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The Women Of Afghanistan | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Women Of Afghanistan

The Women Of Afghanistan

The Women Of Afghanistan

Fatimah Jilani was well known in the British capital as the author of &#34The Mosques of London&#34 and through her noticeable presence in the Arab and world media as the spokeswoman of the &#34Afghan Mujahidin&#34. She comes from a prominent aristocratic family in Afghanistan and is one of four women that participated in the Bonn conference. She studied history and literature in Tehran and Islamic studies in London under Dr Zaki Badawi, the principal of the Islamic College in Britain and the former imam of Regent Park Mosque. Fatimah Jilani, an elegant woman who is fluent in English, is the wife of Afghan Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi. She was chairing a meeting for the directors of the Afghan Red Crescent, of which she is head, in the capital Kabul. The majority of those present in her office were men with the exception of Dr Yasmin. Her intellectual presence and her domination of the discussion was remarkable as she introduced her aides to the Arab press reflecting the strong will of this woman returning to Afghanistan from the West.

Fatimah Jilani, the head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, was dressed in a long discreet black robe with white stripes with a simple red scarf with no frills covered her head. She was straight and direct as she talked about the rights of women in her country, providing examples of the deteriorating health conditions of women in her country. She pointed out that four out of ten woman in the province of Badakshan die during childbirth due to lack of health awareness and the shortage of medical clinics. While talking about her book &#34The Mosques of London&#34, Jilani mentioned that she finished writing another book before coming to Afghanistan on the biography of Muhammad Musa Shafiq, the poet, scholar, diplomat, and former Afghan ambassador in Cairo. She said that this book is her thesis for a Masters degree in London. She praised Dr Zaki Badawi, the principal of the Islamic College, for his help in her research and gave Asharq Al-Awsat a copy of her new book.

Fatimah Jilani spent 20 years of her life in London and western countries. She is the daughter of Ahmad Jilani, one of the chiefs of the Pashtun tribes that have close links to King Zaher Shah. I asked her why she decided to return to Afghanistan despite her affluent life in London. Smiling confidently, she said, &#34I had to go back after all those years. In London, I was the voice of all the Afghans. I raised my voice against the Russian occupation of my country and I strongly opposed the domination of the Taliban in Afghanistan and their compulsory imposition of darkness on the history and culture of my country. I returned to Afghanistan because this is a source of pride for me. We were forced to flee our land to escape the communist practices and then from the Taliban when they started to target men of religion, the educated, and college graduates&#34. Fatimah Jilani”s eyes glitter as she says; &#34I am a Jilani scion, the daughter of Ahmad Jilani, one of the most prominent notables in Peshawar and a former moderate mujahid in exile in Pakistan. I could have stayed in London and got everything I wanted but when my husband decided to return home I chose to return with him&#34. She pointed out that her and her husband who is the current Finance Minister in President Karsai”s government, decided to return to Afghanistan to take part in the battle of reconstruction after both playing a prominent role in the jihad against the Russians as well as part of the opposition against the Taliban regime.

The office of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in the capital of Kabul lacks the most basic necessities. It has no bathroom or conference hall. The bathroom is in another building far from the central office with no electricity or water. Although the burdens on Fatimah Jilani”s shoulders are quite heavy, she described her aspirations as she talked to a limited number of Arab journalists in the main office of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Kabul. Her dreams are not solely confined to a better future for Afghan women in education, health, and generally a decent life. The highest number of victims of the long mujahidin wars that devastated the country for 23 years were women, she says. To illustrate her point that women in this country suffer from and lack the most basic necessities and were the most affected victims of these wars, Jilani says the highest rate of suicides and fatalities during childbirth are women.

Jilani adds that these rights are not new. They were available to Afghan women during the democratic era between 1963 and 1973 when &#34the Afghan people clung to their Islamic faith and traditions&#34. Jilani says, &#34Afghan women enjoyed all the rights. Naturally, they observed all the Islamic traditions of decency in clothes and conduct. Afghan women were active and successful in all the social fields. They served in parliament and received equal wages like men. They even enjoyed more rights than western women&#34.

