Monday, June 21, 2010

Working to Help a Haven for Afghan Women Blossom

KABUL, Afghanistan — There was in the city an old garden, and in that garden there were trees, and under the trees there were women. And there were no scarves on the heads of the women who sat under the trees in the old Kabul Women’s Garden. That was all something remarkable once upon a time, as it is even now. Screened from male scrutiny by the leafy canopies of almond or apricot trees, women could go outside as they pleased, dare to wriggle naked toes in fountain water or just gossip without the veil. Now this oasis of freedom for women, surrounded by the misogynist desert of the capital city, is undergoing a rebirth. As with so much happening today in Afghanistan, the midwives are foreigners, the gestation is troubled and the parents are hopeful. Some say this fabled eight-acre enclosure in the Shahrara neighborhood of Kabul goes back to the days of Babur the Conqueror, in the 1500s. More reliably it is dated to the 1940s or ’50s, when King Zahir Shah was said to have bequeathed it to the state. Karima Salik tells the story of the Kabul Women’s Garden she remembers as a girl in the 1970s, a halcyon age for Afghanistan and its women, before the present 32 years of unbroken war began. “The trees covered everything,” she recalled. “There was laughter and chatter and music.” For the past three years, Ms. Salik has managed the garden, which is now in the midst of a $500,000 face-lift supported by the United States Agency for International Development and CARE International. Most of the money pays laborers who are landscaping, planting trees, rebuilding footpaths and raising the walls still higher. Women on construction projects are almost unheard of in Afghanistan, but the United States Agency for International Development program requires that at least 25 percent of the work force be female. Here they are 50 percent of it. Ms. Salik’s childhood witnessed one of the most liberated periods for women in Afghan history, when the communist government took over in 1978 and enforced equality, banned the burqa and mandated education for girls. The revolt of the mujahedeen, led by conservative, rural warlords, wiped that all out in a few years’ time. People desperate for fuel felled the garden’s trees for firewood. Militiamen held cockfights within the walls. Women dared not go near the place. In the Taliban era, the city was more peaceful but women were confined to their homes. The northeast end of the garden was appropriated by the mosque next door. A warlord who came over to the Taliban was rewarded with the southwest corner for a construction project. The rest, renamed the Springtime Garden, became a public dump. When Ms. Salik and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs took over three years ago, “We hauled 45 truckloads of trash out.” Now male police officers outside the tall steel gates open them only for women, or for male children if they are under 9. Inside the gates are those rarest of public employees: female police officers, two of them. They are reinforced by five female intelligence officers, whose main job is to look for suicide bombers who might hide explosives under the capaciousness of the burqa. Mostly the burqas come off once inside the gate, and there are dressing rooms where many of the women change into normal clothes, putting on makeup and high heels. Then, unheard-of things happen here. The women themselves have raised funds for a tiny mosque, with religious instruction given by a woman — one of only a handful of such places in a city where at least 1.5 million female Muslims live. A consortium of European Union aid groups built a spacious gym, and women in tights take fitness classes there or play badminton. The Italians started the Always Spring Restaurant, featuring something else unknown in Kabul, female pizza chefs. Between the compound’s outer and inner walls, a shopping arcade of little, female-run businesses