Last week, Newsweek ran a special issue on "Power Women" devoted to the issue of women's advancement, challenges in the workplace and strides going forward. It also hosted a terrific conference on "Women In Leadership" featuring a terrific keynote speech by Anna Quindlen on the challenges women have faced over the years in achieving workplace parity, busting through barriers and being taken seriously.
Great event; it's a pity that Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria didn't attend, he might've learned something. Last week, Zakaria moderated a Council on Foreign Relations event featuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai, excerpts of which can be found here in a Newsweek Q&A. Notably absent is an exchange that occurred during the question-and-answer period at the end, when Glamour journalist Shirley Velasquez stood to ask Karzai a question. According to Velasquez,* after identifying herself as a Glamour reporter, Zakaria interrupted her, saying: "Glamour? Blue burqa vs. black burqa?" According to Velasquez, the audience erupted with laughter, and Karzai "laughed and said something about being grateful that finally an easy question was going to be asked."
He should have been so lucky: Velasquez came armed with a question about the deplorable treatment of women in Afghanistan, noting that the U.N. estimates that less than half of school-age girls are actually in school and a whopping 70% of married women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic abuse. Asked Velasquez: "My question, Mr. President is why have these conditions persisted and how is your government improving the lives of women?" Oh, ho ho, blue burqa vs. black burqa?
According to Velasquez, Karzai seemed taken off guard by the question and responded: "Your first problem is the source you're using. The UN doesn't know what they're saying," and quoted stats were "absolutely wrong." At this point, says Velasquez, Zakaria actually stepped in and warned Karzai, saying, "Be careful Mr. President. Remember you¹re on the record." Way to facilitate the discourse, Fareed. Karzai continued, maintaining that Afghanistan had "great respect" for its women, more than most other countries in the area. Wow, set that bar high.
Blue burqa vs. black burqa? No doubt that is a question that will never vex Zakaria; as a man, he' d never be forced to wear one. Unlike Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs director and women's rights activist Safia Ahmed-jan, who was gunned down today in Kandahar. She was wearing a burqa.
By the way, Velasquez was at the event because she's working on a piece on the plight of women in Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Glamour. If they're not too busy with the really important stuff, maybe Karzai and Zakaria should put it on their list.
This week's New Yorker has a slightly different version of the story as reported by Ben McGrath, who quoted Zakaria as saying "She's going to ask you about that cloak, Mr. President." Maybe he said both, but either quip qualifies as sexist and dismissive and undermining of a female colleague in public.
NB: This isn't the first time I've been dismayed by a comment from Zakaria; suffice it to say that murder victim Chandra Levy would probably not have considered her disappearance and murder to have been trivial.
*UPDATE: The CFR rush transcript from the event reflects the version as reported in the New Yorker; Velasquez's account is her from her personal recollections written up following the event last Thursday. The relevant excerpt of the transcript is included after the jump.
Excerpt of CFR rush transcript; note that as a rush transcript it may not be strictly accurate, as evidenced below when Karzai is referred to as "President Zakaria."
ZAKARIA: In the back there. Ma'am? Wasn't there a lady--yes, you.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.) Wonderful. Thank you for choosing me. My name is Shirley Velasquez. I'm a reporter at Glamour Magazine. And we--
ZAKARIA: At Glamour Magazine?
QUESTIONER: Glamour Magazine, yes. (Laughter.) It's a--
KARZAI: Finally the right question! (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: She's going to ask you about that cloak, Mr. President.
KARZAI: Let's see. I hope.
QUESTIONER: No. It's a national--
KARZAI: No? I hope it's not poppies that you're asking about.
QUESTIONER: No. We were concerned about the conditions in which a lot of women are living in Afghanistan. According to a U.N. report, when it comes to education, not a day went by--or barely a day went by in 2006 when a school house had been put on fire or a teacher had been killed. We also--according to Human Rights Watch, figures estimated that fewer than 5 percent of secondary-school-age girls are going to school. And when it comes to physical and mental health, according to the U.N. again, 70 percent of women--married women in Afghanistan are suffering from domestic abuse.
KARZAI: Seventy percent?
QUESTIONER: One of the reasons being that their daughters are being exchanged between families in forced marriages as compensation for debt or crime.
ZAKARIA: (Inaudible) --question?
QUESTIONER: My question is, why do you think these are the conditions that women are still living in even under your administration? And secondly, what is your government doing--
KARZAI: Whose statistics was that, the U.N.?
QUESTIONER: The United Nations, yes. UNICEF.
KARZAI: That's why they are so much in trouble. (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: (Laughs.) You're on the record, Mr. President. (Laughter.)
KARZAI: That is not true. That statistic's not true. Forty-two percent are girls, 35 percent are girls in schools, Minister of Education?
MR. : (Off mike.)
KARZAI: Thirty-five percent of 6 million children going to school are girls. Thirty-five percent. The universities, even higher. The administration (is almost ?) that percentage made of women, especially the Minister of Education, and Health. Health services have improved from 9 percent, to the population of 2001, to 80 percent of today. Vaccination, similarly.
And 70 percent abuse of married women? That's absolutely wrong. Very wrong. I think abuse of women is perhaps the least of any society in Afghanistan. There is immense respect for a woman in the country, in the way--not to the political sense that you see it in the West, no; in the traditional way in Afghanistan. So that is not true, ma'am.
We should do a lot more. We should be a much better country in that regard. But the past five years have produced a lot of result, and a lot more will take place into the future.
Out of 249 members in the Afghan Parliament, 68 are women. That's 27 percent of the Afghan Parliament. People have voted from them. From Herat, which has--it's a province with 17 members in the Parliament. The top vote-getter was a woman. It's very different. We have ambassadors now around the world that are women; two ambassadors, or three. Two ambassadors. And in the bureaucracy, in the government, it's a lot different.
Whoever gave you that statistic, it was not true. Schools get burned, but not every day, ma'am. If they get burned every day, we will be out of schools in the whole country. Not every day. In the past two years, maybe 150 schools were burned or damaged partially.
ZAKARIA: And mostly intentionally by the Taliban?
PRESIDENT ZAKARIA: Intentionally by the Taliban, and mostly at the borders with Pakistan, in those provinces bordering Pakistan. The rest of the country is perfectly peaceful. The further away from that border, the better life is.