Sunday, May 11, 2014

What went wrong?

When it comes to women's rights in Afghanistan, almost everyone has a viewpoint. One says, its all about NGOs, and getting money through donor projects, another says, women's rights is a political tool of the international community to continue engaging in Afghanistan. For someone, its just an empty slogan, for another its hatred for women's activists who haven't been able to change anything in their own lives so how can they change the lives of other women and the labels would never end when you start the discussion on women's rights in Afghanistan. 

Many of the critiques dismiss women's rights as a non existing phenomenon in Afghanistan and consider women's Islamic rights the only rights of a woman, even when the men and women of this country hardly know anything of those Islamic rights, but are the strict guardians of the term. Critiques also object women's rights because they think that women's activists don't believe in women's rights themselves, and they violate women's rights whenever they could, so do what you preach, according to many of them. 

I guess all of this criticism has a lot of water into it - and much of it is genuine but incomplete and one sided. If you challenge women's rights as an NGO project, the NGOs come forward claiming that they can't find volunteers so without salaries who would work. They also rightly claim that if there are no resources, how can they mobilize and support any other woman. Even from one side of Kabul to commute to other side, you need to have a car, a mobile phone etc to ensure communication and the financial abilities of women is limited so they need external funds to do anything small for women and for that they need projects and they need to approach the international donors because who has ever seen a women's rights project funded by the government in Afghanistan?

Friday, May 3, 2013

My Afghanistan Story ( The Hill)

After 20 hours flying from Kabul airport, I finally arrived in New York to attend the Afghanistan Panels at the Commission on the Status of Women at the U.N., inaugurate a photo exhibition of Afghan women at the Congress, and launch the Resolution to Act which is ensuring that Afghan women are at the table during talks with the Taliban. While coming to the United States, during the flight from Dubai to JFK, I was preparing my talking points and presentation on the situation of Afghan women, and kept comparing our lives with the situation 12 years ago, and only one statement kept echoing in my head that we’ve come a long way.

For me the progress that is made in Afghanistan is beyond President Karzai or any other individual in the government. This progress is about our own lives. Our struggles to change our own lives from complete isolation to getting on to the world stage, and that in 11 years, has been realized to some degree. This progress is about the female MPs that lobby politics inside the patriarchal parliament of Afghanistan. Its about thousands and millions of young little girls with their head to toe black uniform and the white scarf that distinguish them from the crowd on the streets. This progress is about thousands of female doctors who are now treating their patients with electronic medical aid and can prevent pregnant mothers from dying. This progress is about thousands of female nurses who were not even allowed to enter hospitals 12 years ago and this progress is also about thousands of young Afghan men and women who are journalists, day and night reporting on national and international interests to Afghans through over 50 television channels, hundreds of radio stations and hundreds of newspapers.

Every morning I go to my office in Kabul and work to bring women to the forefront of the country’s reconciliation process. I help women at risk to get immediate support and protection. But its not only my own colleagues that give me the hope to continue. Its all those young men and women that I see in my neighborhood holding their laptop bags, many other young Afghans holding books and running to catch their school buses. I see female teachers holding the hands of the little children and cheering the traffic police who stop the cars so that they all can cross the road and get to their schools. I see the minibus dropping the female air-hostesses that host thousands of travelers to and from Kabul airport coming back to their homes. I see the female journalist who comes to our neighborhood to cover the weekend artwork exhibition by the women handicraft workers.

This is the story that I wanted to share with Americans in Congress, the Obama administration, American NGOs and the American people who have been the biggest donor and supporters of Afghans in the past 11 years. But as I landed in JFK, there was what appeared to be some shocking news. The television channels at the arrival lounge were flashing news that showed the photo of the Afghan president with a headline that read "Taliban and American are working together." This was just as I had already arrived at the immigration counter. Hesitantly, I gave my passport and the immigration officer looked at my passport with the words "The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan." He then looked at me and we both once again looked at the television that was still flashing the same headline. He nodded his head and didn’t say a word.

This isn't the story that I wanted to share with the world or why I travelled all these thousands of miles surely. The first thing I did was to check my phone for Internet and was again shocked at the sensation that the president’s March 8 speech had caused. I couldn’t do anything but watch and listen to what he really said. Standing in the cue for the taxi at 7am in the morning while it was raining in New York, I listened to the president’s speech. There was literally no statement as such that “Taliban and the Americans are working together” instead I found his focus more on the Taliban and creating a national resistance against the Taliban.

I am not the President Karzai's spokesperson nor do I entirely agree with his political stances. However, I am an Afghan who has lived through war and has also lived through the past 12 years of Afghanistan's journey and I am struggling hard to not allow the cynicism around the war to overshadow the progress we Afghans have made at the cost of much blood and treasure, but not ours alone, but that of thousans of American soldiers as well. This is a struggle that we both share. If we succeed, it’s a common success, and if we fail, it will be a joint failure.

I don’t know much about the politics in the U.S. Right now, I am more concerned about my own countr. But what I ask for in particular from the American and western media is not just to look at Afghanistan as a country where the U.S. is at war, but rather as a country that has people and a history. People are living lives just the way everyone else does here in America, whether it's running to catch the subway in Manhattan or catch a bus. So too Afghans are running to catch buses to get to their work and return back home to spend time with their families and children. Sensationalizing a statement from the Afghan president will sell news here in the U.S. But it can easily ruin the relations that Afghans have created with the United States and with the American people over the past 12 years of common interest, especially when those statements are not even properly translated.

