In a historic first, Forbes magazine featured three young Afghan women social entrepreneurs in their much-talked about ‘30 Under 30’ list for Asia. A total of four Afghans made it to the prestigious list, including the three women — Tamana Asey, 26, director of the Afghanistan Forensic Science Organization (AFSO); Shabana Basij-Rasikh, 29, founder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA); and Freshta Karim, 27, founder of Charmaghz, a mobile library in Kabul.
“Being named to the ‘30 Under 30’ list was an honour, but being named to it in the company of Freshta Karim and Tamana Asey was a joy,” said Ms. Basij-Rasikh, in picture, who as a teenager built SOLA, a boarding school for Afghan girls. Ms. Basij-Rasikh’s own struggles as she, disguised as a boy, tried to seek education under the Taliban regime led to her decision to found a school that provides quality education for girls along with extra-curricular experiences and skills training.
“There are as many as three million girls out of school in Afghanistan, and the illiteracy rate for Afghan teenage girls is 63%. Those two statistics alone speak volumes about why I do what I do. When you educate a girl, you change the world — I know this is true because I’ve lived it in my own life,” she said.
With much of the same sentiment, Ms. Karim created Charmaghz to fill a void in the education system in Afghanistan by making libraries more accessible to all communities of Kabul. Her mobile library, launched last year, and expanded this year, has gained tremendous following among children, who wait for the ‘Charmaghz bus’ to arrive in their areas. The mobile library provides not only books, but also conducts readings, group discussions, poetry recitations and board games.
The largest gathering of Afghanistan’s loya jirga or grand assembly, convened by President Ashraf Ghani to discuss peace with the Taliban, ended on Friday with a unanimous call for the insurgents to observe an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
The loya jirga is a traditional method of reaching a democratic consensus among Afghans on matters of national interest, bringing together prominent members of society such as politicians, religious leaders, tribal elders and civic representatives. The last such assembly was held in 2013 to discuss extending the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
This assembly was convened to discuss the peace negotiations with the Taliban, who have waged a bloody insurgency since the fall of their regime in 2001. The council passed a 23-point resolution which included demands to end violence, preserve women’s rights, open a Taliban political office in the country, open direct talks between the insurgents and the government, and setting a timeline for a “responsible” withdrawal of foreign forces.
As a peace gesture, President Ghani announced in his closing remarks that the Afghan government would release 175 Taliban prisoners for Ramadan. “I would like the Taliban to send their representatives to Kabul or any other city of Afghanistan so that these Taliban prisoners can be handed over in the true Afghan way. This is a gift of Islamic and human gesture,” Mr Ghani said.
He also urged the Taliban’s Committee for Prisoners to come forward for talks on the fate of the remaining prisoners.
The jirga was boycotted by many opposition leaders including Abdullah Abdullah, who holds the post of chief executive under a power-sharing arrangement with Mr Ghani. Former president Hamid Karzai last week voiced concerns that Mr Ghani had called the meeting to bolster his bid for re-election later this year.
Despite this, the assembly drew more than 3,500 participants from across the country who discussed various issues related to the peace talks over five days.
“This jirga showed that the Afghan people are united, smart, aware and intelligent and we unanimously, in one voice, seek to preserve all the achievements we made in the last 18 years,” Sahera Sharif, an MP from Khost province, told The National.
“Through the jirga, we were also able to establish that the national interest and unity are more important and valuable to us than ethnic and gender divisions.”
The fifth phase of meetings between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’s special envoy for peace, and Taliban leaders concluded earlier this month. Very little has been revealed about the nature of the proposed deal between the two parties, raising serious concerns among Afghans, especially women, who suffered greatly the last time the Taliban had control over the country.
The group’s leaders have made several statements assuring that they intend to uphold rights and freedom of women. “We consider woman as the builders of a Muslim society and are committed to all rights of women that have been given to them by the sacred religion of Islam,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a Taliban leader, said during negotiations in Moscow earlier this year.
However, not everyone is convinced, owing not only to the group’s own past record but also to the many recent cases of mistreatment of women in regions it controls. In early March, a 32-year-old woman was publicly lashed for not wearing a face veil in the Sancharak district of the northern province of Sar-e-Pol. A few weeks later, the Taliban executed a 25-year-old pregnant woman in the same province after she condemned the insurgents. The Taliban has also been very vocal against who it refers to as “so-called women’s rights activists”.
