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A D.C. women’s-rights activist has been fighting the Taliban for years.
Zieba Shorish-Shamley hasn’t set foot in her native country for 30 years, yet the fate of her land and its people over those three decades of brutal regimes and foreign invaders defines her everyday existence.
As president of the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (WAPHA), Shorish-Shamley assembles a daily e-mail bulletin of Afghan news for the group members and gives numerous presentations about the Taliban regime’s oppression of women. Yet she is ferociously protective of her family’s privacy, worrying intensely as she ponders the fate of relatives left behind in her home town of Herat, which took a pounding in the first two days of the U.S. bombing campaign.
One relative who escaped to Pakistan passed on a message to Shorish-Shamley from her brother, who called to say that he and his family had survived the first raid.
“But since then, we haven’t heard,” Shorish-Shamley says. “I pray to God that they are OK.”
Shorish-Shamley has already lost two other siblings to the violence and oppression Afghanistan has suffered in the past three decades. Her sister died of cancer in 1998a death that Shorish-Shamley says was hastened by the Taliban, who initially denied the sister access to health care and relented only when it was too late for treatment.
“And finally, when she was near death, they allowed her to go [out of the country] for treatment, for which they put her on the passport of her son, because women do not have the right to identity in any form,” observes Shorish-Shamley. “So, she went to [a hospital in] Pakistan, and in 1998, I went to see her. But by the time they let her out, [the cancer] was spread all over, so they couldn’t do much.”
Her brother’s death had come 20 years earlier, at the hands of the communist regime whose defense was the pretext of the Soviet invasion in 1979. He was a physician who spoke against the “Marxist-Leninists,” as Shorish-Shamley calls them, and was hauled off to prison, never to be heard from again. “We assume he’s dead, because they were taking prisonerspolitical prisonersout of the prison at night and then digging mass graves and shooting them,” she explains.
Her brother’s arrest came a year after the same regime revoked Shorish-Shamley’s Afghan citizenship. She applied for a new passport to visit her family as they mourned her father’s death, and her application was denied. Since that time, she has not been able to visit Afghanistan.
Shorish-Shamley refuses to name her husband of more than 20 years or her siblingsdead or aliveout of concern for their safety, yet she is a familiar figure in D.C.’s feminist and human-rights community. She has worked as an activist on Afghan issues since the ’80swhen she founded the Madison, Wis., chapter of the Afghan Relief Committeebut chose to devote her full energies to advocacy in 1996, when the Taliban launched their assault on women’s access to schools, the workforce, and even the streetsunless the women were accompanied by a male relative.
Shorish-Shamley’s presentations on Afghanistan and the oppression of its women are passionate, delivered in a distinctive, smoky, Persian-accented voice. Listeners are forced to cast aside notions of Afghan women that have been formed by the spate of television coverage; Shorish-Shamley appears at conferences and workshops dressed in a beautifully accessorized suit, coiffed with a perfect bob, and shod in an elegant pair of pumps. In a sense, style is her battle gear.
Though she practices a liberal form of Islam, Shorish-Shamley is something of a purist when it comes to advocacy. She founded WAPHA in 1997 and has refused to ally herself financially with other interest groups. “I mortgaged our house three times,” she says with a wry laugh, “and I am very grateful to my husband, who has been my greatest supporter.”
WAPHA has found its most reliable platform thanks to the Feminist Majority Foundationan advocacy organization run by former National Organization for Women President Eleanor Smeal. Smeal was so outraged by the Taliban’s treatment of womenand the world’s indifference to itthat she placed the Afghanistan issue at the top of her organization’s list of priorities. Shorish-Shamley became a regular and unrelenting presence at Feminist Majority workshops and press conferences, determined to not only educate American feminists about the nature of Afghan society but also urge them to concrete action.
Together with Smeal and others, Shorish-Shamley also badgered the U.S. State Department to re-examine its Afghanistan policy, lobbying individual members of Congress and testifying twice before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Shorish-Shamley also traveled to The Hague to present the case for a war-crimes tribunal for Afghanistan in 1999, and presented testimony during the negotiations for the creation of the International Criminal Court in 2000.
Interviewed on Saturday, Shorish-Shamley is still hoarse from a lecture she gave two days before at the United Nations on “Women’s Peace and Security in Afghanistan.” The days since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have been balanced precariously between the routine of assembling her daily bulletin for WAPHA members and dealing with the media attention that comes with the new war on terrorism. Requests for her appearance at speaking engagements
are coming so fast and furious that she can hardly keep up.
