An interview with Sally Armstrong

Canadian Sally Armstrong has championed the cause of women in Afghanistan and is the author of two books on the subject. She has recently written Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women, published by Viking Canada.

Q: The news from Afghanistan is frightening. Recently several girls had acid thrown in their faces on the way to school, and now their friends are afraid to go to school. How did you react?

A: Like everyone, I was horrified. This was a cowardly act committed by so-called religious men who claim they act in the name of God, but it won't stop the girls from going to school. They're already back in the school where the attack happened. What's more, the vast majority of Afghans want their girls to be educated.

Q: Why are improved conditions for women and children taking so long?

A: You can't change 1,000 years of history overnight. The Taliban didn't invent this kind of treatment of women; they just took misogyny to a new and institutionalized level. It's the women reformers in Afghanistan today who are taking on brutal tribal law and extremist men and demanding change. Their stories are soul-searing, their courage remarkable. I believe they will succeed.

Q: In the practice of bad, a female family member is handed over to sometimes hostile foes for reparation. Don't the fathers, brothers and sons in Afghanistan love their female family members?

A: Love is an interesting comment. I think Afghans would tell you that loyalty is more to the emotional point. Having said that, I feel that fathers, brothers and sons do feel protection toward their [daughters, sisters and mothers], but they bow to the tyranny of tribal law.

Q: Women try to burn themselves to death because they have no other way at hand to escape life. What about an international rescue mission to help these women?

A: You can't remove all the women from the country. What you can do is support the women who are trying to reform the situation that they're in. Remember in the '60s and '70s in Canada, women shouldered open the door, making an opening for change for women and girls. But no government or institution went through that opening. What Canadian women discovered is that if you want to make change, you need to make it yourself.

Q: Can we ever improve women's lives there if we keep hands off culture and religion?

A: Keeping hands off culture and religion is wrong. We are so politically correct that we excuse criminal assault in the name of cultural relativity. Afghans never used to be so religiously strict. Their culture was a rich tapestry that was thousands of years old. What the fundamentalists are passing off as culture and religion in Afghanistan is foreign to the Afghans themselves.

Q: What have the biggest accomplishments been in the past few years?

A: There have been plenty of successes – an elected government, for one thing. The government has immense problems with corruption and inexperience, but it is democratically elected – that's a start. Six million children are in school, although five million are not, but that's another start.

10 Arrested in Acid Attack

Afghan police have arrested 10 Taliban militants involved in an acid attack this month against 15 girls and teachers walking to school in southern Afghanistan, a provincial governor said Tuesday.

"Several" of the arrested militants have confessed to taking part in the acid attack, said Kandahar Gov. Rahmatullah Raufi. He declined to be more precise.

High-ranking Taliban fighters paid the militants a total of $2,000 to carry out the attack, Raufi said. The attackers came from Pakistan but were Afghan nationals, said Doud Doud, an Interior Ministry official.

The attackers squirted the acid from water bottles onto three groups of students and teachers walking to school in Kandahar city on Nov. 12. Several girls suffered burns to the face and were hospitalized. One teenager couldn't open her eyes days after the attack, which drew condemnation from around the world.

After the investigation is complete, the accused will be tried in open court, said Raufi.

One of the victims, a teacher named Nuskaal who was burned through her burqa, called Tuesday for a harsh punishment for the attackers.

"If these people are found guilty, the government should throw the same acid on these criminals. After that they should be hanged," said Nuskaal, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

President Hamid Karzai earlier this month called for a public execution of the perpetrators.

Afghanistan's government called the attack "un-Islamic," and the United Nations labelled it "a hideous crime." U.S. first lady Laura Bush decried it as cowardly.

Kandahar is the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and is one of Afghanistan's most conservative regions, a place where women rarely venture far from home.

A Taliban spokesman earlier this month denied that Taliban militants were involved in the attack.

Girls were banned from schools under the Taliban regime, the hard-line Islamists who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women were only allowed to leave the house wearing a body-hiding burqa and accompanied by a male family member.

The country has made a major push to improve access to education for girls since the Taliban's ouster. Fewer than 1 million Afghan children – mostly all boys – attended school under Taliban rule. Roughly 6 million Afghan children, including 2 million girls, attend school today.

But many conservative families still keep their girls at home.

Raufi said that girls attending Mirwais Mena girls' school didn't attend class for three days after the attack, but that girls have since returned to class there.

Kandahar province's schools serve 110,000 students at 232 schools, Raufi said. But only 10 of the 232 are for girls. Some 26,000 girls go to school, he said.

Arsonists have repeatedly attacked girls' schools and gunmen killed two students walking outside a girls' school in central Logar province last year. UNICEF says there were 236 school-related attacks in Afghanistan in 2007. The Afghan government has also accused the Taliban of attacking schools in an attempt to force teenage boys into the Islamic militia.

Afghan child mortality linked to poverty

According to a new study poverty, a lack of education of the mothers, child marriage, lack of maternal autonomy, shortage of basic material needs and internal displacement showed a significant difference in child health and death rates within Afghanistan. Well-to-do Afghan children had drastically better health and lower death rates.

The study was based on a total of 2474 children from 1327 households completed the examinations and interviews; among them, 101 children were deceased by the time of the interview visits.

Diarrhea (32.5%) and acute respiratory infection (41.0%) were common child health problems and both emaciation (12.4%) and linear growth retardation (39.9%) were prevalent. Poverty, lack of education and the sheer youth/inexperience of the young mothers were the primary differences in illness/death rates.

Self-immolation on the rise

In September 2008 Sarah, 20, set herself ablaze in a desperate bid to end her life after four years of marriage to a drug addict in Sheendand District in western Afghanistan.

Her family extinguished the fire and took her to the hospital.

"I was sad when I opened my eyes in the hospital," the severely burnt woman told IRIN. Sarah's husband is a jobless drug addict who often beat her for alleged "insubordination".

"I wanted to die and never come back to this life," she told IRIN from her bed in the Herat city hospital.

Doctors said up to 40 percent of her body was severely burnt and it would take her months to recover.

