Prince Abdul Ali Seraj on the Status of Women in Afghanistan (Part 1)

05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prince Abdul Ali Seraj is a direct descendant of nine generations of Kings of Afghanistan. He is the nephew of His Majesty King Amanullah (1919-1929), who was known as the Victor of Afghanistan, the grandson of His Majesty Amir Habibullah (1901-1919), and the great-grandson of His Majesty Amir Abdurrahman (1880-1901), who was known as the Iron King. His ancestry continues back for ten generations to His Majesty Amir Dost Mohammad, who assumed the throne in 1827. The Seraj part of Prince Ali's name comes from the title given to King Habibullah -- 'Seraj -ul- Millat wa deen' (Light of the Nation and Religion).

Prince Ali received his education in Afghanistan and in the United States at the University of Connecticut. He earned degrees in Economics and Business/Public management.

After finishing college in the states, the Prince returned to Afghanistan and emerged as a cross-cultural entrepreneur by establishing several successful businesses, including several restaurants, the most famous being the Golden Lotus. He was also very actively involved in the welfare of his countrymen, assisting the poor in various charitable ways as well as involving himself in Afghan politics before having to flee the country under a Khalq-Parcham death warrant following the communist coup d'état and the killing of President Daoud in 1978. Fearing for his family's life, Prince Ali escaped from Afghanistan and settled for 17 years in the United States and five years in Brazil. During this time, the Prince established successful businesses, one of them being a successful fiber optics company.

Upon his return to Afghanistan, the Prince continued his charitable work, building over three hundred homes and several mosques for the poor in several provinces and supplying school materials to thousands of students.

Because Prince Ali's grandfather King Habibullah married 36 wives from different tribes, he has a blood link to most of the major tribes in Afghanistan. Also, his great-grandfather, His Majesty Amir Habibullah is fondly remembered inside Afghanistan as one of the few rulers in the last 250 years to unite the country's tribes. Given these links and the overwhelming support of his family history by all the tribes and his involvement with the people, Prince Ali has developed a very important and unique relationship with all the different tribes in Afghanistan.

Armed with this special relationship and a keen knowledge of the different cultures and norms of the country and the enormous socioeconomic and political problems facing the nation -- the growing distance between the Central Government and the people, the resurgence of al Qaida/Taliban forces, the ensuing death and destruction of his people and country -- Prince Ali has embarked on a mission to unite the tribes as one. He believes that only through the unification of all tribes and the empowering of the people will the country and the fledging young democracy be saved.

The Prince, therefore, together with tribal elders representing all the tribes of Afghanistan, established a grassroots trans-tribal movement under the name of National Coalition for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan (NCDTA). Registered with the Ministry of Justice, the Coalition, now with offices in 32 Provinces, has made great strides toward its unification goal. This trans-tribal movement was formed to deal with all the depravations suffered by the Afghan peoples in the past and continuing into the present.

Today, Prince Ali assists NATO commanders in setting up meetings with tribal and religious elders in order to establish a dialogue and understanding between the coalition forces and the people. He has also assisted International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders in establishing a security network for the district of Kabul through contacts with the different Council of Elders. Regularly he lectures at the US counterinsurgency school (COIN Academy) in Kabul.

Prince Ali strongly believes that the problems of Afghanistan are fourfold: tribal, economic, social, and political, in that exact order. It is his belief that without tribal unification there will be no economic development or social cohesiveness. He contends that a political solution will only occur after the first three are satisfied. Towards this end, Prince Ali has committed his life.

On February 16, 2009, Prince Abdul Ali Seraj accepted the people's candidacy for President of Afghanistan. However, later, he abandoned his own presidential bid in favor of Hamid Karzai. Reportedly, this endorsement of the incumbent president came in exchange for Karzai's pledge to address the needs of Prince Ali's constituents.

Kathleen Wells: Prince Seraj, your uncle, King Amanullah, 80 years ago, worked to bring about changes regarding women's rights in Afghanistan. Speak to how the Personal Status Law, which was approved and is currently under review by President Karzai is impacting the groundwork your uncle laid?

Prince Abdul Ali Seraj: After his world trip in 1927, my uncle, His Majesty King Amanullah, decreed that in order for Afghanistan to join other progressive nations of the world and to take its rightful place in the twentieth century, the country needed the service of both its male as well as its female population.

He not only introduced Queen Soraya, without the traditional veil, to the public, but soon thereafter sent a group of 16 girls to attend medical school in Turkey. He later sent another group of girls to study in France. The foreign enemies of the state (the British) used these policies against King Amanullah and instigated a revolution that eventually forced the King to abdicate.

It took 75 years for the women of Afghanistan to once again enjoy personal freedom under the new constitution, which provides a great number of rights to them, far more than what was initiated under King Amanullah. However, we must not forget that the King laid the initial groundwork for women's rights.Today, all women, regardless of age or ethnicity, know the service that was rendered to their cause by my uncle. They also know that he sacrificed the throne of Afghanistan for their rights.

