From the Archives: Access For All - The Future for Afghanistan

This interview first appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 67, No. 1 in the Fall of 2013.

Shaharzad Akbar
October 25, 2018

Shaharzad Akbar's journey to college was not an easy one. When she was eleven, the Taliban regime banned girls from going to school in Afghanistan. As a result, her family moved to Pakistan so she could continue with her studies. In 2002, when she was fifteen, the Back to School Campaign—a joint initiative by the United Nations and the Afghan Government—made her return possible. Later, Akbar would become the first Afghan woman to study at Oxford University and founded Afghanistan 1400, a youth political movement that advocates for reforms and change in the country. In an interview with the Journal, Shaharzad Akbar spoke about the future of Afghanistan, the agenda her organization is pursuing, and the participation of women in this process.[1]

Journal of International AffairsYou have such a compelling background. Can you talk about what it was like growing up in Afghanistan, and how you got interested in peace and security issues?

Shaharzad Akbar: I grew up in different parts of Afghanistan because we kept moving the family. I went to school here for a few years, and then we moved to Pakistan when I was eleven, I think. We moved to Pakistan because the Taliban took over parts of the country and we could not go to school. My parents prioritized our education, so we went there and I studied in an Afghan school in Pakistan for a while. Then my sister and I started teaching English—we started our own English classes for Afghan immigrants. When I was fourteen, I was teaching men who were older than I was. It was a very interesting experience. I realized that there is a lot of interest among Afghans in education and in change. We then moved back to Kabul in 2002, and since then I have permanently been here with my family. However, I went away for my bachelor's degree for three years—1 was a transfer student at Smith College—and then I studied for my master's degree in the UK. I graduated in 2011 and returned to Kabul. I work and live here.

JournalYou were the chairperson of Afghanistan 1400. Can you talk a little bit about the organization, and its mission and priorities?

Akbar: I am a founding member of Afghanistan 1400. I was also the first elected chairperson. A group of us—young Afghans, mainly—kept meeting at national and international meetings, and we seemed to say the same things. We seemed to have the same vision for Afghanistan in five, six, ten years, and we had the same frustrations about the narrative of Afghanistan inside and outside the country. So, we thought, let us sit down and try to figure something out, let us sit down and try to form something of our own. And in Afghanistan, the politics of patronage is strong. Main political parties are currently formed around former jihad leaders. All parties are very ethnocentric—the majority is one ethnic group—and very personality-oriented. It is not solely a vision, or a mission, or a series of values bringing them together; it is more about trying to protect your ethnicity and rallying around one male figure.

JournalWhen it comes to starting a new organization and trying to break with traditional organizations, do you think that there are specific challenges related to being a female political activist, or that it is more a question of the youth versus the old elites?

Akbar: We realized that we have a set of values and a vision for Afghans that is very different from what is seen in the political space. We also realized that the new generation of Afghanistan lacks political platforms to represent them and their values. At the beginning, it was just a series of meetings, discussions, sitting for hours and hours until midnight talking about Afghanistan and our vision for it, and how we could find a way to work together. I must say, for a country that has been through civil war, and some really brutal wars, there is a lot of mistrust. During the initial few months, we were building trust and trying to understand each other, and trying to create a united narrative as the new generation of Afghanistan.

We slowly realized that there are certain values that are important to us: our constitution and the achievements of the past ten years, including women's rights, freedom of expression, and democratic processes. We also realized that we would like to rally around these values and share this similar vision with Afghanistan. We all want an Afghanistan that is not only stable and prosperous, but also democratic. We strive for gender equality and equal access to development. So these issues brought us together. We want to be part of the political space, we want to talk and raise attention about these issues, and eventually, maybe become a political party.

We have 1400 in our name because it is the year 1392 in the Afghan calendar; 1400 will be eight years from now, and also it would be the beginning of a new century for Afghanistan. Our hope is that the new century for Afghanistan will be a different, better century, and that we will be a part of making that happen. Our vision for the movement, of course, is that by 1400—in eight years—it will become a nationwide movement for political reform and change. We are still at the initial phase of our development. Our main event for our launch was focused on Afghan elections.

We see the democratic transfer of power—the political transition—as the most important thing on the national agenda at this point. We have constantly been raising attention, encouraging participation, calling on our political leaders to encourage participation and mobilize voters, and also going out there saying that we are looking at agendas rather than personalities. We are trying to shift that debate from a mere discussion of personality and personal politics to something that is broader than one person: to a team that will encourage the prominent candidates in this election to think about what their vision is for Afghanistan and what they will do about the peace process; to consider what the candidate will prioritize, and how they will face and solve the challenges that will happen in the next few years, because the next few years will be very difficult years.

