Why Afghanistan Needs Women Like Shaharzad Akbar

When U.S. news outlets run stories about women in Afghanistan, they often focus on how dangerous the country is. Fourteen years after America invaded — partly to liberate women and girls from the oppressive regime of the Taliban, which barred them from education, freedom of movement, and personal autonomy — women and girls still face many challenges. Shaharzad Akbar is dedicated to improving life in Afghanistan for everyone, and especially women. Akbar, 27, is currently the head of Open Society Afghanistan and is a co-founder of Afghanistan 1400, a group dedicated to bringing young Afghans into the political process. Akbar’s family fled the country when the Taliban rose to power, returning not long after the 2001 invasion. After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, she became the first Afghan woman to get a master’s degree at Oxford, in 2011. Refinery29 sat down with Akbar at the Open Society offices in Manhattan to talk about her work, women in Afghanistan, and “global sisterhood.” What’s a memory you have of growing up in Afghanistan that feels really special to you?
When I was 10 or 11, we lived in a very old house in Mazar-e-Sharif in North Afghanistan, which had a very beautiful garden. I have memories of days sitting in the garden and reading. My feet would be in the pool, and it was so quiet and so peaceful. I would read lots of literature. Another memory I have is, again, from North Afghanistan. We lived in Sheberghan, and summer can get intolerably hot. I remember that as the hottest hours passed and we were closer to the evening, my father and I would listen to classical music. Afghanistan has a very rich tradition of music, particularly traditional, folklore music. So we’d listen to folklore or classical music and read poetry. I think those evenings really taught me to be proud of my heritage, and to not look at Afghanistan and think 'we are poor and war-shattered and crazy', but to think we are a country that has an interesting past. We have a lot in our culture that we can be proud of, and we have a lot as a nation that brings us together, be it music, poetry or literature. How did you end up studying in the U.S. and at Oxford?
I was very, very fortunate to have parents who invested in my education at all times, regardless of what was happening in the country. We were migrants, we are at war, there are bullets flying outside. My parents say, ‘Education is a priority, you can never miss your homework, you can never miss your studies. You have to keep reading, you have to keep learning.’ I think their vision made a huge difference in my life. But also a kind of luck, really — meeting the right people who were supportive, who saw something in me that I couldn't see in myself at that time… I thought, ‘Studying in the U.S., I will definitely fail and not make it past the first semester. I have studied in Afghanistan; how can I compete with American students who have had years of preparation for their colleges?’ So mentors and people who believed in me and were like, ‘No, you can do it, just go and try.’
What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about Afghanistan?
I do see people outside of Afghanistan, not just Americans, who think Afghans have a universal problem with women’s education. I think that’s a very important shift to acknowledge and the credit goes to Afghan people. I think acceptance for primary education of girls is almost universal in Afghanistan. People are investing in their daughters’ education. People are sending their daughters to private university, something that you couldn’t imagine 30 years ago — that an Afghan would spend money to send their daughter for higher education! These are not always educated families. These are some of the families where both parents are illiterate, but they have realised how important education can be to a woman and how that can enable her to bring education to the family, so that plays a part. Tell us about what you’re working on right now.
I’m the country director of Open Society Afghanistan, and the sectors that we focus on currently are women’s-rights issues, rule of law, good governance — on which we specifically focus on peace and reconciliation, and helping civil-society institutions in transition, as well as media. In addition to my work with Open Society Afghanistan, I’m also a member of Afghanistan 1400, which is a youth-led political movement. It’s basically a collective effort to mobilise youth around democratic values and an idea of Afghanistan as a united country.

What makes you want to stay, even though there is this constant concern about prospects for long-term stability?