A vocal campaign
In response, there is already a movement simmering in social and public spaces, led by women, seeking inclusion in the talks. A campaign spearheaded by Afghan journalist Farahnaz Forotan has been asking them to speak out about their “red lines” — values that are non-negotiable to them. “I am Farahnaz Forotan. I am a journalist. My red line is is my pen and my freedom of expression,” she tweeted earlier this month. Hundreds of Afghan women joined her later with demands that their rights be safeguarded in the peace negotiations.
On a late September afternoon in 1996, Latifa (name changed to protect her identity) heard that the Taliban had entered Kabul, a city she was born and raised in. There had been rumours about this for weeks, in the neighbourhood, in her high school, even at home. But the 16-year-old did not know how radically her life was going to change.
“We were locked in our homes; prohibited by the Taliban from leaving the house. Our schools were closed and the radio was our only source of information,” she said, recalling the days living under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, after the brutal, bloody and prolonged conflict that had ensnared her country.
While the conflict subsided to some extent after the Taliban takeover, the armed group ruled with an iron fist, deploying harsh laws and putting curbs on the mobility of women.
“Women could only be out of the house in a burqa and accompanied by a mahram [male escort who is a relative you cannot marry]. There was no negotiation over that. We never got the chance to protest,” she told TRT World.
After a few months under lockdown in her own country, Latifa had an urgent need to visit the dentist. “I had an unbearable toothache and I asked my mother to take me to the dentist, which was about a 10-minute walk from our house,” she said. However, none of the women in her family had worn burqa before. “We were four women in our house—I along with two of my sisters and my mother. But none of us owned a burqa. But my mother had one really old burqa that she inherited from her grandmother,” she added.
After much discussion, Latifa wore the old burqa and her mother covered herself with the chador—a really large shawl-like scarf—to visit the dentist. “My mother insisted that I take the burqa since being a young teenage girl, the Taliban were more likely to inspect my clothing. She thought that since she’s an older woman, they might not be so strict about her attire,” Latifa said, adding that her mother was around 55 years old at that time, and even in the strictest interpretation of Islam, rules for older women are often relaxed.
Dressed as conservatively as possible, Latifa and her mother set out to seek medical help. The streets of the central market, otherwise known to be a bustling crowded area, were deserted; Latifa and her mother were among the handful of people walking across their city streets that had been turned into a ghost town.
“A young boy on a cycle came towards us and told my mother, ‘ Amr bil Maroof [Taliban’s moral police] is on its way in this direction and they will not approve of your cover. Please turn around and go home before they catch you.’ We panicked, and immediately turned around to go back home,” Latifa said.
The day she was flogged by members of the Taliban, Maryam was making her way to the local bazaar to shop for groceries – her face uncovered.
The 32-year-old housewife was born and raised in Afghanistan’s Sancharak district in Sar-i-pul – a northern province, where the Taliban shadow police has tried for some time to return to.
“I was on my way to the city [centre] when we saw the Taliban coming,” said Maryam, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “Some people started to run, but I didn’t get the chance. One of them came up to me and three others and asked us: why aren’t you wearing a burqa?,” she recalled, referring to the long garment imposed by the Taliban, which covers women from head to toe.
As quickly as they appeared, the men issued their verdict – Maryam and three other women were to receive 30 lashes for stepping out in public without a burqa. “I was speechless. I am not sure how many times I was lashed, I lost count after a while. The pain was too unbearable,” she said. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered to witness the impromptu trial.
According to local reports, however, a group of men stepped forward to stop the Taliban. While Maryam was unable to corroborate this, Zabiullah Amany, the governor’s spokesman said that several male residents tried helping many of the women arrested by the Taliban.
“The Taliban wanted to lash the women, but people didn’t allowed them,” Mr Amany told The National. Unfortunately, Maryam and the three women were not among those who were rescued. According to him, they were accused of adultery and because of this, he implied, the local crowd was largely unsympathetic and did not help them like they did with the other women. Adultery is illegal in Afghanistan.
