Social Education 66(1), pp. 13-17
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies
An Interview with Nasrine Abou-Bakre Gross
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, many Afghan women living outside their country took part in the campaign to restore womens rights. Nasrine Abou-Bakre Gross, an Afghan American living in the Washington, D.C. area, is an active member of the womens association Negar. In July 2000, Negar sponsored a meeting of Afghan womens groups in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, that resulted in the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women. The Declaration rejects discrimination against women and calls for the implementation of internationally recognized womens rights in Afghanistan.
Nasrine Gross is also the sponsor of a website on Afghan women (www.erols.com/kabultec) and the author of a book in Farsi on the history of the high school for girls from which she graduated in Afghanistan. This interview took place in December 2001, shortly before she traveled to Kabul to attend the inauguration of the new government. In it, she shares with the editors of Social Education her experiences growing up in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as her impressions from a factfinding trip to areas of the country controlled by the United Front [Northern Alliance] in the summer of 2001. In that visit, she sought support from senior officials and other Afghan citizens for the principles of the Declaration.
What progress toward womens rights do you recall at the time you lived in Afghanistan?
For most of the twentieth century, after its independence in 1919, Afghanistan had constitutions, and in each successive constitution, more rights were given to both women and men. There was no distinction between the constitutional rights of men and women. As a result of the successive constitutions, women were recognized as having the right to work, the right to education, the right to move about freely, out of the house, the right to health, the right to vote, the right to become a candidate, and the right to legal protections.
When I was growing up, women could also take part in jirgas, or councils. My own mother, who was a member of the parliament of Afghanistan during the mid-sixties, was a member of the loya jirga [national council] that passed the Constitution in 1964. There were, I think, four or five women in that loya jirga of different ethnicities and from different parts of Afghanistanadmittedly a very small number because there were several hundred men.
Before the Taliban, women were a huge part of the workforce. In 1996, 60 percent of the civil service and 75 percent of health professionals were women. Seventy percent of teachers in schools for boys and girls were women. Fifty percent of the student body in all the universities were women. There were 620 women working in television and radio stations in Afghanistan. And historically, Afghan women have worked in the fields as farmers. They have been a real work force.
I do not want to say that Afghanistan was modern when I grew up there, because it was very traditional and on the conservative side. But the rights of women were respected. In my years at high school and college, there was an acceptance of different styles of dress for women.
When you grew up, where did you see the veil worn in Afghanistan?
When I grew up, until 1959, almost every Afghan woman in the big cities wore it. My mother wore it, for example. And then in 1959, the government decided that women didnt need to wear it.
My mother, who was the announcer who read the evening news on the Afghanistan national radio, was one of the first people to be officially asked to give the veil up. I remember the night that she gave up wearing the veil. They asked her that night to go to the radio station without the burqa. She had to prepare for that ahead of time, because she had to wear a big coat and gloves and a scarf. She also had to prepare the family for it. It was summer time and we were in a resort about half an hour or forty-five minutes away from Kabul. The Afghanistan national radio station sent a jeep for her and there was a bodyguard there to escort her. It was around seven-thirty in the evening and the dusk had already fallen. She sat in the jeep and drove away, and then two and a half hours later she returned. We were all waiting for her, not sure what might have happened. And nothing did happen. That was the way the government did it.
Then the government asked the daughters of mixed marriagesfor example, the daughter of a French woman married to an Afghan, or of a Russian woman married to an Afghan to come out without the veil so that within a four or a five week period, people started seeing women without burqas in the street in Kabul. There were no reactions or protests. Then by the end of August, there was enough acceptance that in the national parade, the wife of the Prime Minister appeared without a veil, and the wives of other ministers also appeared without them. Thats the way it started. There was never a decree or a law saying that women should not wear them any more. It was left up to the familieswhoever was willing not to wear it didnt wear it any more.