Over the past six months, at least 47 self-immolation cases have been recorded by Herat city hospital alone, of whom seven were saved but 40 died.

"Ninety percent of the women who commit self-immolation die at hospital due to deep burns and fatal injuries," said Arif Jalai, a dermatologist at the Herat hospital.

Almost all the women had doused themselves with petrol and set themselves alight, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

More than six years after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001 when all women were denied the right to work and education, many women suffer domestic and social violence, discrimination and lack of access to unbiased justice and other services, women's rights activists say.

"Domestic violence against women not only has serious physical and mental effects on women but also causes other grave problems such as self-immolation, suicide, escape from home, forced prostitution and addiction to narcotics," according to a study by the AIHRC in 2007 [].

At least 184 cases of self-immolation were registered by the AIHRC in 2007 against 106 in 2006.

The phenomenon is feared to have increased further in 2008, women's rights activists said.

"We have been unable to collect data and information about all incidents of self-burning due to a number of reasons, but overall the situation is not promising," said Homa Sultani, a researcher on the rights of women at the AIHRC in Kabul.

The AIHRC in Herat and Kandahar confirmed a marked increase in reported cases of self-immolation.

Sultani's concerns were echoed by Seema Shir Mohammadi, director of the women's affairs department in Herat Province: "Women are increasingly paying back the violence they receive at home and outside by self-immolation and suicide."

However, some people say the increase in the reported incidents could also indicate the improved capacity of rights watchdogs, the media and other civil society actors to report them.

The police and judiciary do not launch any formal investigations to determine the causes and motivations of suicide and self-burning by women, according to the AIHRC.

As a result, men who force and provoke women to self-immolation and other forms of suicide remain immune from all legal and penal repercussions.

"The government must ensure proper investigations into cases of suicide among women and where needed bring those responsible to justice," said Sultani of the AIHRC.

In Afghanistan's patriarchal culture, however, it will be difficult to indict the men who force women to commit suicide, specialists say.

"There is a culture of impunity for those who push women to self-immolation and suicide," Sultani said.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

Rangina Hamidi

While many women try to get out of Afghanistan, a country where women still face enormous hardships even after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent fall of the Taliban, most don't come back.

Rangina Hamidi left Afghanistan for Pakistan and later moved to the United States. But the activist and entrepreneur since has returned to her native country on a mission to change the lives of Afghan women in Kandahar, a one-time Taliban stronghold.

For VOA's Ibrahim Nasar, Brian Allen narrates the latest installment of our series, Making a Difference.

Rangina Hamidi came back to her homeland after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. She says she was touched by the hardships in Afghan society, particularly among women.

"The situation in Kandahar and all over Afghanistan deeply saddens you," Hamidi said. "It's a situation when you feel and see it, you can't just stick to one work and say this is what I am doing."

Hamidi returned to her hometown, Kandahar, to work with the nonprofit organization Afghans for Civil Society.

"The goal from the day one was to help Afghans learn skills that will give them economic independence, even when the projects end. The first task was starting an independent radio station in Kandahar and then we embarked on an economic regeneration project".

Women in the economic regeneration project make and sell embroidery products in Afghanistan and abroad. It started with only 20 women and grew to 450 in five years.

Local activists and the project also established a Women's Council in Kandahar. Many gathered here for International Women's Day say they are working to advance women's rights and opportunities.

Hamidi has also coordinated aid to help schools in the Kandahar area

Hamidi's family left Afghanistan when she was a toddler, during the Soviet invasion. She says the Taliban rule that followed made life a nightmare for women. She left the country first for Pakistan and later took up a comfortable life in Stoneridge, Virginia.

Now, with the original project self sustaining, Hamidi has started a company. Kandahar Treasure, introduces and sells the women's embroidery products in the international market. She says she will hand this business over to Afghan women once it becomes successful.

Hamidi says she still worries about the future of her country as she watches reconstruction, with a foreign power deeply involved.

"Afghans themselves have to take their own share of responsibilities," Hamidi said. "Afghanistan can not have a better future if the way things are done are not changed."

Hamidi and the women she works with still face power shortages, the lack of clean water, rising corruption and danger from insurgents. None of that has stopped this Kandahar native, who says she looks forward to playing an even bigger role in the reconstruction of her homeland.

Acid Attack On Afghan Schoolgirls

Afghanistan education authorities say they are facing a difficult task of convincing parents to send their daughters to school as attacks on female students have increased in recent months.

Three girls sustained severe burns in the southern town of Kandahar earlier in the week when unknown men sprayed acid on up to 15 girls. One of the girls might permanently lose her sight.

Under its strict interpretation of Islam, the Taliban regime banned girls from receiving educations while it ruled the country before its overthrow in late 2001.

Classes have been cancelled in Kandahar's Nazo Ana high school for girls as most of its students and teachers have decided to stay home after hearing about the acid attack.

Mahmud Qaderi, the school's director, said only some 35 girls -- out of 1,300 students -- showed up at school on November 15. "Our classrooms are normally full," the director said.

Qaderi hopes parents' anxiety will soon disappear and that the girls will return to school.

One of the victims, Atifa, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that she was walking to school with her sister and cousins on the morning of November 12 when two men riding motorcycles sprayed acid on the girls' faces with water pistols.

Kandahar schoolgirls are easily recognizable with their uniforms of white tops, black trousers, dark coats, and headscarves.

Atifa said some of the girls were lucky enough to escape with minor injures, while at least three others were hospitalized with severe burns on their faces, necks, and hands. One of them is still unable to open her eyes and doctors fear she may lose her eyesight. She was taken to Kabul military hospital for medical treatment.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Afghan officials blame the Taliban for targeting students. Girls were banned from school during the hard-line militants' rule that ended in 2001.

Threatening Leaflets

Kandahar was the Taliban's main stronghold and is still one of the most volatile areas in the war-torn country.

However, schoolgirls are also being targeted in the relatively stable and peaceful province of Balkh in Afghanistan's north.

Villagers in Balkh's Jarbulak and Chimtal districts have said unknown people distributed leaflets to their houses overnight, warning them against sending their daughters to school.

