By ELYSE TORIBIO, ERICA BUCHMAN and JEREMY KELLY
“It’s replacing one set of terrorists with another set of terrorists,” said a Afghani human rights activist in the film “Afghan Women: A History of Struggle” about the presence of the American military in the Middle Eastern country and their efforts to eliminate extremism.
The 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 saw countless memorials, television specials and reporting in the media. Still, in the decade since the United States declared war on Afghanistan following the attacks, there has been little commentary on the people of the Middle Eastern country, according to Schomberg scholars who were panelists in a special program entitled “From Revolution to the Taliban to the War on Terror” at the College on Oct. 17.
With much of the focus on the Taliban and the presence of Al-Qaeda in the country, little attention has been paid to the groups that have been deeply affected by the changes in power of Afghanistan over the years, one of them being Afghan women. Despite the efforts to pull troops out and allow Afghanis to self-stabilize, the rights of women are still few and far in between, no where near what it used to be like before the Taliban took over.
Director Kathleen Foster pursued this under-reported issue with her 2007 film “Afghan Women: A History of Struggle,” and was joined by two visiting international scholars from Afghanistan and Pakistan to present her work during the program.
“I made this film because I had been in Afghanistan before the war and I was very troubled when the U.S. invaded,” Foster said. “I want to help people understand what is going on there.”
The documentary follows the impact that war has had on the people of Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1973 to the domination by the Taliban and finally, the influence of American troops since the U.S. declared the war, which is now in its eleventh year.
The chaos today and yesterday
Foster screened scenes from her documentary following a brief introduction by Pat Keeton, professor of communications and coordinator of the School of Contemporary Arts’ Cinematheque film series. The film begins with President George W. Bush announcing the new freedom for women living in Afghanistan post 9/11. However, according to commentators in the film, approximately 80 percent of women in Afghanistan will say that they don’t feel liberated. Ninety percent of women still can’t read or write; they have no education and no job. Women are be placed in prison just for running from their abusive husbands, and some will even pour cooking oil on themselves out of sheer helplessness.
One of the scholars present in the panel, Fahima Vorgetts, is featured in the film as an advocate for women’s rights and is the director of the Afghan Women’s Fund. She explained that even today, women in Afghanistan continue to fight a different war, a war for freedom and equality
“The war is going on, the struggle is still going on, and women are looking for their rights,” Vorgetts said at the event. “The women are in the forefront. Women are still captive. Actually, it’s getting worse and worse still after 10 years and with 40 other countries still there.”
Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1973, the constitution that was passed in Afghanistan in 1964 gave men and women equality, stating, “The people of Afghanistan, without any discrimination or preference, have equal rights and obligations before the law.”
Women did not need to wear burkas until the coup de’etat in 1973. Now, despite the departure of the Taliban, they still do not have complete liberation. It simply opens the door to potential liberation.
“We wanted to show that women do believe in their rights and fight for their rights,” Vorgetts said in an interview. “If you want to bring peace to a country, education is a must. The people would like the U.S. army to get out. We should be in anti-war movements.”
[VIDEO: Schomberg Scholar Vorgetts talks about the status of women in Afghanistan today.]
In 1964, King Zahir Shah gave women equal rights under the constitution. After he was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud, women’s rights were taken a step further with the opening of schools, allowing more women to be educated. Afghanistan was declared a republic, and Daoud its first president. From 1973 to 1978, Afghanistan’s government was secular; the country itself was religious, but not fanatical.
When the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, Mujahideen, a fundamentalist Islamic group began to form an alliance against Soviet forces. The United States, hoping it would help drive the USSR out of Afghanistan, began supplying Mujahideen with stringer missiles, allowing the fanatical group to fight back and subsequently seize power over Afghanistan. The Soviets ultimately left in 1989, but civil war among Mujahideen and the Afghan government continued to rage until 1992.
In 1992, the Taliban, a faction of Mujahideen, ultimately seized power. The rise of the Taliban signified the end of women’s rights in Afghanistan. In 1996, the Taliban renamed Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, took control of Kabul, and introduced a hard-line version of Islam, banning women from work and school; Islamic punishments were also instituted, including stoning to death and amputations.
Working to improve
Today’s struggle is for survival for basic daily life. Afghan women are determined to not be victims. They want freedom, the right to work, to make decisions and not be controlled.
“We need international solidarity to achieve that,” Vorgetts said. “People are really hopeful with their minds, bodies and souls that they will do whatever it takes.”
In 2003 organizations were looking to rewrite the Bill of Rights to show that women want equal rights and that the best way to fight terrorism is education.
“People need to know the truth,” said Foster in relation to her cause to raise awareness of the issue.
Students interviewed after the event said the learned much about the struggles of Afghan women, facts that they didn’t know about before or saw in the mainstream press.
“I’ve learned that Afghan women have gone through a long struggle of trying to gain their rights as compared to other women of the world,” said Ramapo student Ryan Buchanan. “It’s demeaning that they have to wear a burka per laws of the Taliban and I don’t think it’s fair.”
The Integritas Staff contributed to this report.