Frogh, co-founder & executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace & Security in Afghanistan.

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The Problem With One Donor's Attempt to Save the 6-year-old Girl Profiled in the New York Times Last Week (The Atlantic)

In January, many of us activists in Afghanistan were enraged as we read in the BBC about a 6-year-old girl named Naghma who was going to be sold by her father to settle a family debt. Naghma's father had taken some 250,000 Rupees (around $2,500) from a relative a year back, and having suffered the insecurities of Helmand, they took refuge in one of the camps in Kabul. Now, he was prepared to give away his daughter to the other family in order to settle the debt.

Since I work on cases of violence against women and provide support to women at risk, I immediately contacted the Ministry of Interior to intervene against the proposed sale. According to the laws of Afghanistan, selling anyone for any purpose is illegal and, as per the 2009 Elimination of Violence against Women Law (considered a huge achievement here), the father, the tribal elders who held the trial-like jirga process, and the relative who agreed to the engagement would all be jailed for at least three to six years.

To find out a way to intervene and help Naghma, a group of activists gathered and debated whether to push for the arrest of the father, pay the debt, or try to cancel the elder's decision to marry off Naghma.

We assigned three women from our group to go and assess the situation in the camp. What we learned was very disheartening. The team came back confirming the miserable condition of the family, saying that the mother was seriously ill, Naghma's brother had frozen to death during the cold winter, and that apart from a few pieces of bread, the family hadn't eaten anything else during the two days of the visit. However, the more concerning finding was that there were a couple of motorcycles outside the tent that belonged to Naghma's brothers. The team asked why they didn't sell off their motorcycles to settle the debt, but Naghma's father, Taj Mohammad, refused to respond. For me, this set off alarm bells that we shouldn't pay the debt ourselves because Mohammad would simply try to resell her again, since he would know that there are people willing to pay off his debt.

Soon after that, I contacted a couple of emergency aid groups and asked them to help the family with their basic needs. One of the local charity foundations went to the camp and provided the family with blankets, some food, and utensils.

I kept pushing for legal action because I realized that the father had at least one more option before selling off Naghma - he could've sold those motorbikes to settle the debt, or at the very least asked for support from the charity organizations that are active in his camp. That's in addition to the fact that the tribal elders are equally complicit in this trade and should be taught a lesson that, at least in Kabul, where there are law enforcement agencies and we shouldn't allow such a public precedent of selling girls.

During this whole time, I tried and failed to get the Ministry of Interior's attention to the issue. I was eventually promised by a friend who works at the Ministry that they would intervene. We assumed that the Ministry of Interior will take care of the issue because it was made public by the BBC report.

A few months later, I was shocked when I was told that a New York Timesjournalist was interviewing the family. I again stressed the point that we should not pay the debt because this would become a trend that not only Mohammed, but others in the camp, would repeat.

Right after the Times interview, I sent my colleagues to find out what happened to Naghma and went to talk to the Kabul Police Chief myself. At the station, we found out that the debt had been paid in early February 2013, based on a letter that was signed by a couple of witnesses, the man to whom Naghma's father was indebted, and the anonymous donor who paid the debt.

I submitted a complaint to the police to follow up on the case. Based on my complaint, the police went to find Mohammad, and then they called theTimes and told them that the debt had already been paid. If it had not been for the police intervention after our complaint, Mohammad would never have informed the Times that he had received the payment.

I asked the police to summon the father to the station and to ask him why, if the debt was paid a month ago, he was telling the Times he was threatening to sell his daughter, but the police found out he'd already fled to Uruzgan. However, he promised the police by phone that he won't try to sell off Naghma again. The police summoned Naghma's brothers and warned them in front of me that they would all be put in jail if they harm Naghma anymore.

I also spoke to Mohammad, who said the amount of the debt was more than what he received, but that he has cancelled the engagement anyway.

Once again, I assigned a couple of other colleagues to find out from the neighbors and the camp what everyone is saying about the situation. It's clear that Naghma is not necessarily safe yet. The neighbors confirmed that Mohammad now knows the way to make money is off of threatening to sell his daughter, and almost everyone we talked to agreed that once elders come together to decide a marriage, it won't be called off unless there is strict oversight by the government and police.

We could have paid the debt right after we read the story on the BBC in January, but the whole purpose was to ensure that the father and the tribal elders were held to account. Cases like this happen every day in Afghanistan, but when a story becomes public and then there is no intervention to stop it, it sets a precedent that anyone can sell off their daughters without being held accountable. But unfortunately, the person who paid this debt was either not aware of this sensitivity or didn't feel the need to consult with the women's groups in the area.

Tying the fate of Naghma to money is not only dangerous to her, but to her sisters and every other girl in this camp. The harm is already done, and I am very concerned that if there is no oversight, the father might send Naghma to Helmand in a year or so to marry the man after all.

This whole situation also reflects the fact that the concept of "first, do no harm" is often violated by donors in Afghanistan who are after quick fixes that have big consequences for the women and girls of this country. In this case, the donor has super-ceded the law and decided the fate of Naghma, ignoring the fact that she has not saved Naghma, but has put a price on her head.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Freedom of speech ...but for your homes first!

