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ASU Luce Fellow testifies before congressional commission

A picture of Marzia Basel speaking to a class on women and global conflict
May 04, 2011

87% of Afghan women have experienced domestic violence. Only 19% of Afghanistan’s schools are open to girls. Afghanistan is listed second from the bottom on the UN’s Gender Development Index. These are the kinds of statistics that keep Marzia Basel up at night.

“There has been a lot of talk in the news about negotiations with the Taliban lately. If the Taliban returns, the first victims will be women,” Basel said.

Recognized for her leading role in advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Basel recently concluded a month-long residency at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

But before she returned to Afghanistan, she testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on Women in Afghanistan this past Tuesday, May 3.

“I would request that you advise the US government not to negotiate away advances for women…Peace without women’s rights is no peace at all. This is my message to you,” she said.

During her residency at ASU, Basel delivered this message a series of public talks, in lectures to undergraduate classes, and in meetings with professors and student organizations. She observed courses in religious studies and law, participated in the Luce Seminar on Religion, Rights and Gender, visited courts and met with judges, and toured local organizations that address issues of domestic violence and women’s rights.

In her talks, Basel addressed a variety of issues, including the Afghanistan Constitution and the rule of law, the role of Shari’ah and customary law in Afghanistan and the role of Islam in politics.

“I believe that Islam’s protections for women in terms of divorce and property law make it one of the best religions for protecting women’s rights ,” she said. “It is extremist, false and uneducated interpretations that I fear.”

Basel, who holds a bachelor’s in law and political science from Kabul University and a master’s in international law and comparative studies from George Washington University and worked as a judge in both civil and criminal courts, founded the Afghan Women Judges Association and the Afghanistan Progressive Law Organization to address these fears.

“By providing support and education to judges and lawyers, I think it will be possible to counter these extreme interpretations,” she said.

Basel was named a Luce International Fellow by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict as part of the project “Religion and International Affairs: Through the Prism of Rights and Gender,” funded by the Luce Foundation and led by Linell Cady, director of the center, and Carolyn Warner, head of the political science faculty.

“Marzia Basel was an obvious choice to serve as our first Luce Fellow,” said Linell Cady. “Her background in international law and women and development, and her experience with the Afghan legal system has put her at the frontier of working through the ways in which religion, rights and gender are negotiated,” said Cady.

Before she left for Washington, Marzia Basel sat down with staff from the center to discuss her experience at ASU.


CSRC: Those of us who had a chance to meet you or attend one of your events learned about what’s going on in Afghanistan on-the-ground right now. Was there one theme or point you were hoping to communicate in your various engagements?

MB: “My main purpose was to share my perspectives with Americans about what Afghanistan looks like after 10 years of war. What progress has been made, and what are the negative aspects where we have opportunities to improve.”

CSRC: Were there particular things you wanted students to learn about Afghanistan?

MB: “I tried to teach students about cultural obstacles to women’s rights in Afghanistan. How is Islam interpreted, and who makes those decisions? One thing I wanted to make clear is that the Taliban is not the voice for what Islam is in Afghanistan. It’s a basic point that needs to be repeated--not all Muslims are extremists.

Another point I really wanted to communicate was a historical one. I wanted to challenge the idea that the status of women’s rights in Afghanistan has more or less always been in the same spot that it is now. In reality, what we have seen is the ascent of an extremist version of Islam in Afghanistan that is powerful, but not representative of the ways most Afghans want to live, or of how people in Afghanistan used to live.”

CSRC: You were a guest lecturer in a variety of different undergraduate classes. What were your interactions with students like, and what were your impressions of education here? Was there anything you observed that you would take back to Afghanistan as something that could make a difference there?

MB: “It was interesting. Most of the students were not familiar with politics or women’s issues in Afghanistan, but the most common questions were about the future of the United States involvement in Afghanistan. The students care, they’re curious about how the United States should or should not support the people of Afghanistan.

One of the things I enjoyed the most while I was here was visiting and observing various classes. There is a tremendous need for improved education in Afghanistan, and I was struck by the educational opportunities available to students here. It’s not just a difference in facilities or funding, but also the sense of academic freedom here in the United States--it has made me excited to learn and to think of ways to improve education in Afghanistan.

I think students in the U.S. should discuss what is real or authentic Islam. Who interprets Islam for each community? There is a need for conversations that reduce the negative stereotypes and tensions related to how people think about Islam. I also think students should travel and learn about human rights issues around the world, not just in Afghanistan. I would like to see more projects and scholarships that bring Afghan students to the United States. Relationships between ASU and other U.S. universities with universities in Afghanistan need to be developed.”

CSRC: You also had a variety of opportunities to meet with people and organizations who are interested in helping people in Afghanistan.

MB: “I enjoyed meeting with these groups and talking with them about how Afghans view different types of assistance from the international community. Sometimes the local perception of international projects needs to be improved, and the best way to work on that is for international organizations to spend time in Afghanistan, learn from the people there, and develop a better sense of how they can respect the local cultures while pursuing the aims of their humanitarian projects.”

CSRC: How can Americans help, or what sort of advocacy should American organizations do to support change?

MB: “The most important thing the international community can do is build the capacity of Afghans to sustain the projects they are helping create. How will these various projects survive once outside organizations leave? Whether we’re talking about security or education, will the Afghan government be capable of maintaining what is developed?

Even though I am committed to working for women’s rights, I’m still concerned with some of the extremely distorted perceptions of Afghanistan. Instead of merely seeing pictures of war, we need to see interviews with women professors and female children in Afghan schools. There are positive stories that need to be told.

Americans do think and care about politics. Should the U.S. military or humanitarian agencies be in Afghanistan? What should they be doing? I hope the international community does not forget Afghanistan. If peace comes by negotiating with the Taliban, then what is next for women there? We can’t let women be victimized in this process, and at the same time we have to remember that human rights aren’t good for men either.”

CSRC: What would you like to have done more of at ASU?

MB: “I wished I could have visited more classes and had more discussions with students. From my perspective, I like the ways people in the U.S. are empowered to have choices and freedom related to their education, work, and politics.”

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Matt Correa.

For more information about ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Luce project on religion, rights and gender, visit