According to Afghanistan's Education Ministry over 120 schools came under attack, with some of them burnt down. Nearly 600 schools have been closed down because of security threats.

Taliban militants have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, vowing to carry out more.

Siddiq Patman, Afghanistan's deputy education minister, said most of the attacks take place in the southern and eastern provinces, such as Kandahar, Paktika, and Logar where the Taliban have more influence among local people.

Two girls were killed and three more wounded when gunmen targeted schoolchildren in Logar Province last year.

Parents Want Reassurance

Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have condemned the latest acid attack in Kandahar as a "cowardly act" against innocent children.

Parents, however, want the government to do more than just condemning the attacks. Many want to know if the government is capable of protecting their children and preventing such incidents in future.

A Kandahar resident, whose two daughters were among the acid attack victims, said she had always wanted her daughters to get an education and "not to be left illiterate like their parents."

However, now she is having second thoughts. "I won't send my daughters to school after such an attack. Would you?" said the mother.

Patman said the Education Ministry has asked local governments to deploy more police officers to protect students and teachers and their schools.

They have also called on parents to accompany their children to and from school.

"Education Ministry alone cannot do much to protect our students and schools," said the deputy minister. "Everyone, including parents, local people, and religious leaders have to take part in this campaign -- because our country's future depends on the education system."

The Plight of the Afghan Woman

By Abdullah Qazi

The vast majority of Afghanistan's population professes to be followers of Islam. Over 1400 years ago, Islam demanded that men and women be equal before God, and gave them various rights such the right to inheritance, the right to vote, the right to work, and even choose their own partners in marriage. For centuries now in Afghanistan, women have been denied these rights either by official government decree or by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers.

During the rule of the Taliban (1996 - 2001), women were treated worse than in any other time or by any other society. They were forbidden to work, leave the house without a male escort, not allowed to seek medical help from a male doctor, and forced to cover themselves from head to toe, even covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and teachers before, suddenly were forced to be beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed their families.

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, many would agree that the political and cultural position of Afghan women has improved substantially. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that "the citizens of Afghanistan - whether man or woman- have equal rights and duties before the law".

So far, women have been allowed to return back to work, the government no longer forces them to wear the all covering burqa, and they even have been appointed to prominent positions in the government. Despite all these changes many challenges still remain. The repression of women is still prevalent in rural areas where many families still restrict their own mothers, daughters, wives and sisters from participation in public life. They are still forced into marriages and denied a basic education. Numerous school for girls have been burned down and little girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school.


  • Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
  • 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
  • 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
  • 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
  • 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan
  • 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan

  • Afghanistan's Women Athletes

    Robina Muqimyar, (born July 3, 1986) was one of the first two women ever to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic Games, by competing along with judoka Friba Razayee at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

    Muqimyar took part in the women's 100m sprint. She finished seventh out of eight in her heat, with a time of 14.14 seconds, 0.15 seconds ahead of Somalia's Fartun Abukar Omar. The race was won by Jamaica's Veronica Campbell, with a time of 11.17 seconds. Muqimyar was 17 at the time of the event. She ran in "a T-shirt and long green track pants" rather than more aerodynamic competition clothing.

    She was not initially due to compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but joined Afghanistan's delegation after female sprinter Mehboba Ahdyar left her training camp in June to seek political asylum in Norway. At the 2008 Summer Olympics she took part at the 100 metres sprint. In her first round heat she placed eighth and last in a time of 14.80 which was not enough to advance to the second round.

    Describing life under the Taliban, Muqimyar has said: "There was nothing for us girls to do under the Taliban. You couldn't go to school. You couldn't play, you couldn't do anything. You were just at home all the time."

    Robina Muqimyar said she felt like a winner, even though she had the second-slowest time among 63 women in the 100-metre trials at the Athens Olympics. "I hope I can open the way for the Afghan women," said Muqimyar through an interpreter at a news conference. "I will never ever forget this moment in my life."

    Friba Razayee (born September 3, 1985) is an Afghan judoka or judo competitor. In 2004, along with Robina Muqimyar, she was the first Afghan woman to participate in the Olympic Games.

    Razayee fled Afghanistan for Pakistan during the Taliban's rule of the country. There she had her first experience with martial arts and began boxing. After her return to Afghanistan in 2002 she moved into judo, and began training for the Olympic Games. At the 2004 Summer Olympics Razayee was classified as a middleweight. In the first round on 18 August she was paired with Spaniard Cecilia Blanco and succumbed after 45 seconds.

    Mehboba Ahdyar, born in 1988 or 1989 was also scheduled to be one of very few women representing Afghanistan at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where she planned to compete in athletics in the women's 1,500 metres and 3,000 metres events.

    Ahdyar has won competitions in Afghanistan, but the Olympics will be her first competition outside her home country. Her family live in a mud brick house in one of the poorest parts of Kabul. She reportedly runs 1,500 metres in about 4:50.

    The Afghan embassy in the United States reported that, as she trained for the Olympics, Ahdyar faced "daily taunts from her more conservative neighbors, vicious rumors about her character, and even death threats from extremists."

    Ahdyar planned on wearing a Muslim scarf during the competition: "I will not take off my scarf in China when I race because it is symbol of Muslim women."

    On June 4, 2008, Ahdyar disappeared from a training facility in Formia, Italy, possibly to seek asylum. On July 10, 2008, it became known that she was on her way to Norway to seek asylum.

    Afghan woman makes her name in business world

    From war-torn Afghanistan, where her printing business came close to being destroyed by a suicide bomber earlier this year, Parwana Wafa traveled to Lindenhurst Thursday and Friday to learn about some of the latest technological innovations in her industry.

    Wafa, her country's only female commercial printer, visited the printing company Action Envelope. She spent time there as part of a business road trip sponsored by Manhattan-based Bpeace, a nonprofit international group of business professionals. The founder is Toni Maloney, a Water Mill resident.

    "I've learned a lot," said Wafa, 40, who speaks fluent English, which she learned in Pakistan.

