In-Depth Arena

Not without a fight

Published 27 Mar, 2015 12:44pm

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A demonstration by members of the Solidarity Party
A demonstration by members of the Solidarity Party

More than a decade ago, women in Afghanistan lived under the blue burqa, their mobility restricted, in the company of male guardians when out in public, and they were denied education; many were persecuted for their ‘immoral’ behaviour, and hundreds forced to give up their jobs as teachers, doctors, lawyers, curators, painters, writers and policewomen. Today, important gains have been made, even in sparsely-populated provinces like Farah and Helmand — girls go to school, for example, in Parwan province, north of Kabul where even Taliban sympathisers support girls’ education. Of the nearly seven million children back in school in Afghanistan, 2.4 million are girls — but there is now fear that this number could decline. Women hold 28 per cent of the seats in parliament; the country’s first law on ending violence against women (the law on the Elimination of Violence enacted in 2009), and the establishment of shelters offering legal services for female victims of violence is evidence of steps taken by women to protect themselves.

Afghan women now shop at local bazaars, eat at restaurants without fear of being brutalised and beauty salons are no longer an underground business; female politicians head defence budget committees and some have plans to run for the 2014 presidential elections; a female entrepreneur is trying to bring the fun back into Kabul with a bowling alley. Kabul University has a high ratio of female students studying in the same classrooms as men in all faculties; cultural activities are common in cities like Herat, Mazar and Badakhshan. These freedoms, by no means small, have not been easy to attain for women, who have not only overcome immense adversity in their fight to ensure their voice is heard but are participants in the redevelopment of their country.

But can women’s rights and opportunities in Afghanistan remain secure as Nato troops get ready to withdraw from the country and economic opportunities and foreign aid budgets subsequently drop? Will the gains that Afghan women have fought for see a backward slide? Last year, a Reuters Poll ranked Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Religious leaders known to justify domestic violence are calling for women to stop their education and wear the hijab. Women’s rights have not entered the conversation at international multi-donor conferences that talk about assisting security and development. Should their struggle be isolated from the overall struggle for peace, change and a better Afghanistan? In the next five years, answers might emerge, but as four brave Afghan women explain, the destiny and power of Afghan women lies in their own hands.

“You can cut the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of spring”

Name: Malalai Joya Age: 34

Occupation: Activist/former parliamentarian

Former parliamentarian-turned-activist Malalai Joya has survived six assassination attempts. She moves between a number of safe houses run by supporters, wears a burqa to travel and is protected by 12 bodyguards; Joya cannot attend public meetings for fear of her life. In March, in the latest attempt on her life, gunmen shot at her bodyguards at 3 am in her office in Farah province. In 2003, Joya dared to publicly speak out against Afghanistan’s warlords in the Loya Jirga (an assembly that debated the Afghan constitution). When elected to the lower house of parliament in 2005 as its youngest member and as a representative of Farah province – with the second-highest votes – Joya was suspended because of her outspokenness: she compared the lower house to a zoo.

A woman with extraordinary courage and the power of expression, Joya believes an election under the shadow of warlords and the Taliban has no legitimacy and is undemocratic: “Why would you allow criminals to be present [in parliament]? Warlords responsible for our country’s situation … this parliament is a dirty, mafia parliament of law breakers. They are the most anti-women people in this society, who brought our country to this state and they intend to do the same again.”

Joya was just four years old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and her mother took her 10 siblings to refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. In 1998, she finished high school in Peshawar, and became an adult literacy teacher, working with a charity, the Organisation for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capability. At 16, she travelled to Herat with her family to set up underground schools for girls. “I have many memories of the time during the Taliban’s rule when we would hide a small Holy Quran under the mattress with our books. I would tell the younger girls not to travel to the house [that was our school] together because that made the Taliban suspicious. They would beat the children. But the girls would come together, because they were terrified but wanted to study.” She says this was one of the blackest moments in the history of her country.

Joya has never been afraid to speak up against what she terms the brutalities suffered by Afghans: once the Taliban were ousted by the US-led coalition, support for the warlords in Karzai’s government increased, compromises were made and amnesty laws enacted. “The foundation of the fundamentalist Islamist parties lies in the shopkeepers of Afghanistan. They invited the head of the [Pakistan’s] ISI during the civil war to form a party and millions of CIA dollars were pumped into this country. This is one of the darkest pages in the history of Afghanistan,” Joya explains. “They committed unforgettable and unforgivable crimes. That’s why Afghanistan is a safe haven for terror and that’s why the situation for women is catastrophic even today, and worse than under the misogynist Taliban.”

