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“Women Can Change Afghanistan”: Interview with Noorjahan Akbar

Noorjahan Akbar, 22, is an Afghan women's rights activist and a prolific blogger. Although she is now studying in the United States, Noorjahan writes about the issues confronting women in Afghanistan for online magazines and blogs. Global Voices Online has recently interviewed Noorjahan.

Global Voices: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Noorjahan Akbar: I was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled my country, I lived with my family in Pakistan. I then came to the United States where I graduated from a high school. Now I study sociology at the Dickinson College [in Carlisle, Pennsylvania]. After the graduation, I am planning to go back to my home country -where I travel every summer – to work on women's issues.

I became engaged in efforts to empower women in 2008, when I did research on women's music in northern Afghanistan. That experience shaped how I think about women. It allowed me to talk to women and listen to their songs and stories. I also worked with a youth group dedicated to social reforms, helping them with organizing protests and other events. In 2011, I co-founded the organization Young Women for Change (YWC) and worked with them until September 2012.

Noorjahan Akbar. Photo by Alex Motiuk, used with permission.

GV: Why did you choose to campaign for women's rights?

NA: As a woman, I have frequently experienced injustice and discrimination, and I am aware of the many ways in which women are treated as second-class citizens and are not being recognized as whole human beings. I believe, however, that women have the power to change Afghanistan and help it move towards becoming a modern and developed nation. And I want to work on empowering women to realize that they have this power, as well as to harness and use this power. I hope that my efforts will help change the way people – both men and women – think about women so that we may be recognized as human beings and our rights as human rights.

GV: Campaigning for women's rights in Afghanistan can be quite dangerous.

NA: Yes, but I believe the cause is worth the risk. We have one life only, and I believe in spending this life on something that will create a lasting change. I also know that threats are not the whole story; there are many people standing behind and beside me and supporting me, even if they are unable to say it out loud at the moment.

GV: What do you think about women's rights in Afghanistan over the last decade? Has there been positive change?

NA: Definitely. There has been a lot of change, particularly in how women view themselves. A major part of the force behind that change is media.

GV: In your view, what does the future hold for Afghan women?

NA: I think Afghan women have many challenges ahead. Our rights are being spoken about mainly for political purposes. Our access to justice is minimal. Our numbers in media and public offices have gone down since 2010. Many of us still do not finish high school, and a majority of us are forced to marry, often at an early age.
However, there are also signs of hope. Women around the country learn about their rights, stand up for themselves, and speak up. Women are taking jobs, graduating from universities, and creating businesses. These women will shape the future of the country. They will not be caged again.

GV: What role do women play in Afghan media?

NA: There are many women working in Afghanistan's media. There are also many newspapers, magazines, and websites dedicated to women's issues. Recently, women's magazine Rastan (Awakening) was created to bridge the gap between different groups of women.
However, the number of women working in media has gone down over the last two years. The reason for that is the lack of protection for women who dare to show their faces on TV or raise their voices on radio. Overall, there is very little protection for journalists in Afghanistan. This is something we need to focus on if we want to move towards real freedom of speech and democracy. There needs to be a stronger movement to hold the government accountable for the protection of those who use media to highlight people's voices and concerns.

GV: You are a blogger, too. Which blogs do you write for?

NA: I have my own blog in Farsi, but I also blog for UN Dispatch, Safe World for Women International, Negah-e-Zan [Woman's Vision, in Farsi], Rahe Madaniyat, Afghanistan Express, and Afghanistan Outlook.

GV: In your opinion, how effective is blogging as an avenue for Afghan women to highlight their plight?

NAVery effective. The number of women who are blogging, reading each other's writings, and sharing them on social media is increasing. This has led to the creation of a dialogue about women's literary powers and women's agency through writing. This is most apparent in the efforts of Afghan Women's Writing Project [AWWP], for example. 

GV: What is your message for the women and men in Afghanistan?

NA: It's time to realize that Afghanistan will not reach its full potential without the participation of all of us in the process of rebuilding it. We need to take the ownership of our country and lead it to becoming an independent and stable nation. Women can contribute tremendously in that process. Preventing women from education, employment, or from exercising other basic rights is not only a violation of their human rights but also a betrayal of the land we all share.

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