There is this television channel that keeps promoting negative propaganda about women and generally the journalists from that network that has alot of viewership are rather critics than journalists and usually they talk more than the people they interview, so I stay away from them most of the time. 

This time the head of the television network found a very good friend of mine and made him request me for an interview. I couldnt say No and agreed to meet the crew in my office around 9 am, Tuesday today. 

As I got to the office from the snowy roads and crazy Kabul traffic, my colleague came that a group of cameramen, journalists are outside and say they have an interview with you. I remembered my promise and with lots of hesitation, called them inside. Next, were around 5 young men, three of them camera men and technical staff and two were apparently the anchors who wanted to host this question time. I welcomed them all and offered them a glass of green tea as they prepared their camera for the interview. They looked around the wall and kept asking questions about the pictures that were hanging on the wall but I reminded that that I only have 15 minutes for the interview and they should better hurry up to prepare their camera. 

The interview began and I saw this young journalist that I usually admire when I see him on television, turning red faced and the first question is " why do you support women and girls who humiliate their fathers and families and run away" and before I open my mouth to respond he gets more furious and goes on ..." and then I know that you belong to a family that comes from a very traditional pashtoon area and still you do this..." it feels as if this guy has found the first and last opportunity to encounter his hardest enemy on the earth and he wouldnt lose this opportunity. I laughed at first and then said if you came to interview me then shouldn't I get a chance to speak?  The journalist got embarrassed and became silent for a while and my response was....

" Today you are able to question me because this state, the laws and the Constitution gave you an opportunity that you call freedom of speech and freedom of media. If this right is taken away from you, how would you react? Or even worse. If not only right to freedom of speech is taken away but also you get severely punished for speaking up ...then what you do? you either become the most subdued and silent or tun into a knight and fight back....then why would you blame a woman and girl who does the same that you would do if you were in her situation...." 

there is complete silence. But the cameraman leaves his camera and gets as red faced as the previous young man and yells at me..." Isnt it you Western activists that are promoting immoral acts by supporting and protecting such women who run away from homes because they want to turn into prostitutes...." and I continued. 

" In 2003, over hundreds of women and girls were deported from Iran while their families were left there. These women had no place to go because they came to Afghanistan after 10 -20 years and had forgotten the language even. There was no place to keep them so they stayed in the Azaadi Bagh in Hirat and after back and forth, the national and international stakeholders agreed to start the safe houses because these women could've been either raped, killed, kidnapped, smuggled on the streets. That is how the concept of safe housing for women at risk came into work in Afghanistan. My 11 year of experience inside Afghanistan dealing with issues of violence against women indicates that over 95 % of run away cases has to do with the domestic violence, forced marriage, forced prostitution , incest and preventing women from education and other opportunities. We have women who run away from Zabul because her father in law kept raping her for years and the husband never realized. We have girls who have run away from home because the father kept forcing her to sleep with his friends and earned money. We have women who run away because she was given into marriage as the 5th wife of a 65 year old Mullah who had given loans to her father. We have girls who have run away because the father filmed them while they were taking shower.....these and many more are the reasons that women and girls run away from homes....they dont want to turn into prostitutes that is why they run away...." 

As I turned silent the anchor seemed not convinced but angrier because he knew that I am right but being in a culture of denial and patriarchy he has to prove that he's right. He looks at the cameraman and others and thanked me ....and stood up. I asked them to have their tea and then go and he told me " we will become namak-haram if we drink or eat in your office..." and left. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lal Bibi's journey for justice

Who is Lal Bibi? to those who havent read her story in NYT and other places, I will summarize that Lal Bibi, 21, was abducted, raped & tortured for five consecutive days by the armed men who are incharge of the Afghan Local Police ( an auxilillary militia called Arbakis) in Kunduz during May 2012. She was punished for the animosity that her cousin had with the armed men of ALP. In Afghanistan, a family's 'honor' is tied with a woman of the family and she is punished to account for someone els's deeds...that is a long story.

There is nothing new about this story either. We have rape cases taking place in this part of the world almost every day but what was so strange about Lal Bibi's case was that her whole tribe stood up for her. For whatever reason ( many say its political) but seeing 50 bearded turbaned men who are the village council's head, provincial council's members, tribal leaders, the mosque mullahs and the community members coming to Kabul accompanying Lal Bibi and her parents - was never seen to me at least, in the past 15 years of my activism for women's rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The tribe came to us, the women organizations and activists seeking support. We struggled hard for them and pushed the government to arrest and perpetrators and transferred the case to Kabul's Attorney General's Office so that we can follow the legal proceedings and get justice to Lal Bibi & her tribe. Interesting, the main reason that had mobilized Lal Bibi's tribe was that they are tired of the local militia's and local warlords who abuse everyone at the gun top. They complain that armed militia's armed by the government's weapons, travelling in the government vehicles oppress people, take away their children, sons ( those who are handsome) , take money and crops at the gun top and they are still in power because the government thinks they are fighting the taleban. Many of the people who came with Lal Bibi told me that they will have no other option but to become insurgents and arm themselves just to protect their daughters and land.

Such a tribal support is rare in this country. At least rare for a woman's cause. Seeing all these men supporting Lal Bibi and Lal Bibi's grandfather who kept telling the story with flowing tears on his face - broughtb the journalist who was filming the story.

