“Equality for women is not a threat to men. It is only a threat to sexism and good men must join the effort to making equality a reality.”
By M. Nadeem Alizai-For years the Afghan policymakers have blamed insecurity for hampered development activities in the country. The picture they project is incomplete and full of flaws. As per statistics of Ministry of Public Health, suicides in Afghanistan exceed deaths by war and homicide combined annually. Instead of plugging the loopholes, Afghan lawmakers, leaders and high-ranking officials are distorting the facts.
In other words they have turned a blind eye to the reality that accelerating the development process requires full participation of women as they account for half of the country’s talent base. Unfortunately, some elements in the parliament, religious circles and the power corridors have created barriers to women’s empowerment. The development process of the country is stalled by gender discrimination. Women can play a more active role in development of the country if their rights were protected. There is no denying to the fact that empowering women demand joint efforts towards fighting discrimination in its various forms. Respecting women’s rights and their empowerment lay in the best interests of Afghanistan.
Talking on the super serious issue of gender equality, Noorjahan Akbar said that even before war, gender-based violence was rampant in the country.
Ms Noorjahan Akbar is women’s rights advocate and has been named one of Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women of the World”—an achievement for both Afghan women and men. The list of her achievements is lengthy. With a Masters in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University, she is not only writing on women’s rights but also engaged in multiple campaigns to end gender-based discrimination. She is the founder of Free Women Writers.
In an exclusive interview with Kabulscape, she suggested that the legislators should approve the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) without change to serve the purpose.
The following is an excerpt from the interview:
Kabulscape: How can we protect Afghan women’s rights?
Noorjahan: First and foremost, we should talk about security. It is the number one concern for women around the country and it doesn’t just concern the Taliban and extremists, but also street harassment, and other forms of violence and threats women face in public. Without women’s active participation in all areas of public life, we cannot expect women’s situation, or the country’s situation for that matter, to improve. Without female doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, police officers, etc. it is hard for women to make progress and change cultural and social norms. This is why we need to focus on improving women’s security. Terrorists are a serious threat to our security, and so is public harassment of women. Terrorist attacks and sexual harassment in public spaces discourage women from participating in the society in meaningful ways. By fighting both, we can ensure not only women’s increased participation, but also a better life for all of us.
Kabulscape: How important is the role of religious scholars in protecting women’s rights?
Noorjahan: Religious leaders can help improve women’s situation by not promoting sexist and backwards interpretations of religious texts. They have a responsibility to speak out against gender-based violence (including forced and early marriage) and other forms of oppression of women that are not protected by religious laws, but rather by religious figures who have little awareness of religious text and promote hate and sexism.
Kabulscape: How can media play effective role in safeguarding women’s rights?
Noorjahan: By promoting positive female role models. Our girls have a right to see that they can succeed and that women can be powerful agents of change. While reports on gender-based violence can be effective in raising awareness about the problem, the most important way in which media can empower women is by promoting positive images of women’s participation in society and fighting the stigma associated with strong women working in public.
Kabulscape: Do you think that women’s rights violation is an old phenomena or result of the over three decades of war in Afghanistan?
Noorjahan: Both contribute. We cannot argue that before war Afghanistan was a safe haven for women. Even before war, we had gender-based violence, girls didn’t have access to schools, women were not allowed to work outside, and polygamy was rampant. However war has exasperated violent crime against women and it has increased child marriage and many other problems. The root of misogyny is the same regardless.
Kabulscape: It is said that many female lawmakers are not interested in protecting women’s rights. Do you agree?
Noorjahan: To some degree. I think it is important to realize that female lawmakers are attacked more than male ones. They are observed more closely so they are more careful about what they can and can’t do. They are held to a different standard from male lawmakers. However no one can deny the fact that many of these female lawmakers made it to the parliament because of women’s votes and they have a responsibility to protect women’s rights using their position, but the same goes for all law makers. Women made a high percentage of voters for all of them. They should all realize that women are also their constituents and they must take women’s needs and rights into account. For that to happen we also need to increase accountability and transparency and we need to put real pressure on our lawmakers to stand with us.