    At Action Envelope she observed the company's pressroom and its graphics and Internet operations, said president Sharon Newman.

    Said Ray Maloney, a Bpeace volunteer and Toni Maloney's husband, "Some of the problems that Parwana is facing, Sharon, with her experience, can help to solve them."

    Wafa participated in the three-week road trip with 11 other women from her country, touring 40 companies in the eastern United States. Wafa also visited companies in Westchester and New Jersey.

    The group's mission is to help female entrepreneurs from war-torn countries rebuild their homelands' economies by establishing businesses and creating jobs.

    After a recommendation from the Printing Industry of America, Bpeace paired Newman with Wafa, who owns Afghan Women Entrepreneurs Printing Service in Kabul, the capital.

    Wafa started the business in 2005 with $50,000 in savings and loans from Afghan friends in the printing business in Pakistan, where she once lived as a refugee of the Afghan civil war that began in 1989. She especially wanted to provide jobs for women. She has built a business with $1.2 million in annual sales and 49 employees, including 18 women.

    The company's business includes newsletters and books, and its customers are Afghan and United Nations agencies.

    She wants to expand and update her equipment, which she calls third-hand. With just three printing machines, she recently had to turn down a $165,000 contract because she lacked the printing capacity.

    She faces a lot of obstacles, besides the war. Women are still scorned by many men for owning a business, and because of her gender she faces certain restrictions in Afghanistan.

    For example, she cannot venture out alone at night by herself, so when she works nights she is accompanied by her brother.

    But Wafa said she is proud of what owning a business represents.

    "I have 49 people working, and they can feed their families," Wafa said. "It's a drop in the ocean. But still I can do something."

    She could get some help here in finding more modern equipment. Newman and her son, Seth, who is Action Envelope's chief operating officer, introduced her to some larger local companies in the hopes that she could get ideas for expanding and for obtaining more modern, used equipment.

    Women reforming Afghanistan in their own image

    An eight-year-old girl is tethered to a plough, used like a farm animal to work in the field. When asked about her work conditions her "owner" just shrugs and responds that’s the Afghan way.

    At eight years old the girl's family sold her into slavery under tribal law to atone for a male family member’s crime, and unable to read or know any different lifestyle, the girl may not know she, as a person, is entitled to basic human rights.

    But she would welcome it.

    From afar, Afghanistan is a country where western and other military forces are engaged. People know women are not given equal rights, but may dismiss that as religious or cultural.

    It is warfare on human rights, hijacked by political opportunists, disguised and sold as religious and cultural to achieve a twisted political agenda born of years of Soviet oppression and stagnation followed by years of tribal civil war.

    In a land where 40 per cent of the doctors and 80 per cent of the teachers had been women, the mostly illiterate Taliban came to power from fighting in the hills, headquartered in caves, maintained rule through terrorism and warfare against the Afghan people, particularly women.

    Women were not allowed out unless escorted by a male relative. They were ordered to cover up from head to toe in a burka –with only a mesh opening through which to see.

    They could not go to school, work or receive medical care except from a woman — unlikely as women weren’t allowed to work or even go outside.

    Today, the Taliban have been driven back into the hills by a military presence of more than 40 countries and the United Nations. They continue to fight and carry out acts of terror while a new government in Afghanistan still grapples with establishing order and an army, while the people of the country attempt to get life back on track.

    Poverty, years of civil war, a decimated countryside and economy and what now amounts to a generation raised with terror and no education are obstacles that remain — along with continued terrorism.

    Fundamental to the human rights issues in Afghanistan however are the tribal laws that remain the way of life at the grassroots level despite an espousement of human rights at the national level.

    But what you don't realize is that Afghanistan is now home to a very strong women's movement.

    That’s correct, the women’s movement.

    In the face of international apathy and inequality at home, Afghan women are taking up their own cause — despite the risks. They are standing up to obtain rights in the face of terrorism and more. Women in Afghanistan are facing terrible odds, but are choosing to fight for their future.

    Not that long ago school girls who dared not wear their burqa had acid sprayed in their face by bandits while en route to school. Such things are horrific by North American standards, but common place in Afghanistan.

    Whether it’s terrorism or tribal law, the obstacles to establishing a 21st century lifestyle in Afghanistan are formidable.

    Afghanistan today is a contradiction in terms.

    Life there embraces religious piety, but encompasses brutality. Some live in mud huts, others ostentatious mansions. Shops display Hollywood-style mannequins with short hair and strapless gowns, yet women on the street wear burkas. Pop music competes with that from mosques. Popular soap operas were taken off the air, but people watch them on computers. Liquor is forbidden, yet restaurants serve wine. Afghanistan has a rich culture, yet there is violence in every home.

    If many countries try to bring security and keep terrorists at bay in a primitive land while government and citizens gain a foothold and make progress in what has become a confused mass of contradictions, it’s up to them — and they are.

    Company helping Afghan Women and Families

    Amid the arid lands of Afghanistan, where hills and snow-capped mountains surround deserts and poppy fields, a cloud of war hovers over the terrain and all who inhabit it. But there are those who, with the help of WorldCrafts, are finding a measure of hope.

    WorldCrafts, a fair-trade nonprofit ministry of Woman's Missionary Union, is helping families through a partnership with an artisan group comprised of women who make jewelry, mosaics and other items.

    The artisan group of about a dozen women will sell their handmade products and use the proceeds to pay for health care and education for themselves and their families.

    "I am very happy that we will soon start a literacy class here," Natalia*, one of the artisans, said.

    Forced to drop out of school at age 10 because of an illness, Natalia is illiterate. She lives with her mother, sister, two brothers and her brothers' wives and children. Her father died when she was 11, and she and her sisters were forbidden to marry until her brothers had brides. Natalia, now 28, is deemed too old to marry. But she finds freedom in her ability to work.

    "It is very good for me to have my own money," she said. "I can provide everything for myself without asking my brother. Now I can even help my brother, and I put my nephew in school."

    At the age of 15, Asha* also understands the constraints of financial oppression. The ninth-grader resides in her paternal grandfather's home with her mother, father, three sisters, three uncles and her uncles' wives. Between her health problems and her mother's, Asha and her family often wondered if they would have enough money for medical treatments and school for Asha and two of her sisters.

