverished media images.  Let this be my opportunity to represent the present hope of Afghanistan.


Sharifa Sharif is a former national radio broadcaster and social activist in Afghanistan, now living in exile.  This article was a talk in Toronto shortly after the beginning of the bombing.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)

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