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Interview with Anita Haidary, co-founder of Young Women for Change

By Maria Stambler, Russia Correspondent for Safe World. February 2013.

"Being too controversial can turn everyone against my ideas because they will simply see them as influenced by the west.. [but] I was outspoken all along."

Young Women for Change is a fairly new non-profit organisation set up by two young women, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, in order to raise the issue of dire gender inequality (such as “honor killings”, child or forced marriages, and physical/psychological violence) in Afghanistan.

This organisation is committed to coming up with peaceful and lasting solutions to the problems faced by Afghan women, which have been compounded by extreme poverty as a result of three decades of war and the government’s incompetence to protect women through meaningful legislation and the reversal of harmful cultural practices.

A previous Safe World interview with Anita, in 2011, explored why and how this courageous and smart young women got involved with promoting women’s rights and her hopes and aspirations for the future of Young Women for Change.

In this follow-up interview, I ask Anita how far YWC has come since the last piece, how recent events in Afghanistan have affected the organization’s work and what new tools the organization hopes to use to make its work reach more people in the future.

How do events such as the poison attack on a girls school pose a challenge for women’s education? How easily can Afghanistan’s women be intimidated by fear?

It is an inhuman act, no county in the world and no religion condones it, but it is done in the name of religion and this is really sad. Women have no role in the decision-making in politics, but when men don’t have another way to win their arguments, they use women’s rights to make it happen.

Women are scared, families are scared, and society is in a state of downfall. This manifests itself all the more clearly and painfully when families stop their daughters from going to school. These are individual decisions, however this hugely affects society. They [the Taliban and other Islamic extremists] have used every way possible to stop Afghan women from obtaining an education. They burned their schools, threw acid in their face, raped them, threatened their families, and are now poisoning them in schools.

We have to face a new threat every day and fight it. Sometimes we are not fully recovered from the trauma of one event when the second one comes along. We are used to it or, better said, there is little choice, so we (Afghan women) have to face it and learn to fight it.

What problem is posed by the more radical or, more often, incorrect interpretations of the Koran by some sections of the Afghan society for the future of women’s rights?

Wrong interpretations of any information or concept cause problems and bring conflict, especially if it is a belief that is directly affecting a group of people in a society. It doesn’t only affect women, but society as whole. In this case it is women’s rights through Islam. It also gives a wrong image of Islam to people who are not Muslim.

“Leaders of Islam” or, in other words, people who communicate to common people about Islam have very limited information about Islam and, in some other cases, even if they have the right information they keep it to themselves and preach what people want to hear, and are used to hearing. It has been interpreted in improper ways before and just because that’s what people are used to and is most acceptable to them it continues in this way. For example, they tell people in mosques “do not send your daughters to school”, while in Islam it says education is important to everyone - male and female.

As for the hejab - it is all about women; but they never talk about the hejab for men. Hejab is mentioned first for men and then for women. This information is given partially to society that doesn’t have access to information and everything depends on what a mullah (leader of the mosque) says. They never talk about the prophet’s life and how his wife Khadija was helpful to him. All these aspects of Islam are unknown to both women and men. In schools the religious books focus on other aspects; women’s involvement in society, according to Islam, is not part of the agenda at all. It is sad that even the educated people follow wrong interpretations of Islam.

The second major problem is the lack of knowledge that has led people to ignore the differences between culture and religion.  Mixing the two is very dangerous. For example, forbidding girls from going to school is a cultural mechanism, but it is given religious reasoning to make it stronger.

The male-dominated society has created rules that they have backed up with religion so as to make it stronger. Let’s look at another example: stoning. Mohammed laid down quite hard conditions for sentencing a woman to stoning. There have to be 4 eyes witness of the adultery happening, but in Afghanistan most of the cases are not even taken to court, let alone finding 4 (reliable) witnesses. Even if one witness is not sure the case of adultery should be dismissed and the witnesses are punished for giving wrong information.

How much hope is there for women who are not permitted to receive an education? How can they be reached through empowering messages if oppressive men monitor and control every aspect of their lives?

I think the media is one way. In Afghan society television and radio are most used because people don’t have much to do during the day. Most of the time they only do the daily work around the house - which is by no means a little amount of work but it doesn’t take up the whole day - so they watch TV.

Currently, the most watched shows are Indian movies and soup operas, but this needs to change. There should be more shows about issues pertaining to women and their rights, because isolating an issue isolates the people that the show is about.

There are some shows about women but they are labeled as women’s shows. Women’s issues should be a part of everything that happens. They shouldn’t be marginalized. Also, shows about women should not enhance cliché ideas that are already in the everyday discussions. For example, religious shows that talk about women show women only as mothers, wives and sisters, but never as individuals with their own identities and potentials. Their identity is always formed around a man. Empowered women need to be part of decision-making and they should be shown as individuals and as a part of the society that is not attached to a man.

You have been quite fortunate in the sense that your family is very supportive of your education. What options do other Afghani girls have whose parents may not be so supportive (either due to religious reasons or because their daughters may come in harms way whilst traveling to school or being at school)?

Yes, I have been fortunate for having my family support what I do. However, in Afghanistan family plays the main part in the decision-making process.

Established norms of society have a major influence on what families might do. Most of the time religion comes way later than the cultural acceptance of an act. Here we can look at the same basic example of girls’ education.

When my father let me decide to study outside the country he had to face our relatives, neighbors and even sometimes his co-workers. I was often asked how I could make the decision to go all the way to the other side of the world to get an education all by myself.

Families who allow their daughters [to study] have to overcome the struggle of having to answer to people around them. Sometimes, the influence is so heavy that families prefer to keep their daughters from going to school rather than having to listen to people’s judgments.

In Afghan society individual values are not appreciated as they are in western countries. Family status and name matters and is considered in every decision that is taken. One way to solve this problem is to build a relationship between parents and children. Most of the time there is no conversation. The father speaks and rest of the family has to listen.

Girls need to learn how to build conversations with their parents and how to engage in productive reasoning with their parents and again, education is the key to everything. They also have to build a trust bridge between their parents and themselves.

How has your education in the West (USA) had an influence on your views about women and the issues facing Afghanistan?

I started seeing things that were wrong with such inequalities between genders when I was in the eighth grade in school. Obviously back then I was not labeling it as “fighting for women’s rights”, I was simply objecting to what I thought was not right. The way my teachers acted and the words they used conflicted with the ideas I had and the way I was brought up. I always questioned it and on several occasions I was even asked to leave the class because I rejected their ideas and dared to ask questions.

When I was in 11th grade I went to the United States through an exchange program for a year. Before going to the United States I knew how to fight the fight by myself and as I grew older in an environment that allowed people to think for themselves I found ways to work with groups. This education also helped me see the problems more clearly and explore ways of fighting them. This happens because one sees more choices - girls in Afghanistan have been in a situation where their rights are denied for so long that it feels like the order of the day and they don’t see it as wrong. Or when they see that something is wrong they are not aware of the options they have to solve it, and it continues from one generation to next, like a vicious cycle.

What are the problems and expectations you face, especially at home in Afghanistan due to this background?

Sometimes my ideas come as too controversial and they think it is because I study in the US, which is not true. I am probably noticed more but I was outspoken all along. I am watched most of the time. I have to be careful about what I say. This doesn’t mean I don’t speak my mind but I have to think more carefully about how I do it.

Offending elders and disrespecting people in society can create problems for me. My voice needs to exist indefinitely in order to bring change and being too controversial can turn everyone against my ideas because they will simply see them as influenced by the west. I have learned to manage it; it’s been a good experience.

Having people who encourage me and support me to work really gives me hope and energy to work more.

How difficult is it for you to balance your time between pursuing an education in the USA and devoting efforts to YWC?

It can be stressful at times. Sometimes, I have no time for my personal life. I study or I am doing things for YWC.

At the beginning it was harder but now I am learning to balance things out. Also we have members who help us manage things, which is a great deal of work off my shoulders.

What are Americans’ views, if this can be generalized at all, about Afghan women? What are the problems they have faced while studying in Afghanistan, as Afghan women? How do you counter all of that?

There are some interpretations that are wrong about Afghan women but there are some that are right. The wrong ones are about the burqa as a sign of oppression. Interpreting women’s rights is controversial. Women’s rights in the United States and Afghanistan are same in definition but the process is different. There are cultural boundaries that are not included while thinking or talking about women’s rights in Afghanistan. There are a lot of problems they face while studying in Afghanistan. Every step they take poses a problem. The moment they step out of their house they face problems, and then there are security problems. Transportation problems. Public transportation is insecure and most of the time not safe.

Since the last interviews with YWC members, what progress has been made?

A lot of things have happened. We have new members and we have taken on more projects. We are thinking of launching a women’s business. We have had more screenings and school projects.

How do you run YWC? How is it run, how many active members are there? Have any studied in the West, like you have?