    But the young girl who dreams of becoming a geologist finds some solace in her job as an artisan.

    "My father is currently unemployed. I use the money I earn to go to school and to help my father provide for the family," she said.

    Anya*, a 32-year-old artisan, said, "I want to finish the 12th grade and go on for a masters/doctorate."

    Despite hardships like her husband being injured in an accident, Anya continues her work. "I have children going to school, and my husband is unemployed," she said. "The job is a big help for me."

    Anya said she wants her three children to be educated as well. Perhaps through her job as an artisan she can see her dreams for herself and her family come to fruition.

    For each of these women and other artisans, working has given them a glimpse of life outside continuous war and poverty as well as a chance for success.

    "We all are very happy with this job," the group's leader said. "It helps us to forget our family problems for the hours that we are working together, laughing and talking. When we are together, we talk and learn what is going on in the world.

    "Being together makes us brave and gives us courage to fight for our rights," she added. "When we see that our children are happy, that we have money to put them in school and buy clothes for them, it makes us happy. Thanks be to God for giving us this job. Thanks to the people who try to provide work for us."

    Since 1996, WorldCrafts has imported handmade crafts from artisans worldwide, providing them and their families with hope and income for food, shelter, education and medicine. WorldCrafts works with 70 different artisan groups in 38 countries and has expanded its product line to approximately 370 items.

    Afghan Widows Not America’s Enemy

    Afghan women – and widows in particular — are among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in the world. Under Taliban rule, women were forced to wear burqas (garments that fully cover a woman’s body and head) and were not allowed to work. Girls were not allowed to attend school.

    Even after the Taliban’s defeat, life for women in Afghanistan remains bleak at best.

    According to the United Nations, 85% of all Afghan women are illiterate and women’s wages remain about one-third of men’s. Women, especially in rural areas, can’t go out in public without a male relative accompanying them. There are about 50,000 widows in Kabul alone.

    When an Afghan woman’s husband dies, his property is passed not to her, but to his family. How is she to survive? How will she provide for her children? The brutal truth is, without a husband, an Afghan woman may be forced to send her children to the streets to beg for money.

    When these women speak of their children, they express the same desires for them that Americans have — education, access to health care, peace and security. These ideals are not American. They are universal.

    These women are not America's enemy. They are victims of a war that has waged within Afghanistan for over 30 years.

    What is the United States to do? Its time they eradicated the Taliban. When Barack Obama takes power in January 2009 he will have the option of taking US troops out of Iraq and sending them back into Afghanistan to finish the job.

    George W. Bush was incompetent, we all know that, but can Barack Obama succeed where Bush failed?

    Faith-Based Feminism

    By Daisy Khan

    RELIGION - If God had desired to exclude women from equal relationship with the Divine and essential participation in fashioning human societies, God would have created an all-male humanity. Of course, God did not. Instead, from the beginning of time, women have served indispensable and instrumental roles in founding religions, spreading justice, and building civilizations. It is this legacy that we draw upon for faith-based activism.

    My faith empowers me as a woman, and it inspires my activism. I am not alone. In fact, I consider myself one humble inheritor of the grand legacy of American women's faith-based activism. From Harriet Tubman to Susan B. Anthony to Amelia Boynton Robinson, faithful women throughout American history have shaken up the status quo, driving some of our country's most remarkable examples of broad political and social change, including the abolitionist, women's suffrage, and civil rights movements. This great American story of women compelled by their faith to struggle for their freedoms, as well as the freedoms of others, continues today with Muslim women's faith-based activism.

    Unfortunately, many Americans assume that Islam oppresses women or renders them of lower value. On the contrary, my faith unequivocally declares my equal value as a woman. Islam instituted revolutionary change in women's status and rights. The Prophet Muhammad was a radical feminist of his time and an ardent activist for women's improved position in his Arabian society, advocating for their right to own property, obtain divorce, and procure inheritance, just to name a few. Similarly, Islamic history is full of powerful, influential, and exemplary women. In the Prophet's own life, one finds his wife Khadijah, who supported him - emotionally and economically - during the most difficult years after the religion was founded, and 'Aishah, whose political activism and religious knowledge left an indelible stamp on the tradition.

    The remarkable contributions of women as scholars and teachers of sacred text is an impressive record reflected throughout Islamic history. For example, in Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, Oxford University scholar Dr. Muhammad Akram Nadwi demonstrates how over eight-thousand prominent Muslim women scholars shaped early Islamic thought. Even today, Muslim women in both Muslim-majority countries and as part of minority communities have a rich legacy of excellence in their roles as political, social, and spiritual leaders, artists, professionals, scholars, activists, and caregivers. Many Americans would be surprised to know that five Muslim-majority countries have been led by Muslim women since 1990.

    Nevertheless, I would be naïve to contend that Muslim women do not face gender-based inequality in various cultures. Yet, we must be careful to avoid conflating Islam and its core teachings on women with the actions of some Muslims. I do not blame people for this misconception because I recognize that the ignorance or misinterpretation of Islam frequently results in the discrimination and disempowerment of women. However, what we have seen in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is the exploitation and deep misunderstanding of Islam and the prophets' teachings.

    In response, we can witness an important revival in Muslim women's face-based activism. One such example is an initiative I have spearheaded: the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity ( WISE represents a global, diverse movement of Muslim women that are using their faith in Islam, both as inspiration and justification, to empower Muslim women. WISE is one manifestation of this larger trend.

    Like innumerable women in this country, my faith has compelled me to assertively and unapologetically pursue peace and justice, both as an empowered woman to secure women's human rights and as an active citizen for the betterment of society and humanity. In doing so, I walk in the giant footsteps of Tubman, Anthony, and Robinson, and Khadijah, 'Aishah, and the muhaddithat.

    About Islam & Feminism:

    I am a Muslim and a Feminist

    Muslim Women Studying for the Future

    Behind the Veil, a Muslim Feminist

    Disobedient Muslim Women

    Islam and Feminism: Are the barriers coming down?