As international attention to Afghanistan is waning, we must take more responsibility for ourselves. And to take that responsibility, we will need a team that not only has a vision, but also the capacity to implement that vision. So we have been going out and encouraging people to think about these issues as they prepare for elections and for the campaign season, as well as a few other political issues in the country that we have been very persistent in talking about, acting on, and engaging in, including the peace process and our regional and international relations as a country.

JournalYou talked about gender equality and political participation. Afghanistan is a more traditional society that is male-dominated on certain levels. What sorts of challenges have you found in terms of engaging with the old guard, or even the youth, if applicable, on these issues?

Akbar: One of the things we saw that bothered a lot of us is that most of the prominent parties do not have women at the decision-making level. It has been something that has been completely ignored by our politicians. Candidates running for presidential elections and candidates running for parliamentary elections try to stay away from discussing women's issues. Or they touch upon it in a very symbolic way. Without delving deeper, they just say, "We are committed to women's rights," without really trying to get women to vote by appealing to issues that matter to the female constituency.

We think there is huge potential in women voters. There is huge potential for inspiring these voters to vote. It will require our politicians to rethink their agendas for women and women's issues in Afghanistan, and not be in complete isolation from what women experience on a daily basis and the problems that they have in different parts of the country. These problems obviously differ. For women in urban areas, the problems are more about sexual harassment in the workplace, lack of support for working mothers, or lack of more higher education opportunities or scholarships. For women in more rural areas, it is access to health care, security, courts that they can go to in cases of abuse and rape, and access to education for their daughters and themselves.

The issues differ, but there are a lot of issues to be tackled, discussed, and talked about on the national political level. So far, they have not been addressed. So far, politicians do not see women as a very big potential voter bank of their own.  They think, well, we will talk to their husbands and that will get the female vote out. But we think that inspiring women themselves to go out there and vote, to get their identification cards and participate in the political process is very important. We have been trying to raise attention to this in our discussions with prominent politicians in the country and we keep referring to the importance of gender equality and how political participation is an essential component of that. There will be voter registration sites for men and women in all secure areas, and there will be the possibility to vote and to drive that point home with our politicians.

The broader gender equality agenda in Afghanistan is a very challenging, controversial, and difficult topic. The understanding is that Afghanistan is a male dominated society. But that is slowly being challenged. There have been a lot of changes. A lot of our traditions were forcefully changed or broken away during the civil war years. Migration changed people's perspectives about decisions that they wanted to make and the vision that they have for life. But the country is male dominated so we try to look at areas or issues where the majority of people are comfortable and try to push from there. We do this rather than just focus on issues that we think affect only isolated, small sections of the population, which may be controversial and yield little return for a lot of Afghan women.

A positive factor is that the majority of Afghan families have said yes to women's education by sending their daughters to schools where possible. Where there are schools and there are female teachers, families have sent their daughters to school. These girls may go to school until fifth or sixth grade, or they may graduate and go to university. But the fact that they have been sent to school is important, and needs to be recognized and encouraged. Of course, even a few years of education for a woman can make a difference. Where there are female high school graduates who do not have access to free higher education because of lack of capacity, we can work with the Ministry of Higher Education to make a change.

This is another area that we have looked at—reforms in the higher education system. In making higher education more accessible for everyone, particularly for women whose families support education, families have taken the first step by supporting women throughout high school and supporting their decision to go to a higher education institution. It is a true shame if we cannot accommodate that.

In terms of women's political participation and women not being on the map as voters, I talked about how difficult it is that politicians are not considering women's demands and issues. But what is also important is the prominence of female politicians that we have. It has been mixed. When I was growing up in Afghanistan, I did not see female politicians on television or hear them on the radio. We have a history of women's participation in politics pre-civil war, pre-Taliban; but at least for my generation, when I was six or seven, this did not exist.

Now Afghan girls are brought up watching, listening to, and learning about female politicians and female presence in politics. They see women at round tables or discussions talking about national security, foreign relations, and other national issues, and I think that does make a difference. This has inspired people and created new role models. But women politicians—mainly our female members of Parliament—in the past eleven years have not been entirely successful in forming very strong support for the women's agenda inside Parliament. Support for the women's agenda should come from both male and female members of Parliament. So this is an area where we need more practice and need to pay more attention.

JournalThere have been recent reports of violence directed against prominent women or girls who are in office or seeking office, or speaking up. Can you discuss that and its effect on girls who may be interested in the future in running for office or participating politically?

