IN SEPTEMBER, COURAGEOUS WOMEN from across Afghanistan gathered in Kandahar, once the spiritual and political center of the Taliban movement, to talk about the future. The women were both Muslims and victims of an Islamic tyranny, but the subject on the table in Kandahar was not religion but law.
"The conference was not about religion and religious dress codes," said Masuda Sultan, program director of Women for Afghan Women and an organizer of the meeting. "It was about the current constitutional process and efforts to secure women's human rights in the forthcoming national constitution."
By the end of the conference, the participants had written a crisp Afghan Women's Bill of Rights that included demands for universal female education and health care, the criminalization of sexual violence, freedom of speech and political activity, equal rights in property, labor, marriage and divorce, and "full inclusion of women in the judiciary system."
Afghan women know better than most what it means to be marginalized and repressed, not only under the crude absolutism of the Taliban, but also by rulers before and after them. Women know that they will continue to be vulnerable until there are laws and a judicial system that do not downplay their rights or fail to guarantee them space in public life.
Burqa or no burqa, they have scant standing in the prevailing warlord culture.
The more that women who cherish their faiths get to know each other across boundaries, the more they argue that whether they live under the influence of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity or almost any other creed or sect, it is often not religion alone, even in the hands of firebrand fundamentalists, that is the root problem. Women's places are more often circumscribed by a combination of powerful cultural influences harnessed to faith by men in authority, and then translated into laws, closing a circle of repression.
The apartheid of purdah, honor killings, female genital mutilation, the buying or selling of brides, forced marriages, clan polygamy and other practices that harm women often seem to come with the territory, their origins lost in the murk of history, or mythology. Cloaked in religion, any number of destructive customary practices acquire a false patina of sanctity and become instruments of control. But not always, and it is the hope of separating culture from religion--and the understanding that it can be done--that many women around the world bank on.
Career women in Indonesia or Malaysia never think twice about mundane activities like driving to work or joining a political campaign. To them, restrictions on fellow Muslim women in the Middle East are a product of Arab culture, not Islam. An urban American Christian, Catholic or Protestant, may feel totally alien in the southern Bible Belt, where preachers still rank submissive, stay-at-home womanhood high and the church parking lot on Sunday is as full as the mall's on Friday night. Compare that with New York, where a recent poll found that only one person in four went to religious services with any regularity. Even in New York, the Hasidic Jewish woman, with a shaved head beneath her wig and hat, segregated from men at worship, lives a world away from her more liberal Jewish sisters, with their secular mainstream lifestyles.
"The problem isn't the faith, but the faithful," Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, likes to say when considering the fundamentalist phenomenon. The UN has seen some bizarre alliances form on social issues, with the Vatican, conservative Islamic governments and sometimes the United States under the Bush administration joined to block trends such as advances in women's reproductive rights.
"Masses of people of faith need to take back their religion and excommunicate the extremists," says Sunita Mehta, a founder of Women for Afghan Women, which sponsored the Kandahar meeting. …