grew up, many of them financed with microgrants: hairdressing, embroidery, children’s clothing, ladies lingerie. There are other such businesses in Kabul, but none are run by women, to whom the busy bazaars are off limits not by law but by hard custom. Some come here for opportunity, many for refuge of one sort or another. Fairly often, women who have run away from abusive husbands, or from fathers who threaten to commit a so-called honor killing, wind up here, and the staff members find them a place in one of the city’s secret women’s shelters. Arezo Ghafori, 22, has a talent for hairdressing and a family of eight for whom she is the sole breadwinner, but the men in the family refused to allow her to work, even if they starved, until she started a salon inside the garden. Leila Husseini, Afghanistan’s 25-year-old Asian tae kwon do champion in the women’s under-95-pound class, came here to train and also to lead courses for other women. All of this did not happen without a fight. Ms. Salik called in the police over the mosque’s encroachment, and the mullah led a noisy demonstration of male neighbors in protest. “I used religious arguments against him,” she said, “and pointed out it was a sin to use stolen land for prayers.” They compromised on a new wall, but the mullah, Abdul Rahim, is still seething. He says that a police officer was caught inside the garden in an improper assignation with a woman, but that the incident was hushed up. “I don’t care what the hell they do,” he said. “But inside the garden they get all dressed up and do their makeup and they have other intentions.” A politically well-connected former warlord named Amanullah Guzar had gained control of the Taliban warlord’s old building site, and a 13-story building began rising there, overlooking their walls and, worse, providing vantage points into the gym’s windows. Construction workers leered and jeered, and Ms. Salik went to court to stop the building, which she claims is actually on land belonging to the garden. “Women need to have privacy here or it does not work,” she said. Efforts to reach Mr. Guzar for comment were unsuccessful. “It is women against men,” she said afterward, uncharacteristically discouraged. “Our action will never succeed.” A few weeks later, she was hopeful again. She had found powerful allies who promised to intercede. In the meantime, work on the building was suspended and the aerobics classes resumed. The face-lift is due to finish July 5. Every 40 days a new crew of female laborers is brought in, giving new people an opportunity to earn money and learn skills. Some are jobless poor, like Zehia and Hassina, two 19-year-olds pushing wheelbarrows, who had baseball caps on over their headscarves and black veils across their faces — more out of shame than modesty. “We are like men here,” Zehia said. “It is an embarrassment for educated girls like us to work like this.” Both are English-speaking high school graduates who have rejected all offers of marriage, hoping to get into a university. “What would I do with a husband, especially an uneducated husband?” Zehia asked. “A job is much better.” In a broad sense, the success of the Kabul Women’s Garden is an admission of failure. Women simply cannot go to other parks in Kabul unless chaperoned by male relatives, and often not even then; most parks, like most public spaces, are overwhelmingly male. “You can’t change people’s ideas overnight,” Ms. Salik said. “So we need to address the immediate needs.” Ms. Salik has other projects in mind for the Kabul Women’s Garden. There is an unused parking lot beside the garden where women could learn how to drive, something almost unheard of here — not because it is illegal, just because it is not done. Most of all, Ms. Salik would like to see a program that would take women on brief trips to other countries, perhaps for job training, but really, she said, just to see how women live in lands where there are no women’s gardens. New York Times