YWC is member oriented. It is not the work of a single person. All members work a lot, especially when I am not in Afghanistan. We hold our meetings over Skype, there is a time difference so I have to stay awake until 2-3 in the morning to talk to YWC members in Kabul. It is manageable, though.

All groundwork is done by our members. We have team leaders and they have their own teams and they organize events. Once all the organization is done all the members take an equal part in the project. We have over 25 members now and we are recruiting more. The rest are supporters, which means that they come to our events and campaigns, but they don’t come to regular meetings. I am studying in the States, whereas our members have all studied in Afghanistan.

 It seems that YWC operates mainly in the bigger cities of Afghanistan, where it is easier for women to get an education than in the more rural areas of the country. What can be done to reach the women that are the most deprived and need education the most, the women of the rural communities?

Although it may seem as though their lives are easier, it’s not quite the case. Even in the capital Kabul they face many problems, starting from the streets and their families, and ending in big governmental offices. Currently, two women who are trained in the US for the Afghan air force are ignored by and are lost under the bureaucratic system.

Women are not taken seriously even in the government. Women are harassed in governmental offices and in open markets mostly in Kabul.

Does the nature of YWC’s work not put the volunteers’ lives and wellbeing in jeopardy?

It is risky work and every member knows that, but we are all in this together. This has to happen and we need this movement. Every person involved in this movement thinks this movement should exist.

We are in danger if we are involved and if we are not. If we are involved we are still stopped from going to school- from being part of the society - in simple words, we are not allowed to live so whether or not we fight it, we will be in danger either way.

It is better to fight for what we don’t have rather than stay quiet for the bad deal we’ve already got.

As one of your first main operations, you have conducted a survey on street harassment that has come out with some disturbing findings and now you are conducting a large-scale study of sexual harassment in Afghanistan. Could you please tell us how that is progressing? How willing are women to talk to strangers and speak out about their experiences?

It is hard but there are a lot of women who want to talk about how to solve this problem. We managed to interview almost 5,000 people from different places - streets, schools, and colleges.

The people who did the research were our female members so it made it easier for them to talk to the women. We also had voice recordings of women and people who can’t write or don’t have time to write. We recorded their voices. The research is complete, the data is stored and we are working on the report now. The report should come out by the end of February 2013.

In the West, social media has been a very useful tool for raising awareness about many social issues and bringing about real change. How effective do you think social media is as a tool for women in Afghanistan (i.e. what percentage of the population is connected to such websites, are women allowed computer access, do they have the necessary skills to use social media’s and Internet’s full potential, how serious is the problem of e-harassment against women?)

In Afghanistan the younger generation is very involved with social media, however access and levels of involvement are different for women.  They have very limited access.

Women who work or take computer or Internet classes have access to the Internet. Some use Internet on their cell phones. Internet is very expensive in Afghanistan so they can’t afford to have Internet at home.

Outside the house there are Internet cafés but it is hard for women to go to them because they get harassed there. We have established an all female Internet café. It is the only space for women to use the Internet without harassment. Also families don’t allow their daughters to go to mixed Internet cafes.

Our member Toba Ahmad Yar teaches computer and Internet classes. Most women don’t know the basics of using computers, so it helps them with both.

A USAID project, Afghanistan’s Media Development Project (AMDP), has founded a centre that teaches multi-media and social media. They have centres for women and men. Centres like these help women connect to the world and have a louder voice, as well as gaining access to information that normally they don’t have.

Your main tools for raising awareness are things like Facebook and informative leaflets/pamphlets. This can be highly effective for educated urban Afghanis and international observers, but how effective is that for women who are illiterate and for sections of society that are on the less favorable end of the massive digital divide?

Yes, this very true. This is why we have documentaries and lectures that are both for people who can read, and those who can’t.

We have screenings of different movies, and sister sessions that are mostly discussion-orientated.  We also have posters that have pictures in them that explain things. We hold discussions with groups of women who are not educated.

Apart from teaching women how to read and write, how would you value basic IT education for women?

I think it is very important for women to have access to IT. Having these skills is very important. Nowadays, most of the world’s information and news are on the Internet.

For women to be successful and have access to information they need to know how to work with computers.

The Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro in the summer - how do you think educating more and more women in Afghanistan (and worldwide) effect environmental preservation?

Women are part of the society, and better education for them will help society in general.

When mothers know about the environment and the problems it is facing, and when women are teachers, they can easily educate the other members of society around them.