    Taliban and Afghan Women

    Islamic Feminism: What's in a Name?

    The War, the Women, the West

    Little Mosque on the Prairie

    Dr Sima Samar to be Honoured

    FEMINISM - The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) announced yesterday it would honour Doctor Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, with its 2008 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award for her dedication to improving the status of women in Afghanistan.

    Foundation chairman and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng told a press conference that Samar stood out among the 30 nominees from 18 nations who were considered in the final review.

    “Dr Samar is a human rights advocate and a pioneer of women's rights in Afghanistan,” Wang said.

    “Over the past years, Afghanistan has been one of the countries where women are not well treated. When the Taliban was in power, women did not enjoy either human rights or basic dignity,” Wang said. “Under the circumstances, we could imagine how difficult and dangerous it was for Dr Samar to promote women's rights.”

    Samar, 51, founded and directed the Shuhada Organization in Quetta during her 17 years in exile in Pakistan.

    The Shuhada Organization — the largest Afghan nongovernmental organization led by women — directs health, education and income generation projects for women and girls in Afghanistan and refugees in Pakistan. It also runs 71 schools for 48,000 girls and boys in Afghanistan and underground home school classes for girls in Kabul.

    Samar was chosen for the Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award by a panel that included International Center for Transitional Justice Chairman Alex Boraine, former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Chairwoman Asma Jahangir and last year's winner of the award, Cynthia Maung.

    National Sun Yat-sen University political science professor Liao Da-chi, also a member of the foundation's review board, praised Samar's human rights work.

    “She has been fighting for the most basic human right — survival [for Afghan women],” Liao said.

    Wang said the TFD's decision to honour Samar after last year's award went to Maung was particularly meaningful.

    “They [Samar and Maung] are both fighters for women's rights and human rights. They insist on their ideals despite the huge pressure they suffer,” Wang said.

    Samar is scheduled to receive the award and a US$100,000 grant in Taiwan on Dec. 10, he said.

    Samar has received numerous honours for her work over the past years, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2004 and the International Human Rights Award from the International Human Rights Law Group in 2002.

    Program turning Afghan women into entrepreneurs

    POLITICS - There were certainly obstacles to bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to women in Afghanistan. The first was just convincing men of the country that it was possible.

    "Some of them would say, ‘No, we don't want anyone to work with our women. The project should be more men,' things like that," said Catherine Sobrevega, Afghanistan country manager for Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

    Sobrevega, who is heading up a four-year effort to integrate women into horticultural markets in Afghanistan, visited Bluffton University on Tuesday to talk to students. Her organization, working with the Afghan Women Business Council, is the only program in Afghanistan completely geared toward women.

    Begun in April 2007, the first year of the project had 750 women growing and selling tomatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers and potatoes. The number jumped to 1,500 this year, encompassing six villages.

    Getting into villages was sometimes tricky, Sobrevega said. The organization would first talk to the male elders. Some who were not interested at first, changed their minds when seeing the results. Women are making up to $350, far more than the country's median income.

    "Because they saw what we did in other villages, in the second year, they are the ones coming back to us saying, ‘You can include our women.'" she said.

    The organization provides a link for the women, Sobrevega said, not any handouts. It co-developed a loan fund and provides information about how to and where to sell their vegetables. Specifically, women are reminded that their product is worthy of high-end markets.

    Women grow their vegetables in small plots near their homes. In rural villages, women are often confined to the home, Sobrevega said, although once seeing how well the women were doing with their gardens, men began inviting their wives to plant in the fields.

    Another obstacle involved most women not being allowed to leave their village, inhibiting selling their products. The solution was to hire older women and widows, who are permitted to leave, to sell for them.

    The program is beginning to spur other economic development, Sobrevega said. Some women have purchased cows and other animals. Most important, she said, the women are being empowered.

    "When you do training for men, usually they don't pass this onto the women," she said. "If you provide something for the women, they will go home to the house, discuss this with the husbands and sons."

    And their daughters.

    Videos of Women in Afghanistan

    Congratulations to Barack Obama

    We want to congratulate Barack Obama on his victory in the US election.

    We look forward to the changes Barack Obama will make in the future of Afghanistan, Iraq and America.

    Taliban kill top Afghan policewoman

    As Afghanistan's most senior and most famous female police officer, based in the country's ultra-conservative south, Lieut.-Col. Malalai Kakar knew she was a marked woman.

    Just this June, the Kandahar detective confirmed that her taboo-shattering career had spawned numerous death threats.

    On Sunday, two days after taking part in a Canadian event to mark the end of Islam's holiest month, insurgents grimly confirmed her fears, shooting Kakar dead as she left her house.

    The officer's son, who doubled as her driver, was seriously wounded in the ambush, carried out by two men on a motorcycle.

    The murder came as the country's feminists struggle against worsening insurgent violence, and works to reverse years of female oppression under the former Taliban regime.

    "We note the Taliban claim of responsibility for this. It is repugnant," said Adrian Edwards, the chief United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan.

    "Malalai was popular, respected, and courageous ... Her murder is without a doubt a great blow to Afghanistan and Afghanistan's women, especially."

    Two days ago, Kakar cheerfully helped Canadian soldiers and federal officials hand out food to needy families at an event to mark the end of Ramadan.

    The trail-blazing policewoman, who had been profiled repeatedly in the international media and politics, was struck by a single bullet to the head, said Zalmai Ayobi, spokesman for the provincial governor. "Immediately, she died."

    Although Ayobi said police had not determined who carried out the killing, the Taliban later claimed responsibility.

    "We killed Malalai Kakar," Yousuf Ahmadi, the insurgents' self-described spokesman told reporters. "She was our target, and we successfully eliminated our target."

    Ayobi said mother and son were attacked despite driving in a nondescript Toyota Corolla, rather than Kakar's more conspicuous police truck.

    President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack as an "act of cowardice."

    In a brief statement Ron Hoffman, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, expressed his sympathies for friends and family of the officer.

    "She was a beacon of hope for women in democratic and free Afghanistan," he said.

    Kakar had been a police officer before the Taliban took over in 1995 -- once killing three would-be assassins --but was forced from her job by the regime's edict against women working outside the home.

    She returned to the force after the Taliban was toppled in 2001, and became one of its most senior officers, heading a unit that specializes in spousal abuse and other crimes against women, which are often overlooked in southern, Pashtun culture.

    Two years ago, in another jab at tradition here, she stopped wearing a burka on the job. In her wake, more than 20 women have joined the Kandahar police, said Ayobi.

    But over the last year, she and her relatives, as well as other female officers, had received more and more threats by letter and cellphone, one telling her son to convince his mother to quit or she would be killed.

    The shooting left her son in a coma.

    International Women's Day Highlights Plight of Afghan Women

    This year, International Women’s Day is occurring at a time when many countries, including the United States, are debating their future role in Afghanistan and either have or will decide the direction and focus of that role for some years to come.

    If a central issue is still to help the Afghan people, however, especially to uplift women and children in terms of human security and socio-economic opportunities, none of this is possible without a relatively secure and peaceful environment, backed by sustainable growth and provided by the efforts of American and other allies in the troubled areas of this war-torn nation.

    We must remember that it has only been six years since the Taliban regime was driven from power in Kabul. Since that time many positive developments have occurred, especially in relation to improving Afghan women’s rights and participation in society.

    Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work, attend school or pursue an education, receive medical care from male doctors and travel without a male relative, and they were regarded as non-citizens without rights or representation.

    Over the last six years, millions of women and girls have had the chance to attend school, return to work, open businesses, gain access to health care and, generally, attempt to catch up with the time and opportunities that were stolen from them during those oppressive years.

    Afghan women have a presence in government and strong voices in the parliament and in the media, and they have no intention to give up these progressive strides.

    Already touting 23,000 members, the first political party for women recently was formed to develop a stronger platform for women’s rights throughout the country and in political arenas. Their organization and Afghan women in general, however, cannot accomplish their goals of developing a gender-balanced civil society with more access to education, training and rule-of-law protection without the sustained help of the international community.

    Nearly 6 million children have returned to school since 2002 with at least 1.5 million Afghan girls in attendance. Boys still attend in greater numbers due to security concerns and other restrictions.

    The increasing insurgency of Taliban and terrorist forces in the South and East has only deepened this divide and last year nearly 150 schools burned to the ground, 305 schools closed and 105 students and teachers were killed, all accompanied by warnings to locals not to send their daughters to school.

    With the situation still so tenuous and under threat by those who prefer darkness created by illiteracy and separation from society to the freedom and opportunity gained through education and economic livelihoods, Afghan women need the continued presence of the international community to ensure that their human rights will be protected and upheld.

    The Afghan people, and especially Afghan women, continue to be hopeful and grateful for all that the U.S. and the international community are doing to uphold the noble cause of helping a struggling nation onto a path of progress and peace so desperately needed after three decades of war and destruction. The stakes for Afghan society are, indeed, high, but clearly worth it.

    Afghan women face rise in violence

    Afghanistan's independent human rights commission says violence against women has increased over the past year.

    The commission says it has recorded 265 cases of forced marriage and 165 cases of self-immolation, where women deliberately set fire to themselves.

    In both cases the numbers are higher than those recorded previously.

    The new Afghan constitution drawn up after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 is supposed to protect women but millions still face discrimination.

    The rights commission says that even as many people in the country are faced with a worsening security situation, women are having to deal with increased cases of domestic violence.

    It says that many continue to be forced into marriages against their will.

    Last year it recorded 265 such cases, an increase from the previous year.

    The commission says that more than half of the women in question are married under the legal age of 18-years-old.

    Experts say poverty often drives families to marry off their daughters to older, wealthier men.

    In some instances, women are handed over to resolve a community dispute.

    To escape this situation many women commit suicide by burning themselves.

    The commissioners recorded 165 cases of self-immolation in 2007.

    Although these are nationwide figures, it says the actual numbers could be higher.

    A new law against domestic violence and forced marriage has been drafted and is to be debated in parliament.

    But previous steps such as laws to fight discrimination and under-age marriage have done little to stop the trend, especially in the villages.

    Can women find unique ways out of war?

    Women leaders from 45 nations meet in India this week to discuss their role in conflict resolution

    New Delhi - Sakena Yacoobi well knows the hardships of Afghan women, caught between a war and the hopelessness of poverty and illiteracy.

    Yet on International Women's Day Saturday, the Afghan educator will not ask the world to help Afghan women. Instead, she will ask Afghan women to help the world.

    In a time of growing conflict around the world, she believes the wisdom and compassion of women can offer a way out. "Women bring tolerance and patience," she says. "Women can bring solutions – we cannot accomplish that with weapons."

    She is one of several hundred prominent female leaders from 45 countries who have come to India this week to seek ways to raise women's voices worldwide, hoping that their ideas – so often ignored – begin to move the world away from war.

    It is a unique approach to International Women's Day – and intentionally so, says Dena Merriam, who has organized "Making Way for the Feminine," a five-day conference that began Thursday in Jaipur.

    "This is not about empowering women," says Ms. Merriam, who also co-chaired the United Nations' Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000. "It is about how women can transform society to help us find new ways of addressing conflict."

    There are men here, too. The goal, participants say, is not to antagonize men. Yet each believes that women bring to the issue of conflict resolution a different perspective. Many liken it to that of a mother, stern but caring, and more open to finding alternatives to violence.

    That perspective is sorely needed, they say, as the path of power and aggression has led only to more fighting and division. "The feminine gifts of compassion, empathy, and caring prepare women for the urgent role as leaders and reconcilers," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, chairwoman of the Global Peace Initiative for Women, at the opening press conference.

    "This is about whether women, with men as their partners, can chart a new course," continues Ms. Campbell, who has worked with leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bill Clinton.

    The outlines of that new course can be seen in the lives of those attending, both men and women.

    It is evident in the compassion of Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian who has been imprisoned for his family's political activities and whose brother was killed in the second intifada, yet started a foundation for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost relatives in the conflict.

