Afghanistan: Women of Afghanistan hold public prayer for peace on Mother's Day

Thursday was Mother's Day in Afghanistan, and from house to house went the call for women to gather in what some say is the first such public prayer event by women in Kandahar.
"Heartbreaking sobs pierced the soothing melodies of prayer as the mothers, daughters and sisters of war-torn Afghanistan gathered to do the only thing left they can think of - pray.
Thursday was Mother`s Day in Afghanistan, and from house to house went the call for women to gather at the one of Islam`s holiest sites in what some say is the first such public prayer event by women in Kandahar.

Women said doors to education, health care and jobs have opened to them since the fall of the Taliban, but the continuing instability in the country is holding back progress.

"We are sick and tired of waiting," said Majuba, 55, who like all of the women would only give her first name. "We can`t wait anymore for international forces or government employees. If they cannot hear our cries, we want to let God hear our cries."

About 1,000 women flooded the square and mosque of the Shrine of the Prophet's Cloak, reputed to house a garment belonging to the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad. It's said to have been stolen and brought to Afghanistan in 1768 by a former ruler, Ahmad Sha Durrani.

The mullah, or holy leader, of the shrine said the site is always open to women on Thursdays, but the Mother`s Day gathering was much larger than usual. And for the first time they used the public-address system to make their voices heard throughout the crowd. "They were here to pray for peace, for their families," the mullah said through an interpreter. "They were welcome."

The International Red Cross said earlier this week that the current conflict is holding up development efforts across the country and having a greater impact on the population than earlier times. Some estimates suggest that at least 1,000 civilians were killed last year. "It`s insecurity, the killing and the suicide bombing that has really left the community back in a very fearful state," said Gulpati, 37. "We can`t really hope about development or making ourselves better because we`re every day dealing with deaths and crimes." Gulpati said she's known only war in Afghanistan her entire life and prays not to die before seeing peace. It is prayer that holds her country together, she said. "The one thing that keeps us strong, that keeps us going is our faith and belief in God in spite of all these international forces, every country snatching at one piece or one part of Afghanistan," she said. "If any other country had lived through the chaos that Afghans lived in these past 30 years, they would not be a nation today."

Gatekeepers at the shrine allowed the women to use of the public-address system, sending the voices of the 150 women who each recited a chapter of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, soaring over the crowd polka-dotted with the palette of burkas on display.

The floor-length garment made mandatory for women by the Taliban captivated the world's attention in the late 1990s. It was seen as a symbol of all that was repressive about the Taliban regime. But six years since the fall of the Taliban, blue and green burkas are still commonly seen along the dusty streets.

Women are quick to point out the burka is the least of their concerns. "After the Taliban, women are going out to work in non-governmental organizations, working with the government, going to school," said Amanah, 42. "The burka is not preventing them from getting anything in their lives, it is just the opportunity to get educated that will change things."

Illiteracy runs rampant in Afghanistan, with some 90 per cent of rural women unable to read or write at a functional level. Though schools for girls have opened across the country, it requires a massive cultural shift to get more children behind the desks, said Rangina Hamidi of Afghans for Civil Society, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization founded by the brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. "There are schools but it takes a strong father to send his daughter to class," Hamidi said. "We need people to fight against the tradition that girls have to stay home."

It's been particularly hard on the mothers, the women said, watching an entire generation of children know only war. "As a mother my biggest wish and desire for my children is they would all become college graduates and at least have bachelor`s degrees," said Majuba. "But they only have basic minimum education. I`m sad and I`m mad as to why as a mother I was not able to fulfil my dreams and my children will also not have their dreams fulfilled."

June 16, 2007