Maryam, however, insisted she was punished for not adhering to the strict Taliban dress code, which requires that women keep their faces covered at all times to preserve their modesty. “They lectured us about our duties. They told us you must cook food, you don’t have permission to go to the doctor without a mahram. I am so angry and upset at the way I was treated,” she said, using the Arabic term for a male guardian.
Saina Hamidi, a psychological counsellor in Kabul, Afghanistan, says she was around nine years old when she first heard mention of women who bleed. Her older sister had come across one of their cousins washing bloodied clothes and told their mother about it. “I overheard my mother reprimand my sister for talking about it and tell her not to mention it to anyone else,” Hamidi recalled.
The message was clear, Hamidi added: “If we were to ever see it again, we should hide it.”
In Afghanistan, menstruation is referred to — on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all — as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”
The tone of the conversation made Hamidi, now 24, believe that perhaps their cousin had done something shameful. “We both didn’t know what it really meant to bleed like that,” she said. “But between my sister and myself, we came to the conclusion that this probably happened to our cousin because she hadn’t been a good girl.” Neither Hamidi nor her sisters had any knowledge or access to information about the perfectly normal and expected physical changes their bodies were about to experience. In fact, they didn’t even know the word for menstruation or period, which in Afghanistan is referred to, on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all, as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”
The experiences of Hamidi and her family are by no means isolated in this part of the world, where a prevailing pall of shame and dishonor still hovers over women’s puberty. Misinformation about the subject of women’s health and hygiene is widespread, and young women are nudged toward traditional — and often unhealthy — practices to cope with their biological development. These include everything from avoiding vegetables in the diet to not bathing for the duration of a period — a purported hedge against infertility. This, coupled with the lack of access to affordable hygiene products, has resulted not only in poor physical and mental health, but also in girls dropping out of school after they begin to menstruate.
In response, small but significant efforts to change these perceptions have recently taken root in Afghanistan. Most prominent among these is a campaign by the Ministry of Education with support from the United Nations to train teachers to help female students better understand and prepare for their periods.
Laila Haidari is considered a criminal, despite never committing a crime. The 40-year-old works with drug addicts in Kabul. “The addicts I work with are considered criminal and dangerous and by extension I am considered criminal,” she says.
Despite opposition and death threats, eight years ago, Haidari opened the city’s only private drug rehabilitation centre, which so far has helped nearly 4,800 Afghans who would otherwise have ended up on the streets, or worse, dead.
She opened the centre, called the Mother Camp, after watching her brother fall into addiction. “I cared for my brother and helped him recover, even if it was briefly, because I believe that he deserved to be saved. He was a good man,” she says. Each of the addicts who pass through her shelter are good people who’ve gone astray, she adds, and they deserve a second chance.
Afghanistan’s drug problem is not a secret. The country is the world’s largest producer of opium. In November 2017, the UN reported that opium production had increased by 87% over the previous 12 months to a record high, despite almost two decades of counter efforts by the US.
Afghans remain among the worst victims of the failed war on drugs. According to the 2015 Afghanistan national drug use survey, in a country of 35 million people, an estimated 2.9 million are addicts. But there aren’t enough government-run shelters to meet the growing needs. Kabul has 27 government shelters and there are about 115 across Afghanistan – all of which are over capacity.
Mother Camp, named by the first drug addicts Haidari took in, was established in 2010. “I used to look after them, clean them, cook for them and sometimes even feed the weaker ones. That is when they started to call me ‘mother’,” she explains.
I paid your father the bride price for you, so you have to sleep with me whenever I want,” my husband, Karim, who was several decades older than me, told me when I refused to have sex with him. Perhaps it was the dismissive laughter that followed that was the trigger, or perhaps it was an idea I had considered before, subconsciously. No matter which way I look at it today, I can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to end my life by setting fire to my body to escape the physical and mental violence I had endured for six years.
It just happened.
I was on my way to the hamam (public bath), since we didn’t have a bathroom in our small house outside the city of Herat in Afghanistan. I saved money to be able to afford the luxury of bathing once a week at the public baths. As I was about to leave our tiny one-room apartment, Karim stopped me. He was of a much larger build and girth than I was, and a seasoned albeit unemployed martial arts teacher, and he was able to easily overpower me. And he often did, when he needed to satisfy his urges. He used to call it sex, but to me it was an extremely painful and horrifying violation of my body. Over the years, I had learned to block the trauma out, and eventually I even started to refuse him, at the risk of being severely beaten. On this day, he was angry at me from the night before when I had refused him sex. “I can’t sleep with you anymore, brother,” I told him. I hoped calling him “brother” would disgust him and discourage his advances.
“I do not consider you my husband, and I am not your wife. There is no relationship between us,” I said, which just made him angrier and more violent. I had been beaten and abused every day that I was married to Karim, whose name I’ve changed here for my safety.
He started calling me names and accused me of being unfaithful. “Why do you need to go to the hamam? Did you have sex with another man? Are you going to meet another man, sleep with him?” He shouted expletives loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He was trying to taint my character in the community. An Afghan woman’s reputation is everything, and without it she is vulnerable to all of the evils of the society. Women in Afghanistan have been stoned to death for much less, especially in the more remote and conservative parts of the country where the local tribal laws take precedence over women’s rights. Even within more developed urban parts of the country, the justice system does not favor women, and many women have been sent to prison on charges of moral crimes.
The accusation of being unfaithful and having to prove my innocence after everything I had been through was the final straw. The rage I felt, I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. “You are not a man, you are not a woman, you are an animal,” I screamed at him, and he just laughed at me.
I grabbed the canister of cooking fuel from the kitchen and poured it on myself. He realized what I was about to do and grabbed the matches. The neighbors, who had so far been eavesdropping from a polite distance, barged in to our house. They tried to calm me, but I was wailing as they told me, “Don’t break your home.”
I was still crying when they left. Not speaking a word to Karim, I once again gathered my chador to go wash the fuel off of me. Once again, he pulled me back. I was shaking with anger and still covered in kerosene, and I didn’t think twice about picking up the box of matches from where he’d left it — and lighting one.
I must have caught fire quickly because the hot anger I had felt moments ago soon translated into hot searing pain that took over every particle of my being. I don’t remember much after that.
Roya wants to take a job in a local media company, but her father and brother aren’t keen. “What is the need for a young girl to work outside?” asks her father, seated on a toushak, the traditional Afghan low-seating cushions, sipping the customary post-dinner chai. Her brother chimes in with an answer. “There is no need for women to work,” he says.
And so begins the pilot episode of a series that is set to air on prime-time Afghan television in November.
The show, named after its central character, Roya, follows the life of the single, 20-year-old, educated woman in a post-Taliban Kabul, and that of her family – parents, two younger sisters and a brother. Inspired by the US hit show Ugly Betty, the series takes a lighter, and more humorous approach to some of the pressing challenges women face in Afghanistan. Its central message is that women should get out of the home and join the workforce.
Roya is the first woman in her family to seek employment. However, the challenges she faces go beyond having to convince her family to let her work. Roya’s experiences and interactions are often awkward, and complicated by characters who aren’t accustomed to being around working women.
“The story, infused with humour, traces Roya’s journey as much as that of the other characters who get to evolve and grow from the experiences of working alongside women,” says Masooma Ibrahimi, the show’s scriptwriter. “Over the course of 10 episodes, she encounters a variety of characters. Some are supportive and helpful, while others are negative and do not approve of the idea of women in offices,” she adds.
Shkula Zadran was at her local polling station in Kabul when a loud blast sent voters rushing for cover amidst panicked screams.
This was the latest in a string of attacks on Afghan civilians casting their votes on Saturday.
Despite threats by the Taliban and ISIS, an encouraging number of voters made it to the polling stations. Some made several attempts to reach their polling centers, amidst gunfire and explosions, at great personal risk.
“The situation got really bad and people panicked. Everyone was screaming and running, and I decided to go home then, without having voted,” twenty-five-year old Ms Zadran told The National.
But she refused to be deterred by the violence she experienced earlier that day.
Armed with courage the young political activist waited until evening and set out for the second time to cast her vote in the country’s parliamentary elections.
Fearing for her life, Ms Zadran’s family discouraged her from going.
“I feel responsible for my country’s future,” she said. “So many people voted in insecure provinces, so why not me?” she asked, adding that the sacrifice of those who died in the service of Afghanistan inspired her to go back and vote.