A “Shadow Summit” about Afghan women was held Sunday at the Swissôtel in Chicago.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright headlined the collection of panelists that included members of Congress and various women’s rights advocates from the U.S. and Middle East.
“The discussion of women always seems to be an afterthought, when in fact the treatment of women is central to American foreign policy,” Albright said. “The reason we’re in Afghanistan at all is to make a better society for Afghans and that won’t happen unless women are part of the solution.”
The summit was organized by activist group Amnesty International to answer the complex question of how to secure the role of women in Afghanistan in the wake of war. It also addressed how to rebuild the nation and ensure the protection of the country’s female citizens.
Panelist and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said even as the U.S. withdraws troops, resources and people need to be put in place to advance the women of Afghanistan – a process she called “capacity-building.” She said there’s a popular perception that it’s not possible to protect the women of the nation and withdraw military by 2014.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” said Schakowsky, commenting on the treatment of women in Afghanistan, who were oppressed and victimized during period when the Taliban had a stronghold on the nation.
Melanne Verveer, President Obama’s appointed Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, said in order to progress the advancement of women in Afghanistan, they could not be seen through the lens of victimization. She said it’s imperative for citizens of the country to renounce al-Qaeda and violence and redefine Afghanistan’s constitution.
“Stop looking at us as victims and start looking at us as the leaders we are,” she said. “Women are absolutely essential to producing political, social and economic change in Afghanistan.”
Afifa Azim, general director and cofounder of the Afghan Women’s Summit, echoed Verveer. “Don’t look at us as victims,” she said. “[Women] were getting beat[en] in the streets, but they still wanted to be active.”
The summit took place at a crucial time when the U.S. is planning to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Middle Eastern nation faces a long future of rebuilding and reform.
“There’s this sense that there’s some sort of tradeoff between women’s rights and security when in fact it’s the opposite,” Albright said.
Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, praised the United States’ efforts to transform Afghanistan. She said it was a different nation from 2001, when the country had no military force and was a sparse, crumbled country.
“Ten years have passed–it hasn’t gone in vain. Lives have been lost–it hasn’t gone in vain. Money has been spent–it hasn’t gone in vain,” she said.
Naderi added that progress, while positive, is a slow process. “It’s become a culture of war over the past 35 years and culture doesn’t change overnight,” she said. “[However], change is happening on the families on a daily basis.”
Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, emphasized that Americans need to demonstrate commitment to securing resources for peace.
“We’re not talking about recourses beyond our capacity, and to not invest them would be incredibly foolish,” he said. He urged the audience to write to Congress and demand funding for the advancement and security of women.
Jannuzi and Azim both said Afghan women needed more police training and jobs as judges and prosecutors. Jannuzi mentioned that statistics suggest Afghan women have become more empowered in recent years to report crimes against them that would go unreported in the past.
Schakowsky cautioned Americans not to become complacent with progress in Afghanistan.
“Let’s look what’s going on in our own country before we get smug about women’s rights around the world,” she said. “Planning wars to plan peace is a bad habit.”
She said women in Afghanistan should be “peacekeepers” and “overseers” of the new government as Afghanistan rises.
Naderi said it was crucial that while rebuilding, the Taliban must be pushed out of Afghanistan.
“We are totally against any kind of negotiations with the Taliban because they cannot be trusted,” she said. “Instead of negotiating with terrorists and killers, we should be negotiating with the supporters.”
A recurring theme was the idea that women of America and Afghanistan must form a support network, a “sisterhood” of advocacy and safety.
“We have to see ourselves as an international sisterhood and we are not going to abandon the women of Afghanistan,” Schakowsky said.
“[Our] work together to help the women of Afghanistan is a symbol for the world,” Azim said.
After the press conference, panelists and audience members flew kites, an Afghan pastime from which women have been banned under Taliban rule. The kite flying was symbolic of women’s ability to “soar.”