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Noorjahan-Akbar2Noorjahan Akbar

Interview with Noorjahan Akbar

By Clara Boxall, Safeworld Director and News Coordinator.

In June 2011, Afghan women hit the international headlines by taking part in global street protests against harassment.

In deeply conservative Afghanistan, where women still suffer from violence and restrictions almost a decade after the Taliban regime was ousted, this was a first.{div class:updates}{/div}

The public walk was organised by Young Women for Change, a non-profit organisation recently set up by two young activists, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, to engage youth in the fight for gender equality in Afghanistan.

Millions of Afghan women are subjected to ‘honour’ killings, child or forced marriages, violence and abuse. A UN report blames insecurity and poverty caused by three decades of war, but it also says that the Afghan government is not making efforts to protect women’s rights. 

In August 2009, Afghanistan enacted the Law of Elimination of Violence Against Women which criminalises many harmful practices against women, but there is a lack of adequate enforcement of the law. Rather than implementing the law, law enforcement and the judiciary are reinforcing harmful traditional practices.

But behind this backdrop of uncertainty for women, a new generation of young Afghan women are rising to demand change, not willing to compromise with harmful cultural practices and disappointed with the ineffective law enforcement and judicial system.

Clara Boxall asked Noorjahan about her work in Afghanistan.

INTERVIEW

Please start by telling us about yourself.

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2I am nineteen years old and a student in English literature and music at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. My family is very supportive of my education as well as my activism work in Afghanistan. Given the restrictions that exist for many women in Afghanistan, I would not have been able to go to school if I did not have the support of my parents.  

Generally how do Afghan parents and people feel about girls receiving an education?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2It is unfair to make broad generalisations about how Afghan parents feel about their daughters’ education. There are parents who believe that their daughters should be educated but there are also those who do not allow their daughters to go to school. Decisions are usually influenced by economics, culture and social restrictions, the plans and expectations they have for their daughters and how much freedom they accord to their daughters.

However the majority of Afghans are not ready for women to engage in the society freely, especially when they reach puberty. Lack of security, employment and educational opportunities for women, lack of schools and female teachers, and the harassment of women in public, are just some of the reasons in the low number of girls finishing high school in Afghanistan.

Other reasons are that the majority of Afghan people are still not ready for women to appear in public. This does not mean that women should not leave their homes but there will be backlashes and I believe that they should fight against this cultural mindset.

Is it more widely accepted now for young women in your community to pursue an education?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2In Kabul, yes. There are more women going to schools and universities and it is more accepted by the community. However, Kabul does not represent all the women and girls of Afghanistan and the majority in the country still do not go to schools or finish high schools.

Women do not have equal access to education because of a lack of high schools for women in most villages in rural Afghanistan. There is a lack of female teachers, safe transportation and roads in some areas, thus making travel difficult.  There is also little interest to invest, maintain and protect women’s schools and support female teachers. Many young women face family objections in finishing high school or choosing a career in teaching, basically they are discouraged from pursuing an education.

What improvements could be made to help facilitate young women pursue an education?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2Firstly, there is a need for a national plan to increase the number of female teachers and a recruitment and incentive programme to employ more female teachers in villages, and also a need in providing schools for girls. The majority of schools for girls located in villages stop at the 6th or 9th grade, and the average number of years a girl attends school is four to six years in Afghanistan.

Everywhere around the country, safe transportation should be provided for girls who muster the courage to leave their homes daily to attend schools, despite the risks of getting acid thrown on their faces.

These girls are most vulnerable and in need of protection against street harassment, kidnapping and physical assault whilst travelling on their own, but they are not given that. There has been very little effort made by the Afghan government in providing safe school buildings in rural areas, the recruitment of teachers, and providing safety to students and teachers alike.

What do you hope to achieve through your education? And do you see yourself working in a capacity to help other young women pursue a better quality of life?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2My education at public schools in Pakistan, the International School of Kabul, George School, and finally at Dickinson College in the US enables me to think critically and desiring a safer, and just world for myself and half of the people on this earth, women.

Given the life-changing effect education has on my life, I dream of living a life dedicated to promoting and providing education to women in Afghanistan. I want to invest my time in Afghanistan in starting a movement that encourages education, empowering young women through education and employment. I believe that for women to be treated equally in Afghanistan, they need to be educated and informed first and foremost, so that they are equipped with knowledge in seeking for equality, their personal human rights and improving dignity.

Tell us about Young Women for Change.

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2Young Women for Change was founded in April 2011 by myself and a friend, Anita Haidary. It is a non-profit organisation and currently there are around 25 young women members, and we hope to eventually form a grassroots women’s movement in Afghanistan.

We founded the organisation because we felt there was a lack of effort to engage youth in the fight for gender equality in Afghanistan. Our ambition is to create a group of volunteer Afghans who will reach out to women and girls from all walks of life, from students in schools and universities, in villages and cities, women and girls working in farms in rural areas, and empower them to speak for themselves by providing them with support through advocacy work. Reaching out, listening and helping ordinary women and girls is essential and forgotten yet necessary in order for Afghans to start women’s grassroots that will genuinely help pursue gender equality.