Lal Bibi is now in one of the women shelters, traumatized, confused and silent. She doesnt respond to anyone and if you ask her to sit under the blue burqa for hours in the heat, she wouldnt even move. Last week, her parents and uncles came to us to follow the case which is now in Kabul. Looking at the proceedings & the paper work of the courts, it seems it will take us an year before the case actually gets into a court. Me and another woman were asking Lal Bibi on how she feels and how would she react at the court, she kept staring at us and didnt even respond. I dont know if she will be able to speak up for herself in the court...or will keep staring at people. Angry, silent and broken.

Lal Bibi is lucky. I know she is lucky to have been able to reach to some support, while I know hundreds and thousands of women in Afghanistan are abused, raped, tortured but all in silence and they turn into ashes and no one even notices them. She is lucky to have her tribe standing beside her for justice!!! While women are stoned to death in this country & no one from her family even stands up for her, proved the Parwan stoning case in early July 2012.

Just last week, during last week of July- Najiba was burnt at home by petrol in one of the urban neighborhoods of Kabul. The neighbors took her to the hospital where she died in silence. While we tried to take up the case with the police, we were told how can a dead person wake up and tell us who killed her and without that information we cant do anything. The case is closed.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Struggle....even at the doorsteps

This evening I was returning home from a tough day of struggle. A morning that started hearing about the uncertain future of the country's National Human Rights Commission, one of the few semi-government institutions that support us activists and civil society, continued with a review of one of the projects I am supporting in Kunduz and Hirat provinces in which we are tracking the cases of violence against women, and just reviewing 45 cases reported in three weeks in one province, horrified me. There are hundreds of other cases that never get registered nor those silent victims have ever the opportunity to complain to a women's affairs office in their province. The afternoon was spent in another struggle of trying to find a DNA testing facility for a woman whose husband has accused her that their second child, is not his. He is powerful and can easily prove that, and our legal system that is inherently a woman's enemy, wont think twice before convicting her guilty, in which her whole life will be destroyed. Some even say that she would be stoned to death if the husband can prove that the child isnt his child.

So was very tired, angry and thirsty, as we are fasting this month. A fasting that hardly means anything more than just not eating or not drinking. Allah knows if this kind of fasting will ever have any rewards, but we all continue with the pretense at least. As the car entered into our neighborhood, and was getting near my home, I noticed a group of around 4-5 guys surrounding a little young girl and she was crying. As I got closer, I saw that the girl is holding the pieces of bread that she is taking home and these guys who might be around 18-22 years are teasing her, one trying to pull her hair, another pulling the bread, another pulling her hands and she was crying and holding the bread onto her chest. I cant remember how i jumped out of the car, and when the car stopped and in matter of seconds I was there shouting and yelling on these guys who distanced from her as they saw me screaming on them. I dont remember what I was telling them but tried to console the little girl, she might have been around 10 years of age and wiped her tears. 

My screams and yelling drew attention and I saw the guards of the neighborhood and some men who came to me asking whether the guys were teasing me. But I told them if you have a little bit of gut in you and if you have a daughter and cant see her abused by such kind of guys, then dont let these guys escape and just get away with such a crime. I am not a violent person at all, I fight for non violence and human rights of individuals and women but I dont know what made me urge these men to not let the young guys teasing the little girl to just go away as nothing had happened. In a matter of seconds, I noticed the guards and the men beating the hell of the 5 guys and the the guards took them away , I guess to the police or maybe to just take them out of the neighborhood. I asked the little girl who was trembling of fear where was her home and she kept requesting that please dont let my father know what happened here because he will beat me alot. I took her near to her apartment and didnt go with her so that the family dont even notice anything strange. She entered her house, still holding the pieces of bread on her chest. 

The time had come for breaking the fast but the fearful face of this young little girl became another nightmare to me and kept thinking about her the whole evening. What if they had touched her somewhere, what if they could take her away because it was evening and not alot of people would notice, what if they had raped her, what if I didnt notice it, what if...what if...the questions kept torturing me as I was looking at the young girls in my own family. How will we protect them from these wolves right outside homes...sometimes these little girls are not even safe inside home. How long will this situation continue? What happened to the guys, I am sure they are roaming free around and they would be teasing another girl at the next available many of these guys are around..countless. 

It's all dark around as I see the neighborhood outside my window. Hearing the roar of the men chit chatting with each other with no fear....seeing some old men drinking tea right outside their apartments after the Iftar ( breaking fast) but am thinking why cant we have a similarly safe and enabling environment for our girls and women, why cant we just sit outside our apartments and drink tea without even worrying that we are being stared at, or not even worrying that our husbands, fathers, brothers wont allow us to do so. But am still haunted by the thoughts of the little girl and the scene I witnessed this evening while returning home. Didnt tell anyone at mom is always worried that I have turned into a rebel and this is the end of life for a girl in this society. Even if I had shared at home, my father would've become angrier and he would never allow the little girls to get out of home, because he still thinks to protect yourselves just stay away from wolves of the society and that means, stay home, stay inside. 

There is no end or no break to our struggles. Outside and inside home, but always keep things to ourselves because in this society you are not allowed to share how you feel or what happens inside your home, if you do, you are no more a socially acceptable woman and the attitudes will never give you the courage to do so. So some of us just keep struggling and fighting until we can and when we cant anymore, we just vanish into darkness , who would notice...maybe no one. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Our voices are not stoned to death!!!

