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History forgotten: for Afghan women, a milestone achieved ... and lost.

Michael Schnorr, a professor of art at Southwestern College in California, was in Afghanistan at the time of an historic but little-known gathering of that country's women to declare their rights to plan their families and participate in modern society as equals with men. It was a heady moment, but the hopes it raised would soon be crushed by events that brought grief to the Islamic world. In an interview with World Watch, Schnorr recounts how he became a witness to that now-forgotten moment.


It was 1995. I'm walking around Kabul working on a project to find the sources of what later became known as the war rugs. They had appeared in London and New York, being sold with the idea that you could buy a war rug and the money would go to help the Mujahadeen resistance against the Soviet invasion. The traditional Afghan prayer rug would normally have some decorative elements on it, but in these rugs these elements were being replaced by hand grenades, Kalashnikovs, and helicopters. I had gotten a grant from the California Arts Council to go to film some of the people who had actually woven the rugs.

There weren't a whole lot of tourists walking about Kabul at that time, because everyone was fearing the Taliban coming up. They were already in Kandahar, shooting people. And virtually the same week as their first big battle launch, the women of Afghanistan were holding the first all-Afghan women's conference in the history of their country. Its purpose was to select delegates to the historic Beijing world conference for women that fall.

I had been in Afghanistan with my video camera before. I had worked with the Afghan Media Association, which had been in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, and had been sending men across the border with tiny VHS cameras to film the Soviet atrocities. I have a lot of that film. This time, one of the guards happened to be out on the street in front of the hotel where the conference was going to be, and invited me to come film the women's conference the next day.

I didn't fully realize the importance of it until they sent a taxi for us. We arrive and I'm walking up the stairs with a camera and a camera bag, and that's when I first hear what I can only describe as something like the first time you ever heard Janis Joplin. It's a woman's voice singing the opening prayer for the conference. I get to the top of the stairs and ... that woman is the picture you have.

I was the only man there, as far as I could see. I'm looking across the hall past 200 or 300 women. And this young woman--I later learned that her name was Dina--is sitting behind the podium. She is 18 or 19 years old, and had been asked to come and sing the opening and closing prayers on each day of the conference.

I was allowed to be a roaming cameraman because they figured I was going to be taking my video out of Afghanistan and that it would actually get to the West, and they weren't sure of what the final outcome of the conference was going to be. There was a problem with President Rabbani. He didn't come to the conference, although he did send a representative--on the day when the conference was to establish a procedure for selecting the women who would go to Beijing.

There were some pretty fiery speakers, who talked about how Islam has been misinterpreted, and how there's actually a balance between men and women in the Koran, and how the Koran has been modified over the years just as the Bible has--and how the real work to reconstruct Afghanistan has to be a shared respect and working together with men. They said "we want to talk about how women can mobilize and control their future, and then we want to have a place in Kabul where women from other Third World countries can get together with the women of Afghanistan."

That's why my hair was going back up on the back of my neck every day at the conference, because I'm realizing that in all the neighboring countries they don't say this stuff, and that here's this poor little, as Rumsfeld likes to say, "medieval" country coming in and saying these things. One woman says, if we are now in an Islamic state of Afghanistan, we need to follow the real Islam and repatriate our refugee women, de-mine the land, rebuild the rural sections. There are millions of our people living in these horrible camps in Pakistan. But we also have families who have been dislocated and are inside the country. We need to establish links to other women policymakers, especially when it comes to families, family planning, and education for girls and boys.


I think one of the more interesting aspects of it was that you had this notion that there was no need to have to prove anything. Even before the Soviets were dominating Afghanistan, there were women working in all aspects of life. You would walk into banks, you walk into anywhere, and there were women doing all kinds of jobs. Even when I was there in Kabul in '95, you would go into the schools, government agencies, and airline offices, et cetera. And there were women everywhere. By the time I came back next year, you did not see a woman in any position.

It turned out I wasn't the only man at the conference after all; there was one other. He gave a speech, saying that men and women can cooperate together, "just like me and my translator standing next to me." I thought it was the most trivial thing said that day. I had the feeling that this was Rabbani's representative. And so I think the word went out that these women were going to go to Beijing with an agenda. And they knew what they wanted. I don't know what the excuse was, but all the funds were cut. And the Afghan women never did make it to Beijing.

About the picture of Dina:

I always have a still camera with me, but I prefer to just put video on and let it run. And so with Dina, I just had her on video. When I decided you ought to see this thing, we freeze-framed the video and then transferred it to a CD so that my colleague Susan Yamagata could download it. Susan and I have been collaborating since 1975. I said let's not mess with it digitally. Let's print out a picture, and then you hand-paint it. We started with the freeze-fram of the video, but probably 90 percent of the final picture is Susan's handwork.
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Publication:World Watch
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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