Afghanistan: Fatima Galiani - promoting women's rights under Islam

The Jakarta Post
"War is the ugliest thing that people can experience," said Fatima Galiani, a courageous woman activist who has spent more than 25 years rebuilding ruined Afghanistan from a devastating war.
Galiani, director of Afghanistan's Red Crescent, was in the village of Ubud, Bali, last weekend to work together with hundreds of prominent individuals across the world pledged to make the world a more peaceful and better place for future generations.
"The continuous war and insurgency in my country claimed thousands of lives, and destroyed the hopes and future of so many people. Women and children have always been the most vulnerable victims of war," said 52-year old Galiani, who enthusiastically took part in every session of the 2nd Quest for Global Healing conference.

Softly spoken and intelligent, Galiani has been renowned as the "tigress of Afghanistan" who bravely spoke to defend the rights of Afghan women and to fight for a democratic Afghanistan.

"The people of Afghanistan are still suffering from the war and I'm here to spread their message across the world," said Galiani, looking fresh in a red veil and black floral dress.

In Ubud, Galiani said, she could share her experiences with people from different parts of the world, and from diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds.

"This is a place where people listen to each other's problems and pay each other respect. This is what all people in the world should do -- respect differences," she said.

Although this was Galiani's first visit to Indonesia, she said that she felt close to the country and its people. "I live just next door to the Indonesian Embassy and I know I have millions of Muslim sisters and brothers here," she said.

Galiani is a daughter of Pir Sayed Ahmed Galiani, a former leader of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan who fought against the Soviet occupation in the l980s. While her father struggled to free his country from foreign occupation, Galiani was an effective spokesperson who carried her father's message to the Western world.

At that time a moderate spiritual leader of a Sufi Muslim sect, Ahmed Galiani was considered to be a top candidate for the post of interim prime minister.

In l989, the Soviet troops withdrew but that did not bring peace, giving way instead to a disastrous civil war and the rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

Her father was jailed and died while incarcerated. Her brother was executed by Soviet and Afghan communists when he was a young man.

"The Taliban government successfully brought the Afghans, especially women, to its engineered `Dark Age.' There was no place for women in politics, education, in society or even within their own families," recalled Galiani sadly.

In the name of religion (Islam), the Taliban denied the rights of women in Afghanistan, who make up 60 percent of the country's population.

"The image of Islam in the Western world is so pass‚ and narrow-minded -- of women clad in black burkhas (a long-dress that covers the entire head and body) and a man with a gun, or a terrorist. It's so misleading, and a misinterpretation," she said.

Muslim women have been completely ignored for a very long time. "In my opinion, not only were they (Muslim women) ignored and misunderstood in the world, but also the majority of them were misinformed about Islam," she said.

She said there are many educated women in the Muslim world. Many have become good doctors, scientists, bankers or teachers but rarely experts in Islamic law and religion.

"Women have made a mistake in thinking that it is not their role to be educated and equipped with substantial knowledge on Islam," she noted.

During her exile, Galiani fled to London and entered a Muslim college there where she studied the Koran and Islamic law extensively, which later qualified her to become one of the few women to participate in the Loya Jirga (Afghanistan's grand council).

Most Muslim women, she said, do not know what Islam is and the rights of women within it. "That has created the best opportunity for men to abuse this situation and enforce male-oriented traditions, or whatever suits them to oppress women," she explained.

Many regulations and traditions forcefully imposed on Muslim women in Afghanistan, in Middle-Eastern countries and elsewhere (including Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population) were not based on the Koran.

"They (the regulations) are not Islamic at all. Unfortunately, most of us did not know about this and did not have courage to fight for our own rights," she said.

"I have to take up this difficult struggle because there have been so many injustices against women in the name of my religion. This misuse of religion is one of the reasons why Islam has been completely misunderstood by the West and its people," she said.

To eliminate this continuing misperception and misunderstanding requires drastic reform from within Islamic society. "We cannot expect people (in the West) to change. We should make a change from inside, especially with regard to men in Islamic society," Galiani said.

First, it is the duty of Islamic leaders to make men understand the true teaching of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad always treated women with dignity and equally.

"Do Muslim families educate their girls? Do husbands respect and treat their wives properly? Do women have their voices heard in the family and society? "These are some questions that should be in the mind of every Muslim man," she said.

Under the present government, Afghanistan has just approved a new constitution that promotes women's rights, human rights and democracy. Galiani was one of its architects.

"We are trying to adopt this beautiful constitution within the formal school curriculum and to persuade the government incorporate it into its policies," she maintained. Galiani added she was encouraged to see the improvement of women's status in her country.

"This situation has not yet become the norm. But after going through decades of living in `hell,' women are now beginning to see opportunities and to have real hope," she expressed.

There were currently many women in the government, in parliament and in the business, education, medical and scientific fields, something impossible under the Taliban regime.

"Can you believe that Afghanistan made higher education available for women in the l920s? We had women in parliament in the l960s and women and men had equal pay for the same job, at a time that Western women were still fighting for it. That all went after the war, she exclaimed.

Galiani's contribution was chronicled in a documentary titled Peace by Peace: Women on the Frontlines. Fully supported by her husband, Professor Anwar Ahady, Galiani has appeared extensively in the Western media and world stage to articulate women's rights in the Muslim world.

"I call on Muslim women everywhere in the world to get up and stand up for their rights. We must tell the world that we are open-minded and tolerant, and that we must be respected," she said, determinedly.

Features - May 15, 2006
Rita A. Widiadana, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali