Afghan Women Speak on Capitol Hill

Last week, I testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress as one of five witnesses in a hearing on women in Afghanistan. The session was chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), with 4 other members of Congress participating: Susan Davis (D-CA), James McDermott (D-WA), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). It took place in the grand Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building.

The participation of five members of Congress and the presence of a substantial public audience were significant. The copies of our Afghan Women Speak report were snapped up quickly, with requests for more. I gave Congresswoman Schakowsky my last copy.

At the witness table I was paired with Marzia Basel, founder and former head of the Afghan Women¹s Judges Association. Our statements revealed contrasting views. She pleaded for maintaining the international military presence to protect women and guard against the Taliban taking over. She spoke favorably of permanent U.S. military bases.  My focus was on the need for military disengagement. I urged a negotiated political and security agreement within Afghanistan, the introduction of a Muslim-led interim security force under UN authority, support for constitutional guarantees of gender equality, the participation of women in the peace process, and increased funding for political, social and economic opportunity.

Judge Basel and I were the last witnesses, so we had ample opportunity to field questions from the Congress members. We were very cordial and respectful toward each other and as the discussion proceeded began to find common ground. I agreed with her emphasis on protecting women and avoiding a Taliban takeover. She agreed on the need for an interim Muslim-led security force. When I suggested that U.S. bases be turned over to Afghan security forces, she nodded. It was a bit of peacemaking right there in the hearing room.

The hearing came just after the death of Osama bin Laden, a point mentioned in my remarks and by the members of Congress. This decisive blow to Al Qaeda strengthens the case for military withdrawal and increases the urgency of developing a responsible and effective strategy for transition, one that places the needs Afghan women front and center.

Check out my CNN commentary on supporting women’s rights without war.

(Special thanks and great credit go to my colleague and co-author Sarah Smiles Persinger, who did all the interviews in Kabul and wrote most of the report. I mentioned Sarah¹s name in the hearing and acknowledged her important role. Thanks also to Joan Fallon, Eliot Fackler and other staff at the Kroc Institute for editing, researching and producing the report; to Women¹s Action for New Directions for helping to arrange and publicize the event; and to the Progressive Congress Action Fund and the staff of Representative McGovern for scheduling and organizing the hearing.)

2 thoughts on “Afghan Women Speak on Capitol Hill

  1. I was aware the committee hearing was taking place but did not follow it. It would be helpful to know what was the make up of those speaking…it is fair to assume they were invited. How many men and how many women were invited? How many Afghan women were given an opportunity to speak? Especially since the title of the hearing was “Afghan Women Speak” Were there more men involved in the hearing than women? Does that make sense when the issue has to do with women?

    I am surprised that your colleague, Sarah Smiles Persinger, was not among those speaking…As you said she interviewed the women in Kabul and “wrote most of the report” Thanking her before the committee and mentioning the important role she played means little. She posses valuable first hand information about the women sited in the report. Her new first had knowledge of the Afghan women’s situation quite possibly was of more value than your contribution. I suggest most people who heard you speak found little new information other than that contributed by Ms Smiles Persinger. Possibly, is she one of your graduate students?

    You note your CNN commentary and your “supporting women’s rights without war.” That’s a bit self serving.

    If I sound a tad sexist it is not without good reason. When talking about “women’s issues” women should be front and center and treated as the knowledgeable experts they are.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Susan. It is extremely important for the affected group(s) to be represented in these official settings, and I understand your concerns. Full details of the hearing can be found here at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission website. The names and affiliations of the five witnesses who spoke are listed below (taken directly from the website).

      Panel I:
      • Rina Amiri, senior advisor on Afghanistan for the Office of the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. Department of State
      • Don Steinberg, deputy administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

      Panel II:
      • Joanne Sandler, deputy director, UN Women

      Panel III:
      • David Cortright, director of policy studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
      • The Honorable Marzia Basel, founder and director, Afghan Women’s Judges Association

      Several Afghan women were invited to provide testimony, but only Judge Basel was able to appear that day. The hearing was planned in large part by Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).

      Sarah Smiles Persinger is a research associate for the Kroc Institute, a former professional journalist and a published expert on issues related to gender and war. As indicated in our testimony and in the report, she did all of the interviews in Kabul and wrote much of the report. She was involved in every aspect of this project as a fully participating colleague.

      She gave birth to her first child in February and in early May moved with her husband to Pennsylvania for the summer.

      She participated in planning the hearing. She was invited to give the testimony for the report but was not able to come to Washington on May 3.

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