“I get up every morning about 6 o’clock,” she says, “and start reading about 30 newspapers [on the Web] from all over the world.” By early afternoon, WAPHA members have received several e-mails from her, many containing more than one article, from publications as far-flung as Peshawar’s Frontier Post and Hong Kong’s Asia Times.
The cultural and religious atmosphere of Herat, Shorish-Shamley’s hometown, also helped define her attitudes and beliefs. Located less than 100 miles from the Iranian border, Herat’s inhabitants speak a Persian dialect known as Dari. The city harbors a sophisticated, art-loving culture, where Persian ideas once mixed with Hellenic and Turkic influences, with no apparent sense of contradiction. A fort built by Alexander the Great in 329 B.C.E. still stands, as do profoundly serene mosques built by Queen Gowhar Shad, wife of Tamerlane’s son. Heratis eschew the austere Muslim traditions of Pashtun tribes that dominate eastern Afghanistan in favor of Sufisma liberal and artistically inclined form of Islam.
Shorish-Shamley was raised in a Sufi tariqa, or order, known as Qaderiyah. “I never wore the veil,” explains Shorish-Shamley. “I didn’t wear miniskirts, but I wore long maxi-skirts….I had a scarf always around my neck, which I still do, because I like the scarf. Never covered my head, though.” She is still a Sufi, she says.
The youngest of six children of a middle-class grocer, Shorish-Shamley also attended Herat’s public schools and excelled as a student. She watched as two of her brothers “became doctors” as she puts itone an M.D. and one a Ph.D.and then followed in the latter brother’s footsteps by moving to America and obtaining a Ph.D. herself. She married before finishing her undergraduate degree and then slowly worked her way toward a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a teaching job at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo.
In 1994, Shorish-Shamley’s husband landed a job in Washington, and the family moved into the District. A year later, the Taliban took Herat, declaring its Sufi denizens to be infidels, looting its ancient treasures, and destroying much of its public art. Music and poetryproud traditions in Heratwere banned, as was dancing, a ritual of the Sufi tradition.
By 1998, Shorish-Shamley had become one of the most memorable faces of Afghan opposition to the Taliban. She traveled to the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistanjust miles from the Afghan borderand wrote of the hellish beatings, rapes, and forced prostitution endured by the women there at the hands of the Pakistani police, who patrolled the camps, and Taliban representatives, who were given run of them. She visited her sister’s deathbed in Karachi, later using the experience in her lectures to highlight the Taliban’s denial of health care to women.
Groups such as the Feminist Majority took notice of Shorish-Shamley’s workand so did her opponents. When she returned home, she was besieged with mysterious death threats, by both phone and e-mail, and denounced as a communist by the Taliban’s representative in New York. The death threats subsided once U.S. authorities were notified, and now she simply receives occasional polite letters from opponents.
Looking to the future, Shorish-Shamley says that the inclusion of Afghanistan’s women in the Loya Jirga processin which a grand council of Afghanistan’s elders could be convened by the deposed King Zahir Shah to determine the future government of Afghanistanis a top priority.
She warns U.S. government officials not to pretend that the plight of Afghanistan’s women under the Taliban ever factored into their decision to attack, but she sees the cause that she’s fought to publicize as a crucial factor in the region’s lasting peace and stability. “You want to topple them because they support bin Laden,” she says flatly. “But at the same time, Afghan women’s rights should be one of the conditions for peace negotiations at the table. This is what we want the U.N. to do. So [women] should be involved from the first step, and they should have the right to be involved, fully active, in every aspect of society: reconstruction, political, governmental, educational, medical, you name it.”
Shorish-Shamley longs to travel home again. “I really miss the country,” she says with a sigh. Since she left, in 1971, the closest she’s come is her visit to the camps of Peshawar, which sit near the Silk Road’s famous Khyber Pass.
There, among people from her home region, Shorish-Shamley found herself once again speaking in her mother tongue, sharing in hospitality and storytelling. “They took me in their arms and rocked me as they cried,” she recounts. The refugees told her their stories, and they participated in the Afghan-Persian tradition of nouhaa ritual wailing usually reserved for funerals.
“When somebody dies, people just say things, and then they wail,” Shorish-Shamley explains. “It’s a very loud crying. It’s very sad. Some people say that it comes out like poetry, but it’s not poetry. It sounds like poetry, but they are telling you what they are suffering.” CP