Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Afghan Women to Obama: We Must Be at the Table!

by Patricia DeGennaro

The author, a global affairs professor who has worked extensively in Afghanistan, talks to Dr. Masooda Jalal, a political leader and the subject of a new documentary. Her message: women must be involved in peace making; the Taliban and warlords are "only powerful because we allow them to be." 

United States President Barak Obama unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan last week.  In it he pledged both military and civil support to Afghanistan.  "And," he went out of his way to say, "we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans—including women and girls."  Despite this, Afghan women continue to be absent from the discussion when it comes to their futures and the future of Afghanistan.

As I write this, Brussels is hosting the largest international conference to date on Afghanistan and Afghan women are conspicuously missing.  It seems that international rhetoric for women does not translate into any vigorous action.

Ironically, while leaders sit and plan her future, Dr. Masooda Jalal, the only woman who ran for the Afghan presidency, tours the United States discussing a new documentary, FRONTRUNNER, a film that brilliantly illustrates the challenges she faced running for top office.

I was privileged to sit down with Dr. Jalal earlier this week.  Like many Afghan women, Jalal is a warm, serious individual.  She, however, has an intensity about her that brought her within steps of the Presidential Palace. 

Although she did not become the nation's leader, Jalal continues to work tireless to, in her words, "end racial, ethnic, gender and religious discrimination in Afghanistan." No easy feat for anyone in the world let alone a woman in Kabul, although Jalal seems to conquer endless and insurmountable obstacles with ease. 

She is a symbol of how the world does not put its money where its mouth is.  Although a formidable candidate, the world chose to put all its muscle behind a man instead—thinking, as former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad states, "Afghanistan is just not ready for a women president."  Well, I would bet if the current Afghan President Hamid Karzai did not get all that international attention and money, she would have definitely proven him wrong.

Jalal comes from an extremely supportive family.  One that encouraged her education and, later, her political campaign. After completing medical school, along with her practice, she became a medical professor at Kabul University.  She has spent her life taking care of the people.  "We are all human," says Jalal, "and as a doctor I know it is important to take care of everyone [the same way]." 

During Taliban rule women were prohibited from working.  Jalal continued her medical practice anyway using her home to treat women, children, and "even men," she says.  She worked for the United Nations as well.  When the Taliban found out about her activities she ended up in jail.  Fortunately, due to UN pressure, Jalal was released after only two days of incarceration.  She was lucky: many women jailed by the Taliban never made it out.


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