The Capital, February 20, 2003

Talk to focus on Afghan women

By MIKE UNGER Staff Writer

As the United States prepares for a possible war against Iraq, the plight of Afghan women - front-page news after Sept. 11 - has been relegated to the background again.

On Saturday in Severna Park, the Women's International Roundtable, an informal group of about 60 county women that examines international issues, will present a discussion and slide presentation documenting the problems facing women in Afghanistan.

Each month, a member of the group holds an event at her home.

"Although the topic has disappeared from the radar screen, it hasn't gone away," said Priscilla Hart of Annapolis, who founded the roundtable.

Sohelia Ghaussy, an Afghan woman who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and Alicia Lucksted, a senior research associate at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are the featured speakers.

"Afghan women have not been liberated," Ms. Lucksted said. "We need to disavow a lot of misconceptions."

It was early 1998 when Ms. Lucksted became acutely aware of the abuse and discrimination women in Afghanistan faced every day. The Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic group that ran the central Asian country until late 2001, did not allow girls to attend school or women to work or even venture out in public without wearing a burqa, a traditional garment that covers them from head to toe.

As she began to research the topic on the Internet, Ms. Lucksted discovered the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an underground group of Afghan women who work to ease human suffering and effect political change in the country.

Ms. Lucksted soon found herself pouring her time and energy into the cause, comparing the nation's problems to those in her hometown of Baltimore.

"We have a terrible literacy rate here," she said. "But that's different than killing people for teaching girls how to read."

Surprised to hear that RAWA had no arm in America, she organized a loose network of U.S. supporters that raises money and awareness in this country.

"Two of the major misconceptions we're trying to counter is that Afghan women are passive victims and that things are all better," she said. "Things have liberalized a bit, especially in Kabul. But in the countryside, there is still rape, still brutalization and danger."

Ms. Ghaussy, who will discuss Afghanistan's history Saturday, said it is impossible to understand the country's recent predicament without examining its distant past. Mistreatment of women and girls was prevalent years before the Taliban came to power, she said.

"I hope people will start realizing that Afghanistan is not a hopeless case that needs to be forgotten," she said.

At Saturday's discussion, which is free and open to the public, Ms. Lucksted plans to sell crafts handmade by Afghans. They are supplied to her by RAWA, and all proceeds benefit the organization.

"I hope people will leave (Saturday) and think a little more deeply about the situation," Ms. Lucksted said. "If you really care, you can do something."


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