What kind of events and activities have Young Women for Change done so far to raise awareness on the plight of women in Afghanistan?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2So far we have held a conference to bring together university students and young Afghan women to help identify problems and areas they would like Young Women for Change to focus our efforts on.

Recently on July 14th, we organised a public walk, campaigning against street harassment in Kabul. The protest walk started from Kabul University to the offices of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan. We held signs and pamphlets and flyers on street harassment were distributed. We were interviewed by the media and spoke to local men and women about street harassment. The protest walk was attended by fifty male and female youths and over fifteen Afghan and international media representatives.

We also hold monthly lectures on women’s rights based according to Islam and the Afghan law and on July 28th, we held a talk on women in Muslim societies. We are currently designing a research on street harassment which we plan to implement in September. We also provide information and training to women seeking employment, and make recommendations on organisations to approach. Some of these organisations we have recommended not only provide jobs but also training on writing, communication and public speaking.

How much influence does Islam have in determining the status of women in Afghanistan?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2In Afghanistan, Islam is mixed with the Afghan culture and this culture includes traditions that violate the rights of women and children. For example, the religion forbids a marriage without the woman’s consent, but the culture permits it.

Around seventy-five per cent of marriages in Afghanistan are either forced or child marriages. Islam allows women to vote but the majority of Afghan women are not given ‘permission’ to leave their homes to vote, according to cultural beliefs. Culturally women are also denied their rights to worship in mosques, and this is in opposition to Islamic law. The reason for this is that the religion has always been interpreted by men in Afghanistan.

Women are forbidden to preach, but this is also because the vast majority of women are illiterate and cannot understand the Q'ran. Therefore any interpretation done is by men only and in this way, men have taken advantage to guarantee their dominance within the society. This will change when women start taking part in interpreting the religion and learning about feminism and women’s rights through Islam.

Would you say that women were treated worse during the Taliban regime?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2During the Taliban rule women were treated less humanely. Now, there are opportunities to seek employment, receive an education, etc.

Many things have improved for women since the fall of the Taliban, however this progress is mainly limited to the urban areas and this progress could be threatened again. At the moment negotiations are being made with the Taliban and some freedoms have already been taken away from women, and this could further compromise women’s rights and the freedom that we deserve.

Recently a report was released by TrustLaw which found that Afghanistan is the most dangerous place for women to live in. Do you agree with the report?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2Yes I do agree with the report. 

Ninety per cent of Afghan women face domestic violence. Only one in ten Afghan girls finishes high school and I have also written an article on this in Aljazeera English. Maternal mortality is high, a lack of judicial and legal support for abused women and recent regulations on women shelters make it even harder for women to seek help and protection. Street harassment against women has increased and also sexual crimes of children and women. There is little hope for victims in seeking and receiving justice.

And worse of all, for the small number of women and men who do seek justice and activists advocating women’s rights or helping to build schools for girls, are being denied any protection.

About a month ago the daughter of a principle of a girl’s school in Kandahar was kidnapped. The father was attacked twice and warned against keeping the school open and he has very little resources to protect himself against the threat. Also several women’s rights activists have been murdered and there has been no justice for their cases. Ama Safia Jan and Nadia Anjuman are amongst those murdered.

Currently there are only nine women members in the High Peace Council and women are given very little voice and representation in the peace process because our fates are being decided by men, who have destroyed this country and violated our rights for decades.

Things are getting worse for women now as negotiations with the Taliban increases and the transition process begins.

Lets talk about street harassment. How rampant is the problem?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2We did a survey on twenty women on street harassment in April. 

Ninety per cent of the women interviewed expressed that they face street harassment on a daily basis.  Forty per cent said they had experienced at least one incident of sexual assault in public. Eighteen out of the twenty interviewed said that they do not feel safe in Afghanistan due to street harassment and security concerns. The remaining two said that street harassment made them feel uncomfortable but they did not think the harassers had any intention or the power to hurt them or make them feel vulnerable.

The majority of the women said that there was very little communication about street harassment in their own families.  Forty per cent said that they would be blamed for street harassment if they talked about it to their families. Twenty per cent said they never thought of sharing stories of harassment with their families. Only two of the women said they had gone to the police in cases of sexual assault but none of the women had gone to police for verbal abuse.

Seventy per cent of the women said that they felt the police were not helpful.  Fifty per cent said that the police engaged in harassment themselves. Eighty per cent of the interviewees said they thought that all women who leave their homes are subjected to street harassment after puberty and men of all ages partake in harassment and assault.

Twenty per cent of women said they were “assertive” against street harassment and “talked back.” The remaining sixty per cent said they faced daily harassment but remained silent and tried to ignore harassment. This research makes it clear that street harassment of women is a problem in Kabul. The majority of women do not feel safe leaving their homes and face daily harassment from men of all ages and backgrounds. The research also shows that the manner of clothing of women has little, if any, correlation to the amount of street harassment they face but victim-blaming is a common approach towards street harassment.