When asked if Afghans are ready to take over security once foreign troops leave and if her country is even prepared for a transition to democracy, she replies: “That’s a good question to ask the White House because of the chess game that they are playing. Taliban, drug barons, jihadis … Today my country looks like a sick body, everybody wants their own piece. They [the US] must end the occupation. The blood of Afghans is not water they shed.Afghanistan today is the worst place to be a woman and the second most corrupt nation in the world. We don’t even have a caricature of democracy: we have democracy for Sayaf, Khalili, Fahim [warlords in government] and now the Taliban.”

She worries about security for the younger generation, but Joya is proud of youth-led pro-democracy movements: “This is a war generation. They want the US-led forces to leave their country but these foreigners will not leave voluntarily. Freedom, democracy and human rights cannot be gifted to us. No nation can donate democracy. Only a nation can liberate itself.” She feels that this agitation is because “we know that the Taliban have been in power for the past 10 years as lawmakers in parliament. When they [the Taliban] are not ready to say sorry, how can people trust them? They are worse than wild animals. We cannot negotiate with them. What is good or bad Taliban? You say we negotiate with good Taliban? Is Mullah Omar a good Taliban?”

Joya is married to a man supportive of her activism, and whom she doesn’t name for fear of his life. She has an almost resigned-to-life kind of humour (and a natural ability to laugh and love), once she lets her activist-guard down. But personal questions, she says are pointless: “I want to have a normal life, but I wear the burqa just to stay alive because I told the truth and they want to kill me for that. Let me tell you something. I have memories that give me hope that things can change. People in Farah province trust me because I set up schools; I taught their girls and distributed free medicine. For the first time in a backwater province, when I didn’t wear a burqa or hijab, at first it wasn’t easy. It’s not easy to change the mindset of those men in power but slowly they allowed women to work with me and my team. We wore scarves. Small steps need courage and are important. In the beginning you are alone but slowly people accept you. Men would come to my office and discuss private issues. If you are honest, they trust you. Gender doesn’t matter.”

Joya and her supporters say they are planning for the future, and will resist being sandwiched between Afghanistan’s warlords, the Taliban and the foreign ‘occupation’. “One day the truth will find its place.” Joya is unwilling to be struck down without a fight.

Educating Parwan

Name: Samia Azizi Sadat Age: 42

Occupation: Underground teacher/parliamentarian

Director of education in Parwan province, Samia Azizi Sadat has helped establish 200 schools in a Taliban district where the community complained about the lack of proper schooling facilities. Sadat’s popularity as an education campaigner rose when she ensured that schools were adequately equipped [using donor funding] with trained teachers and students were able to study in a secure environment. When former Parwan governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa once inquired about why community leaders pasted a poster of Sadat on the wall – an uncommon practice in rural districts – they replied that she was ‘like a man who helps their community.’ Sadat has been elected twice from Parwan as a member of the lower house of parliament on what is seen as an ‘education ticket’.

Her first teaching experience during the time of the Taliban was challenging because she ran underground schools. “We received funding from the French government to organise underground schools. I headed 24 secret schools with 600 girls which meant we had to organise them in homes without the Taliban knowing we were running this network. In 1999, the Taliban suspected I had a class in my home so [they] attacked the house. We hid students under carpets and chairs but they found out and beat them all.” Sadat says she was beaten and was unconscious for seven days. What happened next? “I continued teaching,” she says hoping that Afghanistan would progress someday. “My mother always told me to work hard and hope.”

Sadat was born in Parwan’s Charikan district and studied at the Faculty of Science at the University of Kabul before doing her Master’s degree in economics in 2008. She still lives in Parwan – her home well-guarded – where she started her career as an algebra teacher at the Hura Jalili High School; later she was promoted to the post of director of education for the province. Even today she commutes to Kabul when parliament is in session, despite volatile security conditions.