On Friday, 06 July 2012, Ms Fawzia Koofi, one of the prominent female MPs called and with a disturbingly quiet tone asked whether I knew about the Parwan incident. I said Yes, saw a tweet from one of the BBC journalists but dont know if its true or not. She said its true and she saw the video. After we both mourned the incident, she said if women dont stand all these violence, we will all face this fate, one by one. We hanged on the phone and I started digging deeper to find out what happened. 

Though, we still dont know the exact account of the heinous act of violence and oppression that we all witnessed in that video- we are all so shocked & furious over the fact that najiba  was brutally murdered. No matter who did it, that does not make any difference. The information that we have been able to obtain to date is that Najiba, 21 year old who was either kidnapped or forced to come to the house of one of the armed commanders (apparently a taleb as the Parwan governor emphasizes) and when the chief of their armed group found out, the commanders who had forced her, stoned her and shot her 9 times in front of a cheering crowd of 150-180 people and accused her of adultery. 

We should've all got out on the streets the moment we watched the video, its the most horrific site I witnessed after a similar incident in which the Taleban stoned Zarmina & then shot her numerous times in the Kabul's Sports Gymnasium. As a young girl in that age, I was not able to sleep for weeks as the sight of a burqa-clud Zarmina in blood, had occupied my brain. Even after the formal fall of the Taleban regime in 2001, we have had a number of similar stoning and shooting the woman for adultery charges. While in no Jirga (the tribal court) the man who should've been equally treated ( As Quran says) if she was proved to be an adulterous. Just two months before in Gardez, a woman was stoned & shot, following the stoning of a couple in Kunduz last year. 

Najiba's oppression & murder is not new for the women of Afghanistan nor for the people in this country who have seen wars and bloodshed for years now. However, the stoning & shooting a woman 9 times is an extremely alerting and shocking news for everyone in this war torn country, especially when the political reconciliation with the group who has been accused of committing these crimes, is ongoing, with the support of the international community. 

The three of us (women activists) who are dealing with Lal Bibi's case were similarly annoyed and furious. None of us slept for days thinking and working around some of the lucky cases that are able to come to us and seek help. There are millions of women who are tortured, killed, raped and vanish in the darkness and we dont even know their names. So the ones who come to us for help, I guess must be among the lucky ones, who can actually use the limited resources and dare to think a bit different than the silence majority. 

We decided to mobilize a number of women organizations so we started calling around and talking to women organizations and some activists. While some were scared of any public reactions, many supported the idea of a peaceful rally. In less than half a day we arranged for a rally and march that should start from the Ministry of Women's Affairs towards the President's Office. One day before the rally we had to create banners, and we started brainstorming some slogans that could've put us in huge risk in any normal circumstances due to their religious nature, but we finally agreed on some and our young painters worked all night to prepare the banners and posters. 

The night before the rally, many friends and some of the senior officials that I know personally called and warned that if anything happens to anyone in this rally, we will be held responsible because we can be easily target of a suicide bomber who can enter the rally and we wouldnt even notice it before we are vanished into pieces. I kept calling the Kabul Police Chief who extended huge support to us in terms of providing security to the rally and the last call was with Mary ( my friend and colleague with whom we arranged the rally) at around 2 am who was equally worried. 

On the morning of Wednesday, July 11 I prayed around 4.30 am and started reciting some verses from Quran and sought HIS help. We are not scared of death because who knows when any of us is the next target but I really cant see the hundreds of women and young men who have promised to show up and support the rally. At 9 am many of us were at the Ministry of Women's Affairs Compound and found out that the government had warned the female ministers and any of the government senior officials not to participate in the rally because its against all protocols of government, because this rally would criticize the government and its officials shouldn't be there. But we still didnt feel disappointed and started mobilizing ourselves at around 9.30 am on the road. 

By 10.30 am we got around 300 young men, women protesting the incident and calling on the government for quick action. The rally declared any Tribal Court illegal and demanded justice for Najiba and other women who are victims of our silence. It was so encouraging to see so many young men standing in the first rows vowing to support the women who are on the streets by putting their lives in the front lines of the rally. These are the hopes for the future of Afghanistan - we didnt have such a male mobilization at least 5 years ago. 

The rally was also joined by one of the country's prominent women, Dr Sima Samar who leads the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, and her presence on the streets standing with all of us and supporting us, gave powers and courage to many women who were rallying under their blue burqa's and behind their black and white veils, covering their faces so that the passer by doesnt recognize them, who knows one of those passer by would be their brother, husband, or a close relative. 

We concluded the rally at around 11.30 am in front of the UNAMA office that leads the road towards the president office and demanded quick actions from the government on the incident perpetrators. Later that day, the governor of Parwan announced that there is a special force that is now searching for the perpetrators, and the President condemned the incident personally as well. But will we get any clues on who did this - and where are they in this life before another of us becomes another prey- time will tell. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Will Afghan realities matter to Chicago?

On the night of 23rd Sawr 1391 (May 2012) Najiba and her three sons (5, 7, 13 yrs) were brutally shot dead by their uncle and Najiba’s brother in law in Chardara district of Kunduz province. After killing Najiba and her sons, the brother in law who is named Zanabuddin has run away and there is no news on him. According to the police chief, the main motive of the killing was that Najiba had rejected marrying her brother in law after her husband died. Najiba’s brothers and cousins are now planning revenge.

