How One Amazing Afghan Woman Is Making Huge Strides For Equality

Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, a rationale offered was to protect the women who live there from the Taliban, a misogynist, oppressive regime. Military operations were touted as the only way to liberate Afghan women from the Taliban. Fast-forward 15 years and billions of dollars later, it is unclear if the money spent on guns, tanks, and deals with warlords has drastically improved the lives of Afghan women.

Jamila Afghani, an activist for Afghan women, claims this is due to the international community debating what is best for Afghanistan — without actually listening to the Afghan people.

“We have to have our part in the negotiation process," Afghani said. Leaders working on peace deals, she tells us, “need to listen to us and to [hear us] share our experiences,” because women and children are the ones who pay the price when fighting flares.

Afghani, an Islamic scholar and social worker, initially taught literacy in refugee camps. She currently works with Afghan imams, Islamic religious leaders, to incorporate information from the Quran about women’s equality into their sermons. While American rhetoric surrounding Islam often draws a straight line from religion to violence against women, Afghani's work is an essential tool for changing attitudes toward women in Afghan communities.

The work we are doing is challenging the traditional tribal system of our community. It is a risk for status quo, a risk for those who are holding power.

Jamila Afghani
In the program Afghani developed, a preliminary group of 25 local imams has expanded to more than 6,000 religious leaders, all of whom have pledged to preach women’s equality in their mosques. “We are able to go where the government cannot reach," Afghani said. “We go where the international community cannot reach. We, as activists, are frontline soldiers.”

Women have been making strides in civil society, from representation in government and the workforce to education. However, these same gains have occurred simultaneously with rampant corruption, instability, and violence. But even the most horrifying recent events have included historic moments. After a 27-year-old woman was murdered by a mob in Kabul, women broke with Afghan funeral customs to carry her coffin at her funeral, and 15 people were ultimately convicted of crimes related to her death.

Despite what U.S. leaders purport, there is virtually no system in place to ensure that money allocated to help Afghan women is delivered. According to a report from the military last year, U.S. agencies spent more than $68 million on projects for women from 2011 to 2013, but beyond that number, “the full extent of the agencies’ efforts to support Afghan women was unclear.”

Sally Kitch, a professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, believes efforts to help improve life for Afghans that don’t rely on the expertise of existing activist networks will be incomplete.

“One of the things that the U.S. could do that it hasn't, is to get behind organizations that are able to get to places that they can’t go directly,” Kitch said. Her book, Contested Terrain: Reflections with Afghan Women Leaders, follows Afghani's work and Marzia Basel, an Afghan judge. Afghanistan has a long history of women’s activism, and women like Basel taught and organized while the Taliban ruled.

“Now that we’re changing our relationship, this might be a very good time to get behind these very successful programs on women's rights and social justice in general," Kitch added.

A deteriorating security situation, especially for women, has made Afghani’s work more difficult, but she is undeterred by the risks. "The work we are doing is challenging the traditional tribal system of our community,” she said. “It is a risk for status quo, a risk for those who are holding power. Of course our life is in danger; we receive different sorts of threats, letters, phone calls, and warnings — but we have to work. We have to continue.”

That work has paid off, and Afghani said it makes her proud. “They are doing their own training. They are founding their own NGOs, their own writing channels, and their own newspapers," she said, "These are the things that make me hopeful for the future of Afghanistan.”

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