Pakhtuns’ plea to Gen. Kayani

FRONTIER POST Jan Assakzai... Since the launch of army's crackdown on TTP, the army's Chief Gen Kayani still enjoys the support of overwhelming number of Pakhtuns. Gen Kayani by retaking Swat and partially wresting South Waziristan and Orakzai from the TTP has proved his credentials as military leader. The government is fully backing the army's campaign to eradicate the TTP from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's other anti-militant, democratic forces, legal fraternity, pro-development community, the media and nascent civil society are behind General Kayani in this anti-TTP drive. The campaign has now nearly gone through a year. The Swat has been retaken, the TTP denied a sanctuary in South Waziristan, and a partial sanctuary in the Orakzai Agency. As a result of the campaign the TTP though not completely knocked down, is on the back foot: the nasty incidents of suicide and merciless bombings have substantially been reduced. The strategy of the army proved that if there is a will, these fanatics can be taken out without appeasement. The fact is that these tactical victories of the army could not be made possible without the support of the government. From strategic point of view, particularly the provincial leadership in terms of standing up to the militants in Swat and the rest of FATA, in spite of great peril, created ideal condition for the army to conduct a relatively successful campaign in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. The apologists of the Taliban who are still clamouring that the army is fighting the US war, had the simplistic view that these militants could give up on intent and capability to harm people, through dialogue. But they have been proved wrong. Some un-elected retired bureaucrats and "security" official-cum-analysts (who have the habit of waiting for their next fat cheque every month from the government) mistakenly believed that "our brothers in arms" are misguided souls and hence should be co-opted. But they forgot that the game has past the stage of simple Taliban gone astray. Now the TTP has become Frankenstein drawing inspiration, adopting the methodology and gaining finances from its new mentor - al-Qaeda. They even adopted the agenda of al-Qaeda to mount transnational attacks as a far off place as New York. The monster of the TTP has reared its ugly head in Punjab where the ruling political elite's denial mode has helped create a new environ for militants to flourish and a danger of South Punjab sleep walking into a pre-Taliban Swat-like situation. Except, some pro-Taliban political actors (whose followers are known to have helped support, recruit, harbour some al-Qaeda operatives and their Taliban allies), criticising the current crackdown only to save the skin of their ideological "friends", there is overwhelming support for the present campaign. Because Pakhtuns understand that the terrorists have taken over their lives, their neighbourhoods, their communities, they have to reclaim back the ground lost to these militants. They believe it is not the fight of the US or any other foreign force rather it is a fight for their soul and hence for Pakistan which they want to see through. They reject the stereotypes and lies propagated by the right wing media anchors and writers that Pakhtuns resent action against the Taliban as if they are the equivalent of the Taliban. But for Pakhtuns it is far from the truth and they have one message for these apologists of the Taliban monster: "please not on my name". They understand that the Taliban they knew, never beheaded people, turned 15 years only teenagers into suicide missiles, and conspired to launch transnational attacks in league with the foreign terrorists. Thus one measure of their mindset was the sacrifices of hundreds of members of Amn Lashkars, tribal maliks, political leaders, workers, innocent men, women and children. For they always thought that Pakhtun culture, traditions and values were the opposite of terrorism and extremism. On the contrary they believed that these Taliban were propped up and they never voted for, nor chose. This is why they back the army's crackdown against the TTP and very much appreciate those servicemen who were killed at the hands of terrorists: for them these fine men did not lose their lives in vain but offered the ultimate sacrifice to keep the streets of Swat and other areas off guntotting terrorists. There is a consensus among Pakhtuns that the army take the campaign to its logical conclusion knocking down the TTP's sanctuaries, intent and capability to harm innocents citizens. Although, at national level, the right wing media anchors and the pro-militant PML(N) has created much obfuscation, the army should not confuse the resolve and the consensus of the Pakhtun democratic political forces, the legal and development community, the media and civil society on fighting the Taliban monster, with the incoherence and inconstancy of PML(N)'s leadership on the issue. The army knows that there is no solution except force to deal with militants in Punjab as well. However, because of foot dragging of the political leadership of PML(N) cannot take such action fearing that doing so could make the situation even worse. But inaction of the political leadership and the army's reluctance to use force, forced the hand of the government to negotiate away the writ of the state to well-entrenched Taliban in Swat. That said, the army's crackdown in FATA is not adequate yet. North Waziristan continues to serve as sanctuary for the TTP and al-Qaeda and its allies. Without military operation in North Waziristan, threat and intimidation to the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA and the rest of the country will remain and victories against the TTP will hang in the balance. Although Pakhtuns fully support the army to retake the areas from the TTP, they are concerned that the army has not yet addressed the problems it has created for itself by distinguishing between the "friendly " and "unfriendly" militants. The militants either friendly or rogue, cannot be grouped into categories as they ideologically pursue the same cause: local and transnational terrorism. This deliberate ambivalence could allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to thrive and come back to hunt people in Swat and other neighbourhoods in the country and nullify the sacrifices of all those who laid their lives in getting rid of this monster. For, the past policies of containing Pakhtun nationalism with right wing extremism (thus militancy) backfired.

Pakistan's violent frontier.

Al Jazeera

Israel to loosen Gaza blockade

Israel has announced new steps to loosen a land blockade of the Gaza Strip amid mounting international pressure to end the crippling three-year siege. The administration of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said on Sunday that it would begin allowing all goods into the Palestinian territory other than "weapons and materials that Hamas uses". It did not specify what it constitutes as "materials Hamas uses", but Netanyahu's office said in a statement that it would publish a list of goods not allowed into the territory "as quickly as possible". The announcement marks a change in policy from currently providing a list of goods permitted to enter the territory. "Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks towards Israel and its civilians," the statement said. "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."