What is new about this story apart from being sorry for Najiba and her sons? What do we hear from the police in such circumstances that ‘investigations are under way’? I am sure the murderer has already fled Kunduz and is in one of our neighboring countries, perhaps.

Yet another case of killing and murder that adds to the piles of cases and incidents that either have been filed by the police stations lined up under the dust or the cases that await their fate in the judiciary that takes ages to investigate and convict a crime. Of course, it’s a luxury to have a case registered with the police and that only happens if the crime takes place in the vicinity of the Provincial or District Police Station and if the police officers agree to register. When crimes take place in the villages and communities far from the district center, they have to solve their own issues if it means the perpetrators family gifts their young girl child to compensate for the crime or the local tribal elders agree to kill a member of the perpetrator family – it is none of the government’s business.

The whole focus of NATO/ISAF and Afghan government is on giving more guns to more men under Afghanistan’s Army & Police. How do these men use these guns, is a secondary issue. The transition process is calculating the number of armed men in every province who will be able to use guns and fight the insurgency. Girl’s schools have been closed in some of the transitioned provinces, increased ratio of crimes, lack of government response and shortage of police forces is a common reality in many of the transitioned provinces. An insurgency that is growing internally because of injustices being inflicted on Afghans in their homes and a government system that only perpetuates crimes and injustices. In such circumstances, where would the young angry Afghans go especially when there is a recruitment platform with money and gun available for them to fight their enemies? Why wouldn’t the local Afghan communities support the insurgency?

I remember the stories of injustices brought forward by the elders and community members in the Traditional Loya Jirga last November. My Committee’s recommendations were that at the end of 2014, Afghanistan does not need 350,000 illiterate armed men. But maybe half of these forces are enough if they know their primary responsibility is to protect Afghan lives and implement the rule of law.

Many of us in Afghanistan have been advocating for an international change of perspectives around Afghanistan for over ten years now, but every year there is an international conference on Afghanistan and every year we come up with the same recommendations and solutions. It is because the world leaders don’t listen to what Afghans have to say about their own fate and their own country.

Once again, the global leaders will come and sit together and cheer their achievements for Afghanistan in Chicago as distanced from the realities on the ground as the thousands of miles between Kabul and Chicago.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It all starts with feeling for Afghanistan

I asked a colleague to fix a broken window, without a second thought he grabbed a very delicate meeting chair to climb on, I stopped him before be broke that chair.

This reminded me of the public buses which has damaged passenger seats because people who sit in these seats start pulling out the cover of the seat. This also reminded me of the plenty of garbage that are lying out of every residential home or office in Kabul and no one bothers to pick them up apart from the old, weak and unpaid labor workers of the Municipality. My colleague action also reminded me of the young boys who were getting out of Kardan University last night and throwing the peels of banana and wraps of chocolate biscuits at the door of their own University. This also reminded me of the meeting I had last week in one of the ministries that had flowing toilets inside the ministry building, and the list goes on.

A glance into our media programs on daily basis is all about politics, politicial deals, political talks, huge claims of 'national pride' and some declaring Jihad for 'national interests' but I hardly see any leader, any politician, anyone to care how can we as Afghans become responsible citizens before becoming politicians of all kinds. Before declaring ourselves as visionary leaders for the 'national interest' why cant we start educating, reminding and encouraging our youth to become responsible citizens.

Pathway to a better Afghanistan is not a rocket science nor impossible. It all starts with feeling for Afghanistan. With feeling for every tiny and big thing that can build this country. It starts with taking responsibility for our own garbage, not to throw them outside of our homes with a blind eye.

It starts with the belief that every drop makes up the ocean. Building a better Afghanistan is not a rocket science, its only when we as Afghans stop expecting and start acting.

I know for many of us all these words sound as cliche and rhetoric. But imagine, if we continue detaching oursevles from feeling for Afghanistan, who would be affected if all the seats in the passenger buses are damaged. Who would be affected if the capital of this country turns into a garbage drum. Who will be affected if the lesson that university students are sharing with the younger ones is about throwing the banana peels and wraps of your chocoloate biscuite at the doorsteps of your university. The American public or the people of Afghanistan?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

An Opportunity in Afghanistan: PBS and Huffington Post

Today was the first of the official three-day period of national mourning following the death of the Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former President of Afghanistan and, until meeting his untimely end, chairman of the country’s High Peace Council. While there was no war or fighting going on the streets, there was nothing that could be described as peace either.

Leaving my home in Kabul this morning, the streets were not as crowded as usual, but were full of armed men. They were shouting at each other and at every pedestrian who ventured near the black- windowed bullet-proof vehicles carrying high-ranking officials to Rabbani’s funeral. On one of the main roads in the Qalai Fatullah section of Kabul, a group of armed uniformed soldiers beat a taxi driver who subsequently caused an accident while running away in panic.

In the wake of Rabbani’s assassination, almost every political voice in Afghanistan has claimed that peace is no longer possible. I, however, as a young Afghan woman who is tired of the patriarchy and power struggles in this country, believe that peace is always possible — but we need to move from political deal-making towards a citizen-led national dialogue for peace building.