Unfortunately, even today, as it was then, the women do not enjoy all the rights that they have under the constitution. Even though the role of women today is very evident in the Parliament, the government, and the education system, still, they are considered as subservient to the male sector. In the provinces, the veil is very evident and in many areas of the country, a woman's presence is not welcomed within the male population.

We still have a long ways to go. Unfortunately, my uncle's policies had less than two years before he was forced to abdicate due to foreign powers using the women's rights policy as a tool against him. Today, fortunately, the women have extensive support from the international community. We need to change the attitude of male-dominated society in Afghanistan. But it will take time, as 90% of the Afghans still live in the 17th, 18th century.

Kathleen Wells: The first version of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law, which was signed by President Karzai in March 2009, required Shi'ite women to ask for their spouses' permission when leaving the home. This law has been characterized by many as a step backwards for women's rights. Can you comment?

Prince Seraj: This was a mistake. The government has no right to create laws for the benefit of a particular segment of society for political or ethnical gain. This is a dangerous precedent to set, one which could lead to a breakdown of society. Tomorrow, another ethnic group could demand laws pertaining to their cultural norms. And so on. This is definitely a step in the wrong direction -- ethnically, socially, and morally.

Kathleen Wells: Explain your concern about legislating women's rights in your culture and describe the danger you fear.

Prince Seraj: As a member of a family who whole-heartedly supported women's rights actions over 80 years ago, I stand behind them regardless of personal dangers. I have gone on national and international TV, defending women's rights in Afghanistan much to the tribal chagrin.

My concern is not from within, but from outside. The Taliban government of the 1990s used Afghan women as a psychological weapon to control the men. Should the Taliban find a foothold in Afghanistan again, then the rights achieved by the women of Afghanistan would once again be pushed back a century. The world must not let this happen.

Kathleen Wells: How has the influence of the Taliban impacted women's rights?

Prince Seraj: The Taliban, fortunately, has not influenced any segment of Afghan society. If anything, it has hardened the population against them.

Kathleen Wells: You've stated that Afghanistan has a history of very strong women. Can you elaborate about this history?

Prince Seraj: Historically, the Afghan women have always stood by their men. In fact, their bravery in times of defending their family or country is heralded in our history books. Rudyard Kipling had some choice verses about the valor of the Afghan women. During battles, the women accompanied the men in order to cook for them or take care of their injuries.

During the second Anglo-Afghan war -- known as the battle of Maiwand in Kandahar, 1879* -- when the Afghan fighters were forced to retreat, Malalai, an 18-year-old Pushtun girl, coaxed the men to battle by removing her veil and twirling it over her head as a banner and rushed the British soldiers. Seeing this act of bravery, the men reacted and attacked the enemy. Malalai died in that battle, but she won the day. The British lost an entire regiment in that battle. She died for freedom.

Another Afghan heroine was Rabhia Balkhi, who was born in Balkh, Afghanistan, and the daughter of the governor. She was the very first female Persian (Dari) poetess. Her works have been translated into English. When her brother, Haares, found out that she was secretly in love with a slave, he cut her jugular vein and imprisoned her in a bathroom. She wrote her last and final poem on the bathroom wall with her blood until she died. She died for freedom.

Naheed was a sixteen-year-old high school girl who, in 1985 while demonstrating against the communists and the Soviet soldiers, taunted the police to wear her school scarf, stating that they were not men enough to do so. Her cries of "Give me liberty or give death" were answered with a bullet in her chest. She died for freedom.

Malalai Joya [is the] parliamentarian in 2005 [who] defied the warlords in the parliament by delivering a powerful speech demanding their removal from the house of the people. The warlords removed her from the Parliament and threatened her life. She is in constant danger of being assassinated.

Then there are thousands of other Afghan women who defied the Taliban and paid for it with their lives. They all died for freedom.

Kathleen Wells: Has the status of women declined since the election of President Karzai?

Prince Seraj: No.The status of women has not declined. Women are making small gains daily. Among most urban families, they are equal to their husbands as bread earners.

I believe that, just as my uncle looked to the economic role that the women of Afghanistan could play within the society at large, we should convince the male society of the important economic role that their spouses and daughters could play for the financial benefit of the family.

Kathleen Wells: UNICEF's report "The State of the World's Children" says that Afghanistan is the most dangerous place for girls to be born. With Afghanistan having the highest infant mortality rate in the world and a significant drop in children going to school -- especially girls -- what are the threats Afghans face in making significant progress?

Prince Seraj: While it is true that Afghanistan has a high infant mortality rate, it is by no means the most dangerous place for girls to be born in. There are countries in Africa which make Afghanistan a walk in the park. More value is placed on a boy being born in India than a girl. More girls are going to school, and they are more successful in their studies than their male counterparts.

View photo slideshow of Afghan women past and present on Race-Talk.

Crossposted from Race-Talk