News of the horrific and inhumane murder of Farkhunda left many westerners wondering whether Afghanistan, a country with a history of gruesome violence against women, has really changed. The brutal beating and burning of an innocent woman for allegedly having burned a page of the Quran is reminiscent of a society infamous, under Taliban rule, for commodifying, controlling, brutalizing and murdering women for the sake of family honor.
But a recent trip to Afghanistan with Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a 14 year old non-profit organization dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls, painted a different, more positive image of what is happening in Afghanistan right now; one from which even US voters could learn something (given that the Afghan parliament is 27% female, whereas less than 20% of congress is female).
WAW took five of its American donors on a week-long excursion to Afghanistan to see firsthand the work the organization is doing, and to meet with the incredible men and women running the overseas operations, which include family guidance centers, shelters, children’s support centers, halfway houses, transitional houses, and a women’s rights training program. The trip even included meetings with First Lady Rula Ghani, the first three women in the Mazar province to head government agencies, and with female members of parliament.
Among the donors, the consensus was clear, progress is being made towards women’s rights, and the brave women fighting day after day on the frontline for change are championing the battle. They want their rights, and they are standing strong in the face of adversity, hostility, and even life-threatening situations. This inspiring courage can be seen at every level – from the women selling homemade goods at local markets, to women in high-level government positions.
Terry Merkle, one of the WAW donors on the trip, interviewed the first female taxicab driver in Kabul, who, for her own safety, had to be accompanied by both her brother and a friend. According to Ms. Merkle, she regularly receives death threats but absolutely refuses to give up her job, as she believes it is her right to drive the taxicab. “Her position is clearly not accepted within a lot of the community. You could feel the hostility towards her from the body language of a group of young men nearby while we were interviewing her,” recalls Ms. Merkle.
It seems that death threats are an unfortunate side effect of women’s progress, but admirably not a deterrent. The donors met with Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, who survived an assassination attempt in November of 2014 and continues to serve as an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. According to WAW donor Jerri Shaw, Ms. Barakzai is aware that there will probably be other attempts on her life, but that fear will not deter her from doing what she needs to be doing – moving women’s rights as far forward as possible.
In addition to the perseverance of these women, their commanding presence also made quite an impact on the WAW donors. On a trip to Kabul Family Court, one of the donors, an attorney from New York, was particularly impressed with the demeanor of a female judge who is also the director of Kabul province’s family court system. “I was impressed with the seriousness she brought to the matter, and the sense of duty she exuded,” stated the attorney donor, who also pointed out that the fact that there was a female justice alone was encouraging.
Meetings with women and children at the WAW shelters also showed signs of a population with exceptional resilience. Most of the women in the WAW shelters are in hiding from their family, husband or fiancé and are unable to leave the shelters without fear of death or bodily harm. But despite their horrific experiences, they still laugh and manage to remain hopeful. They are even learning reading, writing and English. “These women can do anything – because they are doing everything to recover. These women have PTSD worse than the soldiers, but it does not hold them back,” stated Ms. Shaw, who was moved by the strength of these women.
The attitude and fight for change extends past women. There are a number of men working for WAW. There are mullahs interpreting the Quaran in a compassionate way and calling for women’s rights. And there are fathers who love and value their daughters lives more than “family honor” as evidenced by the father who saved the life of his daughter, who was raped at age five, by bringing her to WAW. According to Ms. Shaw, if he had remained in the village with her she probably would have been the victim of an honor killing. His daughter is thirteen years old now, and is exceling under the care of WAW, which manages to create an environment of complete nurture in a culture where violence can predominate.
Amid the Afghan women and men fighting, some silently, some outspoken, the government has also taken a positive stand. First Lady Rula Ghani has prioritized women’s rights, and her advocacy is helping weaken the traditional boundaries surrounding women. Female members of parliament are also pushing for full implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW) and are advocating for the right to be included in peace negotiations.
There is hope at every level in Afghanistan. And while the culture has yet to embrace the idea that women are equal, there is effective advocacy in place, and slowly but surely progress is being made. There will always be setbacks. And sometimes, as in the case of Farkhunda, the setbacks will temporarily overshadow the progress. But one thing remains very clear: hope is there, and it is reflected in the courageous and determined attitudes of the women and men risking their own safety to continuously stand on the frontline day after day fighting for not only their rights, but for the rights of all Afghan women.
Written by Christina Tsirkas