Former Royal Expresses Support for Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

Article excerpt

(ROME) When retreat of the Taliban began, Afghans inside the country and in exile began jockeying for power in the provisional government. Part of that group included the former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah. The provisional government is anticipated to help the country make a transition to democracy. The role of women is expected to be pivotal.

Two women, Sima Wali, a U.S.-based aid-worker and Rona Mansoori, the Germany-based daughter of the late former Afghan prime minister Mohammad Yousouf, were named to a nine-member delegation representing the former king at UN-sponsored talks in late November.

The interim government is comprised of different tribal factions. Those who come under `the Rome Group' are loosely identified with the former royals. It is therefore worthwhile to explore the views of Mustapha Zahir, grandson and advisor to the former king.

A Canadian citizen who lived in Ottawa and Kingston during the 1980s and once attended Queens University, the 37-year-old Zahir was 10 when his family fled Afghanistan during the 1973 coup that ousted the king. The younger Zahir is determined to bring full democracy back to Afghanistan and believes that women will be an integral part of any provisional government.

"Women have taken the brunt of the violence and horror of the past 20 years," says Zahir, who currently lives in Rome. "So it's now our duty and commitment to make sure women have their full say."

However, Zahir stresses that this freedom for women must be kept within "the context of Islam." More than once in our interview he underlined the role of "mother as primary teacher" of Afghan children, explaining that mothers or future mothers need to be educated so that they can properly educate their children to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. Only when pushed on the matter does Zahir concede that women should be educated to have more control over their livelihood and the course of their own lives.

The Taliban's repression was a modern phenomenon. Moderates or progressives, such as the King Zahir Shah and his grandson, turn to the history of their own country as proof in point of what can be achieved for women's rights in an Islamic country. Prior to the Soviet occupation and civil war that ensued, Afghanistan was held to be one of the most democratic Islamic countries.

In 1964, King Shah brought in a a new constitution that transformed the country into a modern democracy with free elections, civil rights, an elected parliament, universal suffrage, freedom of the press and women's emancipation. Women took part in the `loya jirghas,' or traditional tribal councils starting in 1964. By 1977, the results of his reforms were apparent: according to the American state department, women comprised over 15 percent of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. …