The government of Afghanistan is about to unveil a draft constitution. On Sept. 5, a group of Afghan women, including Fahima Vorgetts, handed President Hamid Karzai a Women's Bill of Rights, which they hope will be included. The document asks, among its many provisions, for "mandatory education for women through secondary school and opportunities for all women for higher education," "up-to-date health services for women with special attention to reproductive rights," and a chance to vote, run for office and earn equal pay.
Vorgetts returned this summer to her native country to open a school for 1,500 students -- the third such school she's opened since the fall of the Taliban. She has also begun literacy programs and arranged for shipments of medical supplies to Afghanistan.
How would you compare the Afghanistan you left in 1979 with the Afghanistan that you returned to in January 2002?
When I was in Afghanistan 23 years ago, I went to school and college and I had a degree and education was imperative for a lot of families and a lot of women were educated. When the war started with the Soviet Union, at that time more women were educated than men and also more women were working in different areas in the big cities, especially in Kabul. Seventy percent of teachers in Kabul were women.
When did the erosion of women's rights begin?
Women did not lose their rights with the coming of the Taliban. Women lost their rights in 1992 when the Fundamentalists -- the Mujahadeen -- came to power. The very people that the United States government supported for years and years against the Soviet Union, those very people are the ones who took the rights of women away.
What are the biggest problems women currently face?
The United States says they liberated the women of Afghanistan, but that liberation did not happen. One set of terrorists was replaced with another set of terrorists. They are both Fundamentalists. And the women are afraid. The very people that were in power from 1992 through 1996, they did so much raping, abducting, and killing, and forced marriages, and women suffered a lot -- those very people are back in power and so the women say, "How can we trust them that they won't do this again?" [Women] are wearing burqa for their own security.
How have Afghan women managed to continue their struggle?
They do not give up and they take advantage of the worst circumstances to
do their work. They used the burqa to their advantages. You probably saw the public execution of the women in the stadium by the Taliban. Nobody dared to use a video camera in Afghanistan. A woman used the burqa to put a video camera underneath and go and take the pictures and expose that to the world. They used burqa to go and open schools. There were a lot of clandestine girls' schools in Afghanistan. Several women would get together and they would open a school. Somebody would be the chaperone, somebody would be watching for the Taliban, and they would be gathering the girls together and teaching them. And a lot of them would be wearing burqa. They would be carrying books under the burqa because otherwise they would be seen.
How about Karzai?
Karzai is a nice guy. But the power is not in the hands of Karzai. The power is in the hands of the Fundamentalists -- 20 of 29 cabinet members are Fundamentalists.
What needs to happen now?
Let the peacekeepers expand beyond Kabul and disarm the warlords. You take the guns away from them and you do not support them with money from outside and those people are nothing. There is an election coming in 2004 -- 100,000 people are working for the militia of the warlords, and only 3,000 for the Afghan central government.
Give me a picture of one of your schools.
We have run-down buildings, mud houses mostly. Because Afghanistan is two-thirds in ruin, there are not many buildings and if there are they are very expensive. Most schools have three or four shifts. In the mornings mothers come there and learn literacy. The next shift would be adult girls, 15 or 16. Sometimes we do have young girls of school age, seven or eight years of age, so we just take them and they sit there ...with a 40-year-old woman. No desks, no chairs. They are sitting on the floor. In some classes, there are two classes in the same room.
What do you expect to see in your lifetime for the women of Afghanistan?
What I hope is that women will have equal rights, not only on paper, but in society. Right now, the prisons are full of women: Women who run away from their abusive husbands, girls 16 years old who run away from their 60-year-old abusive husbands. But they are in jail because according to Fundamentalist law, a woman cannot leave her husband. These are the things still going on, forced marriages and so many things.