Akbar: The problem of violence against prominent Afghan women has unfortunately been ongoing. I worked for a book project in 2005 as an intern. It was called Women of Courage: Intimate Stories from Afghanistan and was also published in the United States. We talked to prominent women, including police officers, television anchors, and women from different fields—beekeepers, mullahs, and doctors. We wanted to show the diversity of Afghan women who work and are active. Several of the women we interviewed for that book were killed in the years following because of the kind of work they did.

For instance, three very prominent women were killed in Kandahar. One was a police chief, one was a women's rights activist, and one was working as the Head of the Women's Affairs Department. One of the people we talked to in Kabul was a young woman working in TV—a music show anchor—and she was killed. We have had women journalists killed.

Unfortunately, it has a history, I think. Women who do this kind of work are putting their lives at risk. The really unfortunate aspect is that because of the prevalent culture of impunity in this country—because people who have connections can get away with things, and because we do not have a strong legal system—not even one case involving the people who incite violence against such prominent women has been brought to public attention, and no one has been fully punished. This tells women that they are alone in the struggle, that the government will not protect you, that if you are killed tomorrow, nobody will care, and that nobody will be brought to justice.

In a personal capacity, I have been talking and advocating for justice in my meetings with people in the government. You need at least one or two cases brought to justice and denounced publicly so that people know that those who kill women and incite violence against prominent women will not go unpunished, that there is a legal system protecting these women. That has been an ongoing problem, and now people are more tense about it, because with the security transition, people know that things could change for the worse for women. Not only with the security transition, but also with political transition: we are unsure what the next government's agenda is on women, how committed they will be to women's rights, or if they will try to isolate the women's agenda and drop protection. That is a cause for concern, and we don't know whether the level of attention will stay the same or decrease. But it is not a new phenomenon.

JournalLet us discuss how successful the international community has been in generating discussion on gender quotas in terms of elected office, for example, with UN Resolution 1325. Can you talk a bit about the practical effect of those laws?

Akbar: Speaking of the international community's engagement with Afghanistan, we understand and we realize that security commitments will decrease. It means a smaller number of troops, and a possible decrease in aid. We understand that we Afghans need to take responsibility for ourselves and realize that international attention cannot be sustained indefinitely. What we think, however, is that we need a few more years of support to allow the shifts to happen in our political system.

We are asking for just a small number of troops. It will send a message to radical elements that they cannot take over, that there is international support for the Afghan government. We have also asked for the international Women's rights community to keep an eye on the political freedom of Afghans, the political rights of citizens. With political change in Afghanistan, there could be less space for the exercise of political freedoms, less space in which parties can develop and be critical of government. With the decrease in the international community's attention, the women's agenda couldbe considered marginal, and perhaps slowly droppedoff the list altogether.

The international community for the next few years can continue signals to our government on the importance of the women's age rights over the past eleven years are among the most importantwe have had. Women's constitutional rights, legal rights, employment, and education—these are very important achievements and ought to beimproved for women. These achievements should not be compromised. Freedoms need to be sustained and the situation needs to be improved. The international community can send a strong message by promoting initiatives directed at women. Everything helps.

Political and diplomatic pressure is also important. What the internationalcommunity can do is provide support for Afghan women and be advocates in areas that we need: it is not so much about money but about political and diplomatic engagement. Some level of aid must be sustained, though, especially during the peace process and during negotiations with the Taliban, who are strongly against women's rights. We can all do better, a lot can be done better, and it is not just the international community. Afghan women, mainly female advocates, have all made mistakes. We could have been better at choosing our priorities and are working together, and coordinating among different projects. For example, lots ofprojects have been duplicates and have only stayed on the surface without really addressing women’s issues.Only a small pool of women have been affected and each woman has heard the same topic ten times, so unfortunately the circle has not widened. Women's rights issues have been misunderstood and advocates have not been very successful in promoting a better understanding of the concept and how it relates to our culture. But that will be an ongoing battle.

JournalWhen you have half the population that is not working, or is restricted from doing so, that affects the national economy. Can you discuss the economic argument as it applies to women?

Akbar: That is also one of the priorities we have in Afghanistan 1400. We have insisted on it as one of our reasons for promoting gender equality. We want a stable, prosperous Afghanistan. A stable, prosperous Afghanistan is not possible if it disregards women. It is not going to happen unless we change the situation of women in the country by engaging them more and using their potential to improve our economy—that is a discussion that other women advocates have also brought up and talked about.