At first, the government was very cautious, and worried that maybe the mullahs [religious leaders] in Kandahar would protest, so the movement away from the veil was done quietly. By the middle of winter, though, it was pretty popular not to wear a veil. Then there was a fashion craze. I remember my sister, who was twenty, asking which coat to wear and what color of scarf to wear with it, and of course nobody continued to wear gloves. By 1964, when I was graduating from high school, we didnt wear the scarf, and we would wear short sleeves and high-heeled shoes, always with a lot of make-up.
Interestingly, the burqa is not a native tradition, but came from India. It has only been in Afghanistan for one hundred and fifty years. In Afghanistan, it was worn by women in the cities as a mark of the status of their husbands. It has never been worn by women working in the fields in the countryside, where it is impractical. Even during the time of the Taliban, women in the fields didnt wear it, although they were in violation of the law.
Under the Taliban, people seem to have taken risks to get girls educated in violation of the law.
Yes. There were thousands of clandestine schools. I supported some in Kabul, and Negar, the association behind the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, had twenty-seven clandestine schools in the Taliban areas.
How were these schools organized? How many students can schools have and still keep them secret?
One part of that questions breaks my heart. Education is about human dignity, about good and about truth. And the first thing you had to teach these kids was how to lie: how not to be detected going to the school and coming out of the school. It is so awful to violate the innocence of six-year-olds by telling them: Say no, you are not going to school, if you see so-and-so in the street, say that you are going to your aunts house, or going to buy bread. It is awful but that is one of the things that we had to do.
For our schools, we had to find someone willing to have a school at her home. Then, we couldnt have more than ten or twelve students, and they had to be taught to take different routes every day and not to come all at the same time. One of the teachers from Kabul told me what she did when school finishedyou know how children rush out at the end of the school dayshe had to hold the six-year-olds and time their release one at a time every five minutes so as not to attract attention.
Still, in our schools, we made sure that there would be some food, some lunch available, because a lot of these kids did not have a decent meal a day.
What kind of curriculum was taught in these schools?
What was taught was the basicsreading, writing, arithmeticbut very little beyond that. There was a lot of painting and drawing, but even there the supplies would get problematic. Anything that needed to be carried in a school bag was a problem because a Taliban soldier might see it. And you always had to have the Koran there just in case somebody entered, in which case you would say that you were teaching the students the Koran.
What kind of education was offered outside the Taliban areas?
In the areas governed by the United Front, the problem was that they wanted education, but they had no money for it because every penny they had went toward the war. They would use great ingenuity to start schools. On my trip to the United Front areas of Afghanistan last summer, I would come upon clusters of children in a field and ask, Whats going on? and they would say, This is a school. It looked just like a lemonade stand. Anything was used as a school. I went to a place that was a jail during the Soviet occupation, and they had taken the jail and turned it into a school. I could see the thirst for education, but they did not have resources.
And who taught the children in the fields?
The local teachers or the parents. Parents told me that this was the most important thing for their childrenit was the future. Most of the teachers had not received a salary for seven months and it didnt matter to themthey were still coming to teach the kids, even if they didnt have food on the table at home. It was really beautiful to see the dedication and depth of their convictions.
What were your objectives when you visited Afghanistan last summer?
As members of Negar, we were working for womens rights. When we began promoting the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women in the United States, people seemed uncertain about the way Afghan women really lived. So one of our main objectives was to take a group of American women who were working with us to see Afghan women in their natural, non-Taliban setting, and see what Afghan tradition and culture really were. We also wanted to see what the United Front was doing to Afghan women in the areas it controlled. The United Front claimed that it had never canceled any of the rights of Afghan women when it was the government in Kabul and that women were free in the United Front areas to be participants in society and practice their rights. I also wanted to collect signatures from inside Afghanistan for our petition supporting the Declaration.
What did you find in the United Front areas?
We found that they had passed no laws affecting women negatively and that women were participating actively. All the schools were open, and many of them were girls schools. We also found quite a number of schools that were co-educational. We found women running hospitals and working in journalism and the media; intellectuals, writers and lawyers. There were orphanage directors and of course many teachers and educational personalities. We found women working in television and we interviewed them.
In the United Front areas, what did these women wear on television?
They wore regular clothes, normally longish dresses, had beautiful hair styles and make-up, and they wore a scarf not over the front of their head, more toward the backto have a head cover.
What did typical women wear in the streets?
In the main streets of villages, and in the streets of cities, the women were wearing the burqa. When you went to fields or to clusters of homes, women were not wearing burqas, but they wore them to walk in the main street of villages and in the city. In the refugee camps, too, where refugee women were among their own population, they did not wear the burqa. But when they came to the village main street or into town, they wore it.
What I noticed was that the way people dressed in those areas reflected village rather than urban traditions. I think that this was partly a result of the jihad period when the guerrilla war against the Soviet Union was based in villages. All the United Front officials, who had participated in the anti-Soviet war, wore clothing typical of villages, which is traditional dress. During the jihad against the Soviet Union, the guerrillas had to really melt into the population, and they had adopted this form of dress, as opposed to my time when the trend in towns was toward adopting western clothes. Also, people were poor, which favors simple clothing.
Was there any compulsion to wear a burqa?
I asked President Rabbani,* when he received our delegation, Why are these women wearing the burqa? And he said that there was no law requiring it. So I said to him, remembering my mothers experience in 1959, How about taking a few middle-aged women like me, and dressing them in a coat and scarf, and discreetly letting them walk in the streets? I didnt tell him about my mothers experience, but he said You know, this is a very good idea. In fact, I am going to tell the schools they should do that. If they want to come without the burqa to the school, then that is fine.
After the interview, we were invited to his home by his wife, and after lunch, Mrs. Rabbani took us to the streets of Faizabad, without a burqa.
The other thing I asked him was: We see a lot of involvement of women in the fields of education and health, but we do not see many women in the decision-making area. When are you going to have a woman minister in the Cabinet? He laughed and said, You need to look at my record. In 1996, the last months before the Taliban came to Kabul, the Chair of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University was a woman. From that position to being a cabinet minister is not very far.
What were the reactions of people to your style of dress?
They were very interesting. Of course, I didnt wear a scarf and I wore tight T-shirts and pants. I used a lot of make-up. Soon after I got there, officials told me: Please wear a scarf. And I would turn around and say, I wore the same clothes in Kabul thirty-seven years ago. I am not going to change. I wanted to see whether there was a shock-like reaction from the population. And nothing happened. I went to a refugee camp, and sat with the mullah there in the mosque; my dress did not faze him one bit, and it did not faze the rest of the population.
When you were there, how many senior officials did you meet?
I must have met five, six, seven cabinet ministers, the President, a lot of directors, like the Director of the Red Crescent, directors of hospitals, directors of refugee camps, principals of schools, and commandersmany generals and other commanders. Many officials signed the Declaration while I was there. One reason I met so many was that I happened to be there when a top United Front leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated, and I attended the funeral services. In Afghanistan, funeral services are men-only affairs, but I asked to be included because Ahmad Shah Massoud was the first political leader of Afghanistan to sign our Declaration, which he did in July 2000, just after it was issued. So I wanted to pay my respects. They allowed usfour women visitorsto attend the funeral. At the funeral, there were 24,000 men, and we had to walk four kilometers from the funeral spot to the burial spot.
You told us that you stayed in the same guest house as the terrorists who masqueraded as Arab journalists of Moroccan origin and killed Ahmad Shah Massoud and themselves by detonating a bomb during an interview with him. Did you form any impression of them?
I talked very little with them, but I lived in the same guest house as they did for a total of six days and six nights. They arrived on the same day as we arrived. We were in the same guest house eating together. We even went to see the refugee camps together.
The people who talked with them said they talked a lot about God and religion. They also talked in French with Shukria, a member of our organization who is a teacher in France who has had many North African students and was with us at the guest house. She thought it was unusual that they would come from Morocco just to do an interview in Afghanistan.