Afghanistan is my home, and I believe it has a lot of potential. Because of all the hardship that we have been in, I believe that the majority of Afghans really understand the value of peace. [They] really understand the value of democracy; democracy in the sense of being able to choose who governs you; democracy in the sense of transferring power from one person to the other without violence, peacefully. I do think that, unfortunately, there will be continued violence. I’m a really optimistic human being, but I also understand that violence will not go away very soon because the roots of violence are very, very deep in my society. My society has been traumatised; there is poverty, there is misunderstanding. But I believe in working as long as there are people who care for Afghanistan in Afghanistan. There are people who think beyond the survival of themselves and their families; and there are many, many people like that who I engage with on a daily basis, and they continue to inspire me.
In terms of your work, how successful have you been in fighting for gender equality? What have some of the challenges been?
I’m sure you hear a lot in the media about the challenges, from harassment to lack of social tolerance for women’s activism outside the house. What has been promising is that in the past 14 years, we had a wave of young women who are the first in their families, and sometimes their communities, to have access to higher education, to have jobs, to be breadwinners. This is a small group, but the social impact is really great. They are the pioneers, and they are changing people’s conceptualisation of gender norms. For instance, in my own family, I have several cousins who are studying in Kabul. My province is in Northwest Afghanistan. They have been the first people in their families to graduate from high school. Their mothers are illiterate. Not only that, they’re also the first generation to travel to another city and live independently for education or work. If there is continued political stability, I think Afghan women are not ready to go back. They want to continue their strides, and that’s where I see the promise and the potential.

One of the projects you are working on right now is Afghanistan 1400. What is that, and why is it so important?

Afghanistan is a youth-majority population. However, youth have very little voice in the political decision-making. They are seen as foot soldiers for the big political ideas of the older generation, or just as absolutely irrelevant to the political discussion and political power. We are a group of young people particularly invested in the idea of democracy in Afghanistan. We thought, let’s try to create a platform. So we got together around the idea of creating a political platform that is not shaped by the civil war in Afghanistan, not shaped by what went wrong, but focused on what can go right in the future. We had a lot of focus on the future, which is why we picked 1400. In eight years, it is the beginning of the new century for Afghanistan. We also have a common set of democratic values, we believe in gender equality, we believe in diversity and creating that space for diversity. It has been very chaotic and probably much more complicated than we thought, but the important issue is that we have kept with it.
How did Afghanistan 1400 start?
We had the initial conversations around September 2011, and we declared ourselves in December 2012, so it’s very, very young. We have a range of people, in terms of education and exposure. We do have people who have been exposed to and influenced outside of Afghanistan, and we do have people who have never been exposed to these experiences. What we have in common is that we are the postwar generation; the people among us started being politically and socially engaged in post-2001 Afghanistan. We have reached out to young people in less urban contexts and we have outreach there, we have interest from there. We are most mobilised in Kabul so far, so we have a long way to go in terms of expanding our reach. How do you think the generational shift you are trying to bring about can help women in Afghanistan?
I think Afghan women had very few representatives in the post-2002 Afghanistan. A big majority of Afghan women from different parts of the country couldn’t speak for themselves. They needed these translators, a smaller group of Afghan women who speak on their behalf to the world, that small circle of representatives is widening, and more people from different parts of the country have the education now to speak. However, the younger generation of activists do not carry the same weight as the older generation, and so there will be a balancing act that needs to happen to ensure that we're getting more young voices but also more diverse voices on issues of women’s rights in Afghanistan. I’m not saying that these people are not representing them well or shouldn’t be, but I think we need to see more diversity. We all have our limitations in terms of the groups of people we engage with and the time that we have to engage with people. Once we widen the circle, we can get a much more complex and comprehensive picture of Afghan women’s needs in different parts of the country, and different ethnic groups’ and different communities’ varying needs.
What can people do to get involved or help others in Afghanistan?
Americans have an election coming up. I think America is very powerful force in the world. Its policy decisions have implications for people around the world. When Americans make the decision about who to elect, I think they should closely look at their foreign policy. Are these leaders the kind likely to engage wisely with the issue of America’s power in the world? Seek out organiations that work in Afghanistan and support them. If you can host a student, if you can contribute to a scholarship fund, if you can contribute to a think tank that’s doing some work in Afghanistan, please do. What advice would you give to young women?
One thing that I believe in is that this century can be the century of women, globally. So much has happened. So much more needs to happen, but so much has happened, and women who have the possibility to go to school, also have the responsibility. They also have the responsibility to do something, no matter how small, for women who can’t do that. I really believe in global sisterhood. We need to remember every day that some of the things that we are doing, we are not just doing them for ourselves, we are also doing them for women around the world. Some of our success is beyond just personal successes. One thing that has really worked for me has been nurturing a network of support, meaning always looking out for mentors and always looking out for young women that I could help; [nurturing] both ends — receiving and giving. I have learned so much from my mentors that you cannot find in a textbook. So cultivating woman-to-woman friendships, looking out actively for women, is very, very important.

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