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Thursday, February 10, 2005
Isle advocates aid
An Evening in SolidarityMavis Leno will speak at the event in suppot of rights for Afghan women:
Where: College Hill, University of Hawaii at Manoa
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $100 ($85 tax-deductible)
Call: Julia Steele at 782-3201, or Kayleen Polichetti at 538-0797
The pleasant image is in stark contrast to news that reached her from relatives who stayed behind and who lived through the rule of the Taliban, when women were forbidden to go to work or school, to seek medical attention, even to leave their homes. "My cousin is a surgeon. She could not practice. She knew the penalties for disobeying could be as severe as stoning, or maiming, or even death," says Ahmadi, who now lives in Manoa and holds a law degree.
Like Ahmadi, Jim Rumford -- also a Manoa resident -- cherishes the time he spent in an Afghanistan of a different era. In the early '70s, he was in Kabul as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching co-ed classes, where, he recalls, his female students were filled with ambition that no one questioned.
"So many were multilingual. They could recite poetry in Persian or French. So now I have to wonder what happened to them with all this ..." his voice hesitates, "... all this craziness," he finishes, shaking his head.
Ahmadi and Rumford are two of a small group of local residents who call themselves the Afghan Women's Hui. They share not only a fondness for an Afghanistan they once knew, but a sense of outrage that Afghanistan has seen the horrific debasement of its women.
Most in the informal hui are just beginning to know one another and recognize the impact the war-torn nation has had on their lives, and they are turning their feelings into positive action by sponsoring a benefit fund-raiser on Saturday, featuring a celebration of Afghan culture with traditional poetry, food, music and art.
Funds raised at the event will go to the Shuhada Organization, headed by Afghan women running 71 schools, 11 medical clinics and three hospitals in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
Shuhada's work addresses the plight of Afghan women evident in recent statistics the organization has posted on its Web site: The country has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. In 10 provinces, only one in four girls attends primary schools. Meanwhile, there have been 28 instances of documented attacks of schools.
"Instead of being passive about all this injustice, it feels good to really do something to improve the lives of women and children and restore a future that should never have been taken away so cruelly," Rumford says.
The hui will be receive some high-powered help from guest speaker Mavis Leno. The wife of "The Tonight Show" host Jay Leno is one of the world's best-known champions of Afghan women's rights. She is active in the Feminist Majority, a group that has been assisting the Shuhada Organization.
Speaking by phone from the mainland, Leno said she has been a women's activist since the 1970s. "When the word got out in the 1990s about what was happening to Afghan women, the need to put out a hand and help just hit me in the back and wouldn't let go," she said. "For one thing, I thought it would be a very good thing if women from all over were seen as riding to the rescue. It would send a very powerful message to other countries that wherever women are mistreated, the world will not tolerate it."
Leno said women around the world were outraged by images of Afghan women in burqas, the head-to-toe veil imposed on them by the Taliban. "You make a woman invisible in a burqa; you cannot see if she is happy or sad. She is dehumanized."
The Taliban imposed these restrictions on women for political reasons, Leno believes.
"Before (the Taliban), women participated in all professions. To make it easy to take over the country, the Taliban completely disempowered the population by locking up the women at home. They made it impossible for anyone to get schooling, and not just the girls, because the majority of teachers in that country had been women," Leno says.
THE TALIBAN regime was toppled from power three years ago and a new American-backed government has promised equality for women.
"Efforts are being made in Kabul to restore women's rights, but the situation remains chaotic because some sections continue to be held by more conservative Muslim fundamentalist factions," Leno says, adding that much of the attention news organizations once gave to Afghanistan has shifted to Iraq, leaving some to assume Afghanistan is back to normal.
Hardly so, says hui member Ann Wright, who sees the fund-raiser as a way to clear up American misperceptions she learned about as the United States' first ambassador to post-Taliban Afghanistan.
"When the U.S. went into Afghanistan, we were telling the women, 'Oh, you don't have to wear the veil anymore.' And the women looked at us and said, 'You may be here now, but those same guys who raped, pillaged and plundered are still here. ... And when you leave, they will see our faces, and our lives will be in danger,'" Wright said.
True change will require eliminating the poverty and ignorance that fueled the Taliban's rise, but resources have been largely diverted to Iraq, Wright said, adding that stability in Afghanistan is key to bringing about peace in the entire Mideast.
Hui member and Makiki resident Ariya Ahrary sees the fund-raiser as a way to educate the public about her homeland, which she left as a child. Ahrary, who is pursuing a career in acting, said she was frustrated when early news about the Taliban didn't register much alarm in America.
"I was hearing (from the homeland) how the Taliban was promoting violence against women. That is not what the Koran teaches. That is not a Muslim tradition but the work of extremists," she says. But that distinction didn't seem clear to Americans until 9/11, she says.
Like other hui members, she said she dreams of one day returning to a peaceful Afghanistan, provoking some sentimental sighs among group members.
Afghan women continue to do all they can. Throughout the Taliban years, women risked their lives to continue educating and caring for themselves and their children. "I have relatives who have lost their husbands and their sons, but they have done a lot to survive," Ahmadi says. "I want people to know that this is how we are."