That dialogue needs to begin with healing the open wounds resulting from years of civil war and Taliban oppression. The grievances caused by the enormous suffering of so many Afghans during those years were never adequately addressed. Leaving the wounds to fester throughout the last decade has contributed to deepening distrust and added fresh wounds alongside these open sores. Until Afghans come together, from all walks of life, from every province and village to admit their responsibility in creating injustice and seek forgiveness, Afghanistan will not be peaceful. Our wounds will continue to fester while our neighbors turn us against each other and against our country.

Afghan women are the untapped and unexplored power that can facilitate this healing process. Afghan women have not waged civil wars or oppressed their people. Instead, they became widows of a war they never wanted, took responsibility for the family and children, and used the Afghan custom of Nanawati to end animosity between tribes. If Afghan women were provided the opportunity to lead a national dialogue, they could bring people together in a way that men haven’t done. My experience in working and dealing with Afghan women is that we have better access and dialog even among disputing tribes, better information on the causes of conflict. Afghan women are more willing to end the violence because we have more to lose in wars than anyone else.

Women in Afghanistan had to fight to have representation in the High Peace Council. They have been able to make headway where the men could not. For example, some of the women at High Peace Council were able to make contacts with some of the families of one of the armed opposition groups and were welcomed in their homes. Not one of the men in the High Peace Council has been able to enter the house of an armed opposition group commander.

I am sure the world remembers how South African women went around the country uniting every South African in favor of their new Constitution at the end of apartheid. It was actually the South African women who prevented a blood bath by giving everyone a voice during the Constitution-making process.

An opportunity for Afghan women could mean an opportunity for peace.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

VIEW: There is no endgame in Afghanistan, yet- Daily Times

Afghanistan still needs to prove that it is capable enough to choose its strategic partners and at the same time not be harmful to its neighbours. Just as Pakistan is free to choose its friends and enemies, Afghanistan too should have the right and opportunity to do so

Recently, the Jinnah Institute and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) launched their joint research called ‘Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite’, which discusses the viewpoints of Pakistani foreign policy shapers around Afghan matters. One should appreciate the initiative because unless and until Afghanistan and Pakistan resolve their challenges in non-military and non-ISI ways, the people of both countries will continue suffering at the hands of extremism and insurgency bred by the flawed political and military structures.

Undoubtedly, the report and the process that it has entailed in gathering the viewpoints and perspectives from a handpicked foreign policy elite keeps Pakistan’s national interest supreme over all other concerns while analysing the current processes in Afghanistan. Moreover, for more credibility, there was a strong need for a counter-balance and some level of Afghan experts’ inputs, who could have also brought the focus on what the perceptions are about Pakistan amongst the Afghan elite and the Afghan people. It seems that for the Pakistani foreign policy elite, the whole perspective revolves around the 2014 deadline, which takes precedence over the complicated dynamics of the region, while the realities on the ground are telling a different tale. The year 2014 might be a deadline for an endgame for the US and NATO in Afghanistan, but not the endgame of conflict in the AfPak region.

As an Afghan reader, I am not convinced that the foreign policy experts, at least those interviewed for this report, were honest enough in tracing the root causes of mistrust and instability in the region, which is: the continued struggle of the Pakistani intelligence and military to create and recreate insurgency for Afghanistan as a matter of Pakistan’s self-defence and as a mechanism of deterrence.

Creation and re-creation of insurgency, terror and fighters for Afghanistan by the Pakistani intelligence, especially the ISI, is the major factor that defines the AfPak relationship, politics and public diplomacy. While Pakistani foreign policy experts call this relationship “interference and non-neutrality”, for an Afghan who witnesses Pakistani nationals blowing themselves up in Afghan cities and taking Afghan lives, it is a matter of invasion and regional terrorism that eventually calls for an Afghan resistance against it.

For the young Afghans, especially those with exposure to the media and who live in urban settings, this ISI-led campaign is more of an enemy than any other force in the world. Similar are the sentiments of the Afghan parents who see their madrassa-going children ready to blow themselves up in Afghanistan and being captured by the Afghan intelligence; they too blame the ISI. Vice versa, the youth on the other side of the border are indoctrinated with the belief that there is a foreign invasion of Afghanistan and to fulfil their religious duty, they have to do jihad inside Afghanistan by blowing themselves up and taking Afghan and coalition members’ lives. This generation of hatred-breeders are going to be very dangerous for the region and will eventually lead both countries into another regional conflict or war, an issue that has not received any attention yet.

I also understand that the Afghan government lacks a proper regional diplomacy, with Pakistan in particular. Considering the history of the complicated relationship between the two countries, the Afghan government should have already come up with a cohesive plan on how to get into a more mutually beneficial and non-threatening relationship with Pakistan through trade, transit routes, water, cultural and linguistic exchange programmes and cooperation. Afghanistan still needs to prove that it is capable enough to choose its strategic partners and at the same time not be harmful to its neighbours. Just as Pakistan is free to choose its friends and enemies, Afghanistan too should have the right and opportunity to do so, however with a clear and transparent line of engagement with its friends that are a matter of concern for Pakistan and the region.

However, many of us Afghans continue to wonder why the Pakistani establishment and intelligence weighs Afghanistan either through the lens of India or the US. Why does the Pakistani government not accept Afghanistan as a sovereign, independent neighbour in itself? Why can Afghanistan not leverage its relationship with India, the US or any other country for its own national interest just as Pakistan takes stock from its relations with China, Saudi Arabia and other countries?