    "The idea is to show people that if you are in the peaceful way, you are not alone," he says. "You do not need to be afraid."

    It is evident in the activities of Ms. Yacoobi, who operated secret schools for girls in Afghanistan during Taliban rule, and has since expanded her activities to eight provinces. While other schools have been burned or destroyed, hers have not, she says, because she is a part of the community and knows their needs.

    "When the people trust you, they will protect you," she says.

    In this is one of the lessons she is bringing to Jaipur. "You have to listen to the communities – to listen to their needs. You can't just depend on weapons," she says, suggesting that connection to the community tends to be a stronger trait among women than men. "We need people to listen to us, not to order us."

    These are the voices that this conference hopes to amplify and inspire. Organizer Merriam acknowledges that the conference has an enormous task. The intent is to begin to change how the world thinks about power – spreading the notion that nonviolent solutions are practical and not the fruit of weakness.

    Her tools, she says, are the participants themselves. With few women voices in the corridors of power, the hope is to kindle greater awareness and confidence among women so they become more active participants in demanding a solution.

    "We can start by critiquing the policies that are creating the pain," said Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, at the press conference. "I might not have all the answers, but I cannot sit by in silence while the policies are destroying the very people I care about."

    In recognition of the fact that many of the world's conflicts come from a clash of faiths, the conference has an overtly religious theme. It is bringing together female spiritual leaders from all faiths – such as an Islamic scholar, Buddhist nun, Hindu guru, and members of the Christian clergy.

    To this end, Merriam hopes the conference will bring a World Council of Women Spiritual Leaders, which would be a mechanism to guide and advance more inclusive solutions to global problems.

    Yet many of the attendees say the gathering in itself, regardless of its outcome, enables them to carry out their work.

    Yacoobi needs such spiritual refreshment, she says frankly. "Coming here allows me to collect myself from all the things going on in Afghanistan," she says. "This war is destroying our country, our religion, and our faith, but coming here and seeing these people gives me a lot of energy to believe."

    A psychologist in the West Bank, Laila Atshan, too, sees the worst of war – wives who have lost husbands and sons in the conflict with Israel. "I will go back stronger to give them strength," she says. For years, she has considered opening an interfaith community center. "I am hoping this will give me the guts to go do it."

    So is Merriam: "The goal is to provide space for people to have a transformational moment – to have people come away so moved that they bring it back to their communities."

    $100 Million for 10,000 Women

    Goldman Sachs will fund management education for women in developing nations, to help them start and expand their own businesses

    Thousands of women entrepreneurs in developing countries have started their own businesses in the past few years, many with help from local microfinance banks and nonprofits that issued them small loans and financial support. The concept has taken off, but there has been one key flaw in the model: Most of the women have little, if any, formal education and lack the management skills and financial savvy to take their business to the next level. On Mar. 5, investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) announced it would change the equation by pumping $100 million into educational projects for these women over the next five years.

    In an announcement at Columbia University in New York City, Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein said the company is hoping to create a new model of management education designed to help these women learn everything from how to write a business plan to market their own business. The company will be teaming up with a coalition of top business schools, including Wharton, Columbia, Harvard, and Cambridge University's Judge Business School, to develop management education certificate programs at universities in countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. The programs will be flexible and of short duration, ranging from several weeks to several months.

    "Not Rocket Science"

    Dubbed "10,000 Women," for the number of women it intends to reach by 2013, the program is designed to build on existing programs and create new ones by supporting partnerships between U.S. business schools and universities and schools in developing countries. The program is aimed at women, organizers say, because closing gender gaps in education and employment yields greater returns in economic growth in developing countries. For instance, Goldman estimates that improving female education in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and another 11 developing countries can boost per-capita income by as much as 14% over baseline estimates by 2020.

    Kathy Matsui, Goldman's chief Japan equity strategist, says that educating women can boost gross domestic product in the target countries by 1% to 2% a year. "That is rationale enough for us to reach out and participate in initiatives like this. It seems like it's not rocket science."

    Among the planned projects: Penn's Wharton School will work with American University in Cairo to create a five-week certificate program that will focus on professional leadership, management, and entrepreneurial skills. Columbia Business School will work with the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to create two new certificate programs in entrepreneurship and management. In addition to the partnerships, the schools will collaborate to train professors, develop curricula, exchange faculty, and develop material for case studies. Thunderbird School of Global Management is teaming up with the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul to develop a certificate program and a training program for professors.

    "This could be the start of something transformational around the world," says Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, which will work with the University of Cape Town Business School in South Africa to create a new business training certificate program.

    Better Access to Funding and Information

    Women in developing countries face three main problems when launching their own businesses: access to finance, business education, and access to a network of mentors, says Maha ElShinnawy, a management professor at the American University in Cairo. For example, women own about 18% of the businesses in Egypt, most of which are supported by microfinance loans and have limited growth potential, she says.

    ElShinnaway will help to recruit students such as Eman Yousry, 27, a visual artist who started her own furniture and home design store last year out of her home in Cairo. Yousry sells small coasters, pictures frames, and other home goods and oversees two employees, but she says she has had trouble getting her business off the ground because of her lack of business education. Yousry, who will attend the management program at the American University in Cairo this summer, hopes to learn how to market her business and expand it, perhaps eventually exporting her items to other countries.

    "It is very hard because I have many problems, and I don't know how to market myself, manage my employees, and manage my money," Yousry says. "These are the main problems I have. I'm hoping this program will help me learn to run my business the right way and help me solve my problems."

    The Mentors of Tomorrow

    In addition to business training, the 10,000 Women program organizers hope to create a network of female entrepreneurs and advisers who can serve as role models for aspiring business owners. ElShinnaway says she hopes Yousry will eventually be able to serve as a mentor to women in the program and as an example for case studies the schools will develop on how female entrepreneurs in developing countries overcome societal challenges to become successful business leaders.

    Such case studies, they hope, will provide examples that will inspire as well as instruct, ElShinnaway says. "That will be a powerful story that will tell others that like Eman [Yousry], 'I can take my business to the next level.'"