Although twenty women cannot represent the female residents of Kabul but this research can be an initial step towards a city-wide research on street harassment. The majority of the interviewed women said that they thought all women who exit their houses face daily harassment. This statement is significant because it calls for a bigger survey to examine this claim and seek more accurate data on the matter. However from this small research we can conclude that street harassment is an issue.

What did you hope to achieve through the protest walk against street harassment? How do the local authorities feel towards street harassment?  

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2We hoped that our walk would spark a debate on the often neglected issue of street harassment, and that was exactly what it did.

The Afghan and international media covered our walk. There were several round table discussions on the issue of street harassment and one of the local television stations dedicated its Friday sermon in discussing street harassment - but blaming women for it. Our protest walk has grabbed the attention of people in Afghanistan and around the world, and local Afghans are starting to recognise street harassment as a problem.

It is generally quite hard to asses the police’s attitudes towards street harassment. Women rarely go to the police for help on street harassment and sometimes the police themselves are the harassers, but during our protest walk the policemen were very helpful. They walked with us, helped in distributing flyers and even talked to passers by about the objectives of our walk.

What is the Afghan government’s attitude towards discrimination and violence against women?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2The Afghan government does not have a stable policy towards women’s rights and human rights. The president has rarely addressed issues relating to crimes against women and the negotiations with the Taliban have also led to certain compromises that influence women’s rights.

For example, a wedding law is being discussed with the Taliban in the negotiations and it restricts women’s clothing. The Regulations on Shelters law gives the government the right to oversee women’s shelters and making decisions on who can or cannot come to the shelters. Women’s rights advocates are not provided with support in the country, like Fawzia Olomi, Head of the Directory of Women’s Affairs in Helmand. She has been attacked twice. Dozens of women’s rights advocates have been murdered since 2001 and their cases have not been followed-up with proper investigations and the murderers have not been charged and prosecuted.

The Afghan government is unwilling to address women’s rights. On more than one occasion, the government has passed laws to restrict women and The Shi'ite Personal Status Law is an example. If it was not for the sake of civil society, we would not have made any progress.

Is there a national legislation to protect women? And is it being enforced?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2The 2009 law on violence against women criminalises perpetrators involved in the assault and insult of women. But the majority of the police, security forces and the courts do not implement this law or consider it legitimate. This is because they do not want to and there are also very few women in the police force and in the ministry of justice. And there is no law addressing street harassment. The Afghan government can protect women through establishing better laws. The family law in Afghanistan has improved but not enough. It is still virtually impossible for a woman to ask for a divorce and it does not give women full custody rights to children, etc.

The bigger problem is implementation. The laws that do protect women are not widely implemented and part of the reason for this is due to the small number of women in the judicial system. The government can train and employ more female prosecutors, lawyers and judges.There needs to be more awareness and empowerment of women that would allow them to go to the courts and police stations for help. This can be done through the media and community to community awareness campaigns, of which we do not have enough. Harassment of women in public, in governmental offices and educational institutions must decrease in order to allow women to participate in the society so employment for women should also increase.

Advocates for women’s rights and progressives who work on improving women’s situation must also be given protection because we cannot afford to lose more of them. There is more on what the government can do for women but I will leave it at that.

What is Young Women for Change doing in raising awareness on the harassment faced by women?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2We use social media like Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness against street harassment. We have a FaceBook page dedicated to stories of harassment. We produce TV and radio advertisements about street harassment and currently we are also working on a documentary on street harassment faced by women in Kabul.

We also distribute flyers and announcements against street harassment every month and arrange public lectures on women in the society, using Islam and the law to prove that street harassment is not related to women’s clothing, and is rather a backlash against women’s participation in the society and it needs to stop.

What do you hope to achieve through your work with Young Women for Change?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2In the long run, we hope that Young Women for Change will be able to provide as many Afghan women as possible with necessary support to speak for themselves. We provide legal consultancy to women who are in need and seeking justice and employment. Right now, we want to advocate on behalf of the women we meet from around the country and be their voices to keep women’s issues on the table while the government is focusing on negotiations with the Taliban.

In the next six months, we also want to focus our efforts on the street harassment of women and using the media, lectures and documentaries as means of raising awareness against this social disease. We hope that through our advocacy, street harassment will be recognised as a problem by our communities and perpetrators will be held accountable.

What can the international communities do to help raise awareness on the plight of Afghan women?

Noor-Jahan-Akbar2Advocacy. The majority of the Afghan women I meet these days are afraid that their fight for equality is abandoned by their former international allies. Advocacy on behalf of Afghan women and the importance of securing our political and social rights will not only provide Afghan women with support, but will also pressure the Afghan government to prioritise women’s rights and to focus on women’s issues while having negotiations with criminals and the Taliban.

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Follow Noorjahan on Twitter: @noorakbar