In 2007, Sadat escaped an assassination attempt when travelling from Kabul to Parwan; six others were injured in this bomb attack. She says it’s the 10 per cent, a minority, who object to education in the province. “I’m not afraid. I will continue doing what I do for the people and women in my district. I am apolitical, and I don’t have a problem with Hekmatyar or the Taliban. Forty per cent of Parwan is Taliban and the security is not stable at all times but because they respect my efforts for women’s education, they don’t bother me. It’s not possible that the Taliban will be allowed to come back with their old policies, even if they join the government after the 2014 election. But my guess is that they work for their self-interest: they might negotiate peace and then chances are they could even go back to their old ways,” Sadat says.

For now Sadat’s working relationship with Parwan’s Taliban sounds like a win-win proposition for both sides but for how long is anyone’s guess.

Changing perceptions

Name: Shamsia Hussani Age: 23

Occupation: Graffiti artist

“Freedom is not to remove the burqa; freedom is to have peace,” says 23-year-old Shamsia Hussani, Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. Born in Iran, she moved back to Kabul with her family seven years ago and studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University. After graduating in 2010, she teaches at her alma mater and works with a team of 10 Afghan artists, a group called ‘Roshd’, meaning ‘growth.’ At the Venue in Kabul, Hussani’s collection of modern art gets her attention and praise: paintings show fish covered with bubbles over their bodies, in brilliant blues and softer pale shades, with swirling strokes forming mysterious connections. “It’s a conceptual idea I have created about not being free to express yourself. When the bubbles escape, they are like ideas that are free to float,” she explains over a cup of coffee.

Hussani has been creating art for six years now and her work is priced on average at 250 US dollars and above. Selected as one of 10 top Afghan artists by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, Hussani says she enjoys working as a graffiti artist but is unable to walk through the city freely and create street art. Because she doesn’t get to practice as much in the real world, she innovates. “I take pictures of roads and streets in Kabul and then use Photoshop and do digital graffiti. I dream of graffiti. I can’t go outside and explore because it’s still dangerous for a woman,” she says. Once, at the Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul to graffiti a wall, Hassani was terrified — it was dark and she was afraid she’d step on a landmine.

Politics confuses her because there are no answers to her questions. “The Taliban and the Americans are the same is what I hear people say in public. I focus on the role of art and culture in changing perceptions and expressing emotion. People come to this country thinking there is only war and politics, but we have artists and musicians and culture,” Hussani says as she smiles and wraps her headscarf tightly around herself.

Saving Sahar Gul

Name: Shukria Khaliqi

Occupation: Activist/lawyer

At a modest house on the road to the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul, legal adviser Shukria Khaliqi and her team of counsellors, lawyers and trainers keep the door open for female victims of violence. The house serves as a domestic violence referral centre and temporary shelter, where Khaliqi has some hard work cut out for her, often earning her disapproval from certain religious elements. Seventy per cent of cases referred to Khaliqi’s Women for Afghan Women organisation are domestic violence incidents which find their roots in poverty, insecurity and harmful traditions.

Established in 2007, the Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a grass roots organisation, advocates and protects the rights of women in their fight against gender-based violence. At the WAW referral centre, where Khaliqi heads the legal programme, victims of violence are either sent by the court, police or hospitals: Khaliqi’s team assesses the case, deciding whether to mediate between husband and wife in the case of domestic violence or go to court against the perpetrator.

Earlier this year, Khaliqi was the lawyer on the widely-publicised Sahar Gul case. Gul, a 13-year-old Afghan girl from Badakhshan was sold to a man twice her age in Baghlan for 200,000 Afghanis (4,000 US dollars) by her brother. Gul was beaten, burnt, scalded with water, her fingernails pulled out and locked up without food in a basement by her in-laws. “She was kept there for six months until her brother got suspicious and called the police. Her husband escaped, but her in-laws have been jailed,” she says.

Gul is at a shelter in Kabul recovering from her ordeal until she is granted a divorce. In a 2008 study by Global Rights, it was reported that 87 per cent of women in Afghanistan suffered from domestic abuse but are more aware of their rights and are now refusing to stay in violent marriages, unlike during the Taliban era when they suffered silently. Khaliqi, who lived in Pakistan as a refugee during the Taliban’s time, has worked as a lawyer in Afghanistan since 2008, representing 156 women. “The important thing is I’ve won all my cases. In the future, if the Taliban return, women like me will sit at home if security deteriorates. Because the Taliban know me, they will kill me for supporting the rights of women and because I’ve made sure so many men are put behind bars for violent crimes,” she smiles.