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Afghan Women's Conference Discusses Human Rights - 2002-10-22

One year after meetings were held in Germany on Afghanistan's future, an Afghan women's organization in New York met to discuss women's rights. The group says progress has been made but more is needed. Organizers believe their goals can be accomplished with ongoing international aid.

Women for Afghan Women, a collective of Afghan and non-Afghan women from the New York area, says international assistance to Afghanistan is especially needed right now. The group says the world must not forget Afghanistan just because 23 years of war, foreign invasions and Taleban repression are over.

Documentary filmmaker Rory Oconnor interviewed participants at the groups recent meeting about concerns that Afghanistan will be neglected by news media and international donors.

O'Conner: For Americans, because our audience for this film is largely Americans, what would you say to people whose general impression now is the war is over, Afghanistan has been liberated, the plight of the Afghan people and Afghan women is not something we really need to be greatly concerned about.

Interviewee: I think the danger is that we think we've done our job when we haven't...

Women for Afghan Women invited secular and religious Afghans who have been living in Afghanistan or who have returned from exile, to help rebuild the country, as well as western women involved in their plight, to report on their work.

Former Minister for Women's Affairs in the Afghan Interim Authority and now Human Rights Commissioner for Afghanistan, Sima Samar, says the newly formed commission is focusing on education. "Being [a] woman outside of the house doesn't mean all the women in Afghanistan [are] free. We try to use any mean(s) to educate people about their rights," she says. "We would like to tell the women and give them awareness about their rights and about their legal status and what is their legal status according to [the] constitution." But, the group says, education comes at a price. Aid promised to Afghanistan by the international community needs to be delivered immediately.

Fahima Vorgetts has testified on numerous occasions to the United Nations about Taleban abuses. After visits to Afghanistan this year, the Kabul-born human rights advocate says women still do not have the rights that many media organizations say they have. "I wish I could tell you everything was good in Afghanistan," she says. "I wish I could tell you that the orphans are taken care of. I wish I could tell you there are no rapes there anymore. I wish I could tell you women are free. And I wish I could tell you everything is hunky-dory [great], but unfortunately, it is not."

Playwright and activist Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day, a global movement that supports anti-violence organizations worldwide. She says Afghanistan is still unstable and that as an American, she encourages her fellow citizens to get involved now. "That is usually the most crucial time for people, particularly in war zones where people have created enormous destruction and terror and trauma. I'm very, very despaired about what is going on in Afghanistan," says Ms. Ensler. "Having now been there and having now met with women over the last months who are coming back and giving reports, it is very clear that women are not safe in Afghanistan."

Ms. Ensler stressed the importance of cultural understanding when assisting Afghan women. She says Americans have to take into consideration the fact that religion plays an important role in the lives of many Afghan women.

Riffat Hassan is a Pakistan-born Muslim feminist and religion professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Professor Hassan says Americans have to understand that Afghan women want their rights but they want their religion as well. She says, theoretically, Islam has great concern for women's rights, but it has been difficult to deliver this message since September 11. "After 9-11 we are in a whole different world," she says. "There is so much demonization of Islam and so now it is like we want to liberate the Muslim world from Islam, and that is not going to happen because Islam is what defines the identity of these people."

Women for Afghan Women believes that religion, culture, education, law and human rights can coexist in Afghanistan. But, the group says, that cannot happen without the continuing support of women, and men, everywhere.