Therefore, it is critical for the people, intellectuals, media, civil society and other non-government entities of both countries to come up with honest, critical but constructive ways of people-to-people engagement and dialogue. As an Afghan who grew up in Pakistan (I am grateful for its people’s support), I believe we need to address the growing mistrust between the two nations if this conflict has to end. We need to move beyond the blame game. The people of the two countries will only come together with a vision for a better future if the miseries of their past are addressed and recognised.

Such a people-to-people platform for dialogue and interaction will become a point of pressure on both governments to change their foreign policy towards each other and move beyond the blame game. While the Pakistani foreign policy experts accept to an extent that the ‘strategic depth’ approach is still an important indicator of success for Pakistan’s foreign policy, we need advocates from both the countries to bring about a change of this approach. In an era of open borders, we do not need intelligence agencies and the military defining our regional identities.

Though late, the only solution seems to be that the two countries start taking each other seriously and honestly begin a constructive dialogue for regional diplomacy by putting forward their younger generation diplomats and technocrats, without any third party initially. Such a regional diplomacy dialogue can best be complemented with a people-to-people platform to redefine the relationship of the two nations. Otherwise, Afghanistan should finally approach the UN Security Council for a possible solution or intervention. Hence, no deadline will play any endgame for Afghanistan and the region will remain in conflict if the approaches and plans being instigated by Pakistan’s security establishment are not changed and averted. Perhaps, the end of these games for Afghanistan can be the beginning of an endgame for the AfPak conflict.

The writer is an Afghan civil society activist

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Decade in Afghanistan- Aljazeera English

At the time, I was working with an international humanitarian aid organisation in Peshawar, Pakistan, that was supporting Afghan refugees. The organisation also carried out emergency support projects for Afghans inside the country. Occasionally, I came to Kabul and visited some provinces, but of course I had to show it as a completely private visit and I had to be accompanied by male family members.

On September 11, 2001 which was a work day, I was at the Zakhail camp in Peshawar. I had a focus-group discussion with women and girls on some of hygiene issues and they were asking for literacy courses, though some of the Jihadi commanders at the camp prevented it.

Myself and another colleague decided to speak with one of those former commanders and try to convince him to allow classes. As we were debating the issue with him, his son came running in and said there was a messenger for him from Jalalabad.

Later on, from the others in the camp, we learned attacks had happened in New York and that he was called to the frontlines as the Afghan opposition fighters against the Taliban wanted to make use of the opportunity.

When we saw and heard about the attacks through international media in Peshawar, my first impression was that it was done by the same people that the US had supported during the Jihad against the Soviets. US dollars and ammunition of the Arab countries during the Soviet war turned our national resistance movement against the Soviets into a proxy war for the advantage of capitalism. Our war commanders won and the Afghan nation lost in a perpetual factional war.

"...the biggest mistake of the aftermath of 9/11 was that Afghanistan was only seen as a war zone with no long term vision for it. The US and its allies did not even bother to correct their past mistake of supporting individual warlords and tribal leaders for their own purposes."

Wazhma Frogh

But I also realise that the September 11 attacks opened a new-page in the modern history. Afghanistan never received this much international attention before.

Today, at least the visible activism I do for Afghanistan nationally and internationally can be attributed to the new political regime that came after September 11 in Afghanistan.

Also on the positive side, I think some of the Afghans were able to use the opportunities and create a space for civil society development. The freedom of media (somehow), women's organisations, activism, and of course private sector development can also be attributed to the aftermath of September 11, 2001 in Afghanistan. Though very fragile, some foundation has been laid out.

But we still need to find more legitimacy in Afghan society because since our projects are supported internationally, our activism is also seen as a 'foreign project' even though we're putting our lives and risking our lives.

However, the bombing of Afghan villages within the Operation Enduring Freedom was for the purpose of Osama Bin Laden and his supporters. As a result of the US bombing, the Taliban regime fell and a new power structure enabled women's political and social participation. But women's progress can only be indirectly accredited to the aftermath of September 11.

I believe the biggest mistake of the aftermath of 9/11 was that Afghanistan was that they did not have a long term vision for the country. The US and its allies did not even bother to correct their past mistakes of supporting individual warlords and tribal leaders for their own purposes. Today Afghanistan is suffering in the hands of the same warlords that actively destroyed the country during 1990s factional war. The reason that people have lost faith in the government and going towards the Taliban are these warlords, now in suit and tie, holding very important positions.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who is setting the agenda for another International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn?

Bonn II Paper Series One: ToloNews

These days the hot topic in the ‘elite and expatriate bubble' of Kabul is the Bonn II Conference. Analysts, experts and diplomats come up with different perspectives and predictions about whether this event will change Afghanistan's roadmap or just be one more international conference on Afghanistan.

However, the recent news is that the conference is no more Bonn II because of the speculations it has created following the example of Bonn I, therefore, it's now called another international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn. The conference is expected to take place during the first week of December with participation of over 80 Foreign ministers and foreign delegations under the chairmanship of the Afghan President.

Timing has always mattered in politics about Afghanistan, although it has not often been with the best interests of Afghanistan in mind. The London Conference in early 2010 was organised at a time when the public opinion polls in Europe showed the lowest support for the Afghanistan project in ten years. Therefore, the London Conference pioneered the Peace and Reintegration Program that earned millions in one day.

Many continue criticising the London Conference