Kabulscape: How can female parliamentarians protect women’s rights?
Noorjahan: Voting for a female Supreme Court judge would be a good start. Passing EVAW without changing it is another important thing they can do.
Kabulscape: What will be a good strategy to empower women?
Noorjahan: Investing in women’s education and economic empowerment. These two are of the most important factors for gender equality. When women make their own money or are acknowledged for their unpaid financial contributions at home, they are more likely to be decision makers and more likely to decide the course of their own lives. When women are educated, they are more likely not only to get jobs, but also to stand up for their rights and the rights of other women.
Kabulscape: Do you think that increase in female literacy rate will help to overcome the issue of violence against women?
Noorjahan: Yes. Increase in literacy can make it possible for women to learn about their rights according to the law and demand those rights. It also opens doors for employment, economic empowerment, creating networks of support with other women, and advocating for equality. Illiteracy is the number one obstacle to creating a real grassroots movement of women in Afghanistan.
Kabulscape: In your opinion, what is the best approach to educate women and girls to fight for their rights on social, political and economical front?
Noorjahan: By investing in their education and giving them hope. So much of our news and public discourse focuses on the negative consequences of women’s empowerment (they idea is that if women are empowered, there will be a backlash that will hurt), but it is important to realize and promote the idea that if women are empowered, our entire communities are empowered.
Kabulscape: The tradition of ‘Baad’ or giving away of girls to settle a dispute is a serious hurdle for women to overcome. What would be the best way to fight this obsolete tradition?
Noorjahan: Religious leaders must speak up on this. Baad is not in Islam. It is a tradition that commodifies women’s bodies, opens them up to increased possibility of gender-based violence, and treats women’s bodies as men’s property. To end it religious leaders who have been promoting Baad need to correct themselves and end the mis-education. By the same degree a more fundamental way of ending this and other harmful traditions is by creating a culture of respect for women as full human beings- not sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, things for men- but full human beings. If we respect women as people we are less likely to sell them off or use their bodies to settle disputes.
Kabulscape: Many organizations claim that they are working for women’s rights protection but there is no visible effect of their work on lives of women, especially those living in remote areas. Many women see these organizations as business enterprises to get donations. How Afghan women can convey their grievances to the government in presence of such organizations?
Noorjahan: There are some organizations that are not honest in every sector, but because of the negative propaganda and sexism and attacks on women’s organizations, we only focus on women’s organizations when it comes to corruption. It is true there are some corrupt organizations that claim to work for women, but there are many great organizations as well and their work is unacknowledged, ignored and threatened. Media has been largely responsible for negative perceptions of women’s organizations, but women’s organizations also have to make a bigger effort to create real connections and networks with women in the grassroots level and prove themselves worthy of women’s trust.
Kabulscape: What shall be the approach of Afghan women to pressurize the parliament to approve the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women?
Noorjahan: It is important for the parliament to approve this law. I have campaigned for it. Many people have worked for it tirelessly, but at this point given the increased number of extremists in the Parliament, I think we need to focus our efforts somewhere else. I am afraid that if we bring it to the Parliament again, it will be changed into an anti-woman law with no substance. The signature by the president is enough for its implementation and this president will be here for a couple more years so I don’t think the law is facing threats. We need to focus our effort on implementing it and raising awareness about it to compact negative perceptions created by religious leaders who are anti-woman.
Not all men are rapist, violent or harassers- but nearly all men are silent when they see these atrocities and almost all rapists and harassers are men. This is a harsh reality, but to change it Afghan men have a responsibility to fight for equality and respect for women. A more equal society will serve not only women but all of us as it will allow us to live as full human beings and beyond restrictive gender roles. It will be better for our country as we will all be able to contribute to rebuilding it and it will be better for our children as they will be able to see respectful role models upon which to base their lives. Equality for women is not a threat to men. It is only a threat to sexism and good men must join the effort to making equality a reality.