What I see in Afghanistan now is the overwhelming acceptance of women's education. Employment is not that simple. A lot of families are hesitant about allowing women to work. There are several reasons for that, from the lack of secure workplaces for women—where they can work without fear of sexual harassment or threats, or even security threats—to the fact that there is basically no social governmental support for working mothers to help them take care of their families. And Afghan families are usually big. A woman is expected to take care of her mother- and father-in-law, as well as her children. The balance of this work outside can be very challenging. That keeps a lot of women from seeking employment. 

It has not helped that we have not been able to force government institutions and private institutions to prioritize women's employment, to actively seek out capable women to work in these institutions, to actively invest in capacity-building for women so that they can work in equal positions or better positions than men. That has not been a top priority, so far. I think increasingly, yes, we have more educated women and more women coming out of high school and universities. These women will demand employment. Our politicians need to notice that, take up that demand, push for creating better working environments for women and encourage or create regulations to ensure some percentage of women's employment in each private institution, as well as in government institutions, exists.

Journal:Current media coverage of Afghanistan tends to focus on security-related issues, whether it be troop levels, the political transition, peace talks, or terrorism. As far as more positive gains that you believe women have made over the past few years, is there anything that you would like to leave us with?

Akbar: I think what most people outside of Afghanistan do not realize is that the past ten years have been, in some ways, transformative—a social and cultural transformation in Afghanistan. What do I mean by that? During the civil war and then during the Taliban, a lot of Afghans migrated outside of Afghanistan and they saw how other people—people in our neighboring countries—live, and their aspirations for life. Once they returned to Afghanistan, in most areas of the country where we had security, there were more employment opportunities because of the international aid that was pouring into Afghanistan. There were educational opportunities. The media also played a very big role in exposing people to different ways of thinking about life.

When my parents, or even some of my friends who are between thirty and thirty-five, were growing up, the option for men was to grow up and join one of the warring parties. That was the most honorable path for you, to somehow engage in war. That is not that special anymore in Afghanistan. Young Afghans, both rural and urban, want education and employment; they want to have a dignified life. They want to have protection by law and functioning courts. They want to have a more responsive government and more responsive security forces. These are their aspirations.

There is also huge potential with more than sixty percent of the population being under twenty-five years old. You have huge potential for reconstructing this country and for putting the country on a corrective course. These young people are different from their parents in terms of what they want. They are more exposed to the world. Afghans now are more connected to each other than ever; look at the number of cell phone users—a large percentage of them are women. It is incredible. You look at some data that we have on people's engagement with media, with television shows and radios.

It is just incredible that stories about women's rights, for instance, are something that you will talk about only in Kabul and other big cities. You see families from remote villages coming to Kabul seeking justice for their daughter who has been raped. This was a thing you could not think of in the past. If your daughter was raped, you would kill her. End of story. But you see this illiterate father, with a beard and turban, this traditional Afghan, coming to Kabul, saying, "Look, my daughter was raped. I need these people punished." There has been a shift in thinking. We think that is huge. We think that has great potential.

While that is happening, though, something that has potential can also become a threat—particularly with the new generation. If you do not provide education and employment opportunities for this huge population, crime m increase and there will be a space for brutality by radical elements and the Taliban. If young people are unemployed, uneducated, and frustrated, they are more likely to join the radical groups and they are more likely to join the Taliban. They are more likely to show their opposition to government and vent their frustration with government in a violent manner if they feel marginalized. So our government needs to look at this sixty percent and think deeply about how to involve and engage them in the years to come to change the future for Afghanistan. That is something very important and something that not enough attention is being paid to at the moment.

Another factor in Afghanistan that will influence the future is the fact that there are active efforts to radicalize views. There are groups, not Taliban, but other groups who have branded themselves as social organizations that incite the same message of violence, of sectarian violence, of hatred, and are anti-women. They are very opposed to women's education and work, and they are trying to influence young people in high schools and universities. We need to counteract that, to go to the youth and say: Hate and violence are not the solution. We need to be able to work with each other. Look ten years from now and think about what you want. Do you want to be employed? Do you want to be educated? Do you want your children to have access to education? And if you want these things, joining those groups or thinking like that will not get you there.

The message I hope that we can send from Afghanistan is that this society has been exposed to different things in the past ten years, and part of the credit for that goes to Afghan people, and part goes to the international community. A majority of Afghans want dignified lives with access to education, access to employment, and protection provided by the government. They are not interested in going out and fighting. I think that is definitely a shift.

[1]This interview is a condensed and edited version of the exchange between the Journal and Shaharzad Akbar.