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Empowering Women in Afghanistan: Interview with Anita Haidary

Anita Haidary is an Afghan women's rights activist and co-founder of Young Women for Change (YWC), a non-governmental organization aiming to empower and improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. She is now studying Film Studies at an American college, while continuing to advocate for Afghan women's rights. Global Voices has interviewed Anita about her activism and her views on the role of women in Afghanistan after the 2014 elections.

Anita Haidary. Photo provided by Anita, used with permission.

Global Voices: What inspired you to start Young Women for Change?

Anita Haidary: Every detail in my life, my family, and religion, the classes I took, and the school I went to have made me the person I am, with the values I have. The equality taught by my religion and the experience of seeing this equality practiced in my family made me stronger and nurtured certain values in me. Seeing inequality and insult at school invoked resistance in me, and I have been resisting injustice since the eighth grade. I didn't always know that what I was fighting against was gender inequality. I was rather unwilling to accept something that I thought was wrong. Later this grew into a bigger struggle for the Afghan women.

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

AH: Many people think that you have to be a victim to feel the pain. But I am not campaigning for women's right because I was a victim. Instead, I was always told that I was a strong, capable, and smart person. Teachers in my school used to tell us that we, girls and women, were vulnerable, and I decided to speak up against this view. I continued doing so when seeing harassment against women and our limited role in society. This all has led me to work for women's rights and become a co-founder of the Young Women for Change.

GV: Is it dangerous for you to advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan?

AH: Any attempt at social change and any challenge against the mainstream is dangerous. That’s exactly why this work should be done. It has to start somewhere. On the other hand, I do not agree with statements that activists should be “made of steel” and should be fearless. We are human beings, and it is in our nature to have fear. The important thing is that we continue fighting despite the dangers we come across. I have to remind myself from time to time that as a woman, I have the right to security. Therefore, while the determination to continue the struggle is important, it is also important to be smart in order to survive and be able to keep the struggle alive.

GV: How does YWC help to stop violence and discrimination against women in Afghanistan?

AH: YWC focuses on grassroots work. We ran several school projects that focused on preventing harassment and addressing women's rights issues in general. We also organized demonstrations against honor killings and street harassment, and disseminated posters calling on people to stop these practices. We also write blogs to raise awareness. Besides, YWC organizes open lectures to raise people's awareness about women's rights in Islam and in international law.

GV: How close do you think YWC is to reaching its goal?

AH: We have started. YWC’s goal is to start the conversation about Afghan women’s rights, find solutions to most common issues within our society, and use the forces of society to implement those solutions. I think we have been successful in approaching our goal so far, particularly in recruiting volunteers, generating fruitful discussions, and finding collective solutions that respect the diversity of Afghan society. 

We are currently working to give YWC a formal structure which is important as we are planning to grow and extend our geographic coverage in Afghanistan. We will soon be launching a street harassment report. We will also extend our work with schools and private courses.

GV: What are the main challenges YWC faces?

AH: We are a grassroots movement which depends on volunteers rather than paid employees. Volunteers face many challenges in Afghanistan, and this makes our work challenging too. Financial issues and social problems such as street harassment add up to our problems.

Besides, people know little about our cause and often resist what we do in some areas of Afghanistan. There are strong views against women and men working together in parts of Afghan society. But we include men in YWC's work because we firmly believe that it is important that men learn about women's rights and join our struggle for these rights.

GV: What is your view on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law? [Drafted by civil society, EVAW was enacted by a presidential decree in 2009. The Afghan parliament has recently refused to endorse the law].

AH: I think EVAW law is one of the most important steps that have been taken towards elimination of violence against women in Afghanistan. The law runs against multiple local laws which are not favoring women.

GV: Why do you think the Afghan parliament did not endorse the EVAW?

AH: Political parties in the parliament have their own agendas. They vote against laws that do not serve their goals. Some lawmakers stated they could not approve the law because it “contradicted” Islamic norms. But such statements are questionable because the law has been there and has been partly implemented since 2009. Why wasn't the questions of the law being “un-Islamic” was not raised when the law was made?

GV: How can the EVAW law be improved?

AH: I think the law should incorporate Afghan women's perspective. The government of Afghanistan also needs to remain aware of the international human rights norms when dealing with women's rights.

GV: How do you see the role of women after 2014?

AH: I am concerned about the sustainability [of the gains that have been made] because of the possible deterioration of security. But I think women will remain very active. The lack of security will limit their activism. But at the same time, it will lead women to continue the struggle for their rights. The government should open up even more to women to ensure a greater representation for them, not only at lower levels but also in in major decision-making positions.

GV: There are no women candidates in the 2014 presidential elections. What is your take on this?

AH: I think this is very sad because we did have a female candidate during the previous presidential elections. I think it would be a very positive step if we had women in the presidential race. It would give other women courage to come forward. At the same time, the reality is that our society is dominated by men. People firmly believe that women are incapable of holding high-level governmental posts. Therefore, I cannot comment on whether a woman could really win the elections, but I definitely think that having a female presidential candidate would send a positive image to everyone in Afghanistan and the international community.

GV: As an Afghan women's rights activist, what advice do you have for the young people of Afghanistan?

AH: I would advise them not to give up. It is just the beginning. If we keep fighting, we will get there. The rest of the world also had to struggle through hard times, and this is our time to start. We need to remember what divided our society in the past. We need to embrace and respect our diversity, and build tolerance between men and women, as well as among Afghanistan's different linguistic, religious, and ethnic groups. We are a diverse society and nothing can change this fact. Now it is up to us whether we accept this and learn to live with each other and work together – or we can follow the path that we have long followed and face the grim consequences.

Global Voices also interviewed Noorjahan Akbar, another Afghan women's rights activist and co-founder of Young Women for Change, earlier this year.

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