‘You Should Be in the Kitchen’: At Afghan Assembly, Women Are Told They Don’t Belong

‘You Should Be in the Kitchen’: At Afghan Assembly, Women Are Told They Don’t Belong

By Fatima Faizi and David Zucchino

May 4, 2019

The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — On the second day of a traditional Afghan assembly this week, a delegate rose to speak on the topic at hand, peace in Afghanistan.

A bearded man from Kandahar ordered her to shut up.

“He told her: ‘Peace has nothing to do with you. Sit down! You should be in the kitchen cooking!’” recalled Behnoh Benod, 31, a male delegate who witnessed the put-down.

The assembly, known as a loya jirga, was convened by President Ashraf Ghani to debate Afghanistan’s path to peace. Organizers proudly pointed out that 30 percent of the 3,200 delegates were women.

But several female delegates said they felt ignored, marginalized or patronized. They were told that men should lead the jirga’s 51 committees and women should serve as secretaries. Some women complained that they were groped and fondled — not by men, but by women who patted them down during security checks.

Other women said they had been confronted by male delegates who claimed to support women’s rights, but only under Shariah, or Islamic law — a view shared by the Taliban.

“I asked them which Shariah law, the Taliban Shariah law or ISIS Shariah law,” said a delegate, Sakina Hussaini, referring to the Islamic State.

“Some men didn’t accept women as human beings and I had to scream at them,” she said.

Mr. Benod said just 16 of the delegates on his 108-member committee were women. A male delegate was selected as committee chair. Of the 51 committees, 13 were headed by women, and 28 elected women as committee secretaries.

For many women, the jirga got off to a dismaying start when Mr. Ghani appointed as chairman Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, a combative former warlord known for his harsh views on women’s rights. Things quickly went downhill when a female delegate complained directly to Mr. Sayyaf and was hustled out by security guards. Other delegates hooted and clapped to drown out her protest.

State-run television, RTA, which broadcast the proceedings, posted a banner on Twitter showing images of Mr. Ghani and Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, the chief Taliban peace negotiator. Beside them were photos of two women with their faces covered — one by a niqab, a veil that leaves the eyes visible, and the other by a burqa, the all-encompassing garment forced upon women under the Taliban regime that was toppled in 2001.

After a torrent of complaints on social media, a new banner appeared. Mr. Ghani and Mr. Stanekzai were still depicted, but four smiling women wearing head scarves that left their faces uncovered were added to the two with their faces concealed.

And on Monday, as the jirga opened, some female delegates arrived dressed in burqas.

“Most of these women have come from provinces and they have no idea why they are here,” said a delegate, Taiyaba Khavari.

Ms. Khavari and other women said they grew disillusioned as they were insulted or interrupted by male delegates.

Torpekai, 45, a delegate who goes by one name, said she had been pleased to be among war victims invited to Kabul. She said her 18-year-old son, a police officer, had been killed by the Taliban.

Ms. Torpekai said she had planned to tell delegates that she wanted the Taliban punished if a peace deal gave them a role in a postwar government. But the men who dominated the jirga did not bother to listen.

“No one would hear me out,” Ms. Torpekai said. “They said women shouldn’t be here — this isn’t a discussion for women.”

It was not just women who felt disillusioned by the jirga. Social media lit up with arch commentary from Afghans who dismissed the assembly as a patronage tool for Mr. Ghani. Some critics said the jirga usurped Afghanistan’s Parliament.

The government shut down the capital for five days, giving government workers the week off while other Afghans fumed over blocked roads and security sweeps. Taxi drivers complained that they were cut off from fares. Shopkeepers moaned that customers could not reach them.

The jirga was caught up in a bruising presidential election campaign, in which Mr. Ghani is struggling to stay relevant while his government is excluded from peace talks in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the United States. The militants refuse to meet with the government, calling it illegitimate.

Many of Mr. Ghani’s political rivals boycotted the jirga, among them Abdullah Abdullah, the president’s partner in the unity government. Mr. Abdullah is running for president against Mr. Ghani.

Rahmatullah Nabil, another presidential candidate who boycotted, called the jirga a waste of money and a campaign rally for Mr. Ghani.

Jirga organizers said it was an effective exercise in grass-roots democracy that incorporated a wide range of Afghan society. Among the delegates were urban and rural residents, victims of war and terrorism, young people, traditional elders, and ulema, or Islamic religious scholars.

Delegates at Mr. Ghani’s speech on Friday. The assembly agreed to seek a cease-fire with the Taliban and to honor the Afghan Constitution, including protecting the rights of women and children.CreditJawad Jalali/EPA, via Shutterstock

Organizers said that with the government sidelined at the peace talks, the jirga produced a national consensus on conditions for peace with the Taliban. The assembly’s recommendations are not legally binding.

“It’s our sacred tradition,” said Mohammed Umer Daudzai, who organized the gathering. “I doubt that anybody will say consensus-building or dialogue is a bad idea.”

The jirga has a long and contentious history. After delegates to a secret jirga in the late 18th century conspired to replace the Afghan ruler, Zaman Shah, he had them all killed. In 1987, a gunfight erupted outside a jirga hall, killing or wounding 30 people.

In 2002, some 200 female delegates attended a jirga that elected Hamid Karzai president. But many women had to jostle with male delegates for public microphones. Others said they had been threatened by government intelligence agents.

At the close of the jirga on Friday, Mr. Ghani accepted its recommendation to seek a cease-fire, a goal of the Doha peace negotiations. He urged the Taliban to negotiate within Afghanistan and said he would release 175 Taliban prisoners.

Among other recommendations accepted by Mr. Ghani was a demand that any postwar government honor the Afghan Constitution and protect the rights of women and children. He thanked the delegates, “especially the women.”

One delegate, Wazhma Tukhi, 25, said she was satisfied. “The Constitution protects our rights, and that’s all Afghan women want,” she said.

But another, Masuma Bahar, 24, said the jirga should have made a stronger case for preserving women’s gains over the past 18 years.

“There were women on the board and they should have raised their voices, but they haven’t done anything,” she said.

Rod Nordland contributed reporting.

‘You Should Be in the Kitchen’: At Afghan Assembly, Women Are Told They Don’t Belong