To me they did not seem suspicious so much as odd or unusual. They rarely came out during the day, but came out of the room at dusk, so we did not see their faces well. When they went with us to the refugee camp, they sat in the back of the pickup truck that took us there. They did not actually come into the camp to visit, but stayed around the car and gave out money.
Then on the last day, I heard them speak Arabic, which I understand. Someone was coming to interview me. It was so hot and behind their window there was some shade, so we went to sit there to have the interview. They happened to be inside the room and I heard them speak Arabic, and realized that their Arabic was unlike anything I had heard beforeit was very clipped. Until then, I thought that they were people of Moroccan origin who had grown up outside Morocco, and might not speak Arabic. Anyway, I was doing my interview and did not listen to them.
An hour later, I was going to the bathroom and I saw one of them come out. The bathrooms sometimes ran out of water, and I asked him in ArabicIs there more water? He was really taken aback, and said one wordyesand dashed into his room. I thought that this behavior was very non-journalistic and non-Arabnormally journalists want to talk when you talk to them, and Arabs are usually enthusiastic about talking with you when you show that you know how to speak Arabic. But this guy just bolted. At the time, I didnt understand why, but when it happened, I understood that he was probably afraid that somebody had overheard them talking.
How did that act of terrorism change you?
The most dramatic changes were felt by people in Afghanistan. As for me, the event changed me dramatically in terms of how naïve I was to take people at face value, how close danger can be, and how evil people can be. At the moment it happened, on September 9, I remember the unbearable impact of feeling how Afghanistan was forgotten. I was saying: How callous can the world be and why? I kept asking myself, How many more of these people have been trained? And then when September 11 happened, it seemed to me that an entire army had been trained to do this.
How would you describe your main hopes for the women of Afghanistan in the coming years? How can those hopes be achieved?
We need to restore the rights of Afghan women through a constitution. Without it, we cannot restore women and we cannot restore the legitimacy of Afghanistan. Participation alone by women in the reconstruction process will not be enough.
Is there any particular measure that you think it is essential for the new government to enact?
I would like one of its first acts to be to decree that all of the acts of the Taliban against Afghan women are null and void. Even though the new government has said this indirectly because it has said that the Constitution of 1964 will be the law of the land from December 22, this declaration would be very empowering to women.
What kinds of educational initiatives are needed in Afghanistan?
All kinds. In the short term we must reopen schools as soon as possible. Something unimaginable has happened in our society. The entire population of school-age children are really loose in the streets. It is important to get them out of the streets and into schools. It reestablishes a culture of peace.
Our people need reconciliation. We need to get to know each other all over again. The schools were the best places to do that. In our schools, we had Jews and Sikhs and Hindus and Shias and Sunnis and Ismailis and all the ethnic groups. One of the most important roles of education in Afghanistan is to rebuild a sense of national identity of what an Afghan is. And what is important is to establish a public educational system rather than a private school system. We need to develop national aims, and each ethnic group needs to see how it fits into that system.
What can nongovernmental organizations and professional groups, such as teachers, do to help with the process?
I think they can do a lot. What we need most is expertise in solving some specific problems, such as how to teach a twelve-year-old who needs a first-grade education? We also need a lot of help in adopting universal teaching methods.
There is an acute lack of tools for education. For example, the medical school at the university in Faizabad needs English textbooks. At another university, Albiruni University in Gulbahar, there are no textbooks because the Taliban burned the university twice. High schools and other schools have a huge need for textbooks.
You seem to believe that international support is very important for advancing the status of Afghan women.
Exactly. That is why weNegar and those involved in this Declaration of Essential Rightswill remain in existence as a lobby not just among Afghans but also in the international community.
The situation is fascinating and an interesting challenge to the whole world. For women the world over, the treatment of women in Afghanistan is going to be the standard bearer for the cause of women in the world in the twenty-first century. If we fail here we are going to fail everywhere.
* The United Front leader who was then the internationally recognized President of AfghanistanEd.