Jilani asserts that it is not the time to lament and cry over the past. It is time to mobilize all the energies and turn weaknesses into strengths to galvanize the Afghan people and make them forget the painful past. She says, &#34Despite the inadequate international aid that we receive, all Afghan women, especially those who work in the Afghan Red Crescent Society, have high hopes. This hope that we learned during our childhood drives us to cling to life&#34. On the problems faced by Afghan women, Jilani says, &#3490 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. They do not have the basic reading and writing skills. We need to tend to the orphans of the mujahidin wars. We need water, medical centers, and so on. We have a huge shortage of schools and teachers. Many of the teachers themselves need education and training. Despite all the efforts we exerted, many schoolchildren who are not far from the capital are studying under trees or in tents because of the shortage of school buildings&#34.

Jilani says that the problem of Afghan women is the problem of the entire Afghan society because women constitute half of the society. The Afghan Red Crescent Society runs 49 health clinics and one hospital in the main provinces of Mazar-e Sharif, Nanjarhar, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. Jilani said that one of the new tasks that her society is undertaking is training the sons of refugees with new skills.

She introduced a 16-year-old boy who works in her office serving tea and coffee during the day and learning English in an evening school. She said that King Zaher Shah has donated a 75-hectare plot of land in the area of Afshar near Kabul (where the Afghan Red Crescent Society building is located) to build new projects in order to benefit the sons of Afghanistan.

With regards to her goals, Fatimah Jilani said that she dreams that one day the children of Afghanistan would live like all other children in the world in that they would be able to study languages, have athletic clubs, schools, medical centres, and access to the Internet. She hopes that one of these days illiteracy would be eradicated in her country and she dreams of benevolent hands stretched in aid to help her country grow and prosper. One of her priorities is to improve the living conditions for women in her country and for job and training opportunities as well as medical care and education for the needy. She says, &#34The most prominent accomplishment for women is increasing the legal age of marriage. In the past, young girls were forced to marry at an early age and most of them to much older spouses&#34.

Fatimah Jilani said that she met a young girl in Mazar-e Sharif from the Shiite Hazara tribe that spoke English, Pashtu, and Dari. She learned these languages from her father who used to teach her behind closed windows during the Taliban era. This girl won a contest organized by the US Embassy and received a scholarship to study in the United States. She came top in her class for two years and she writes to Fatimah every now and then. I asked her about the international aid that was approved by the Bonn conference that she attended. She replied, &#34So far we have not seen anything. The Afghan Red Crescent Society is a very poor organization&#34. Despite what she said, Jilani insisted on offering lunch to the Arab journalists, which was a touching gesture that demonstrated the generous hospitality of the Afghans. Jilani added, &#34We are starting from scratch. We need almost everything. We need trained teachers and skills. We need cooks, engineers, schools, health clinics, and textbooks. However, I am more optimistic because some of my dreams are beginning to come true. Girls are returning to schools and some schools are doing three shifts a day to accommodate the large number of girls who want to study. The destruction and devastation that you saw today is nothing compared to how conditions were three years ago. What the Russians did was hideous but the civil wars waged by the mujahidin were even more horrific. They destroyed everything in this country&#34.

Fatimah Jilani did not forget to mention that despite the utter poverty and the current crisis in Afghanistan, she participated in the launch of a fundraising campaign for the victims of the tidal wave in Asia. She managed to raise 10 tons of dried grapes, 18 tons of dried fruits, and four tons of seeds for the victims of the Tsunami. Jilani appealed to the spouses of Arab leaders to provide help to the women and children of Afghanistan that were most victimized during the wars that devastated the country over 23 years. She adds, &#34We need almost everything. The war did not leave us with anything to start with. This office where we operate does not have a meeting hall or a small kitchen for the volunteers, which is extremely important&#34.

The Muslim veil can still be seen on the streets of Kabul. However, after three visits to Kabul, one can feel an obvious rebellion against wearing the veil, especially among educated girls in the neighborhood of Shahranu or the centre of the city. Some window shops in the center of the city display modern and fashionable women”s clothing, while others display cosmetics, reflecting an obvious desire by Afghan women to look good. Stores selling music tapes reflect a real desire by young Afghans to have western music by singers like Madonna, Charlotte Church, and the Spice Girls. As I was searching in the stores for tapes by Afghan singers like Farhat, Ahmad Tahir, Bresto, and Rahim Mehrayar, unveiled Afghan women were asking for tapes by Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Robbie Williams. Undoubetedly, behind the image that the western media portrays of the veil worn by Afghan women between yesterday and today, many facts are concealed about the long struggle that Afghan women will have to wage in a hard-line and fundamentalist society where only men can decide what is allowed and what is not. One observer of the Afghan scene that I met in Kabul says, &#34The customs and traditions of the land are stronger than the constitution. Change cannot come quickly. This is difficult and should be a gradual process&#34.

The have been numerous reports by western media outlets on the Afghan veil. When I visited Kabul during the days of the Taliban, I was scared to take a picture of any veiled woman on the street because photography was taboo by order of the mufti of the fundamentalist movement. The Taliban regime that was toppled by a US-led force near the end of 2001, forced women to wear the veil during its six-year rule of most of Afghanistan. The custom of wearing the veil (that was already prevalent in the remote provinces) was turned into a compulsory law in the more liberal cities of Afghanistan. Women who did not wear the veil were beaten or flogged.

The Taliban also banned Afghan women and girls from education, jobs, driving, and even walking in the street without a male companion. After the Taliban movement was toppled, men flocked to barber shops to get rid of the beards that were imposed by the Taliban and women removed the veil for the first time in years.

When the government of President Karsai took control in the country, many men used this newfound freedom to enjoy a shaven face and western clothes. A storekeeper in Kabul says, &#34Things have not changed much since the days of the Taliban. I continue to sell veils daily. The women of Kabul prefer the blue veil while Pashtun women prefer the black and red veil. Unmarried girls opt for the white veil&#34. His store contains many rose-colored and purple veils for foreigners who wish to buy a souvenir from Afghanistan. Many girls that have lived outside Afghanistan for a while reject the idea of wearing a veil. Even older women that have never left Afghanistan wonder whether they can really move around on the street without the traditional covering.

Many educated women prefer the coloured scarf, like Fatimah Jilani herself and her assistant Dr Yasmin who wears make-up and a light scarf over her head. Some Afghan women do not wish to preoccupy themselves with the issue of the veil that represents the oppression of women in the eyes of the western media. They say that the veil is the least of their problems and that it will not disappear from the workplace or the government even after they achieve equality with men.

Fatimah Jilani was forced to immigrate early on. She was the mujahidin spokeswoman during the years of the war against the Russians to explain her country”s case in Europe. The harsh circumstances she faced forced her to work in different fields. During her stay in Britain, she designed clothes for the women of the ruling families in the Arab world and wrote political commentaries. She also wrote her book &#34The Mosques of Britain&#34 during which she discovered that the first mosque in Britain was built by an Indian princess called Princess Abidah Sultanah Bahwabal during the 19th century and at the expense of an Afghan ruler. Jilani”s book reviews the history of building mosques and includes the dates of construction of the oldest mosques built in London. When Muslims first arrived in Britain in the 19th century, they built small mosques like the Warking Mosque, which is the oldest mosque built in the suburbs of London in the 19th century. The book also includes a short history of more than 100 mosques in London and the huge efforts that were exerted to build them. Prior to that, Muslims prayed in the open, especially during the two feasts, or in private homes and small rooms.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very active in building and renovating mosques and Islamic centers in Britain and other countries of the world. It supplies them with Islamic books and copies of the Koran translated in various languages as well as constant material support to assist these mosques and Islamic centers in carrying out their noble mission in the service of Muslims. Fatimah Jilani was a member of the Afghan delegation to the Berlin Donors conference and she briefed the conferees on the suffering of Afghan women. She also participated in the conference of the Loya Jerga, the Grand Council of Elders that led to the formation of the transitional government in Afghanistan. She also was one of eight women that participated in the meetings of the committee drafting a new constitution for Afghanistan.

The Women Of Afghanistan

The Women Of Afghanistan

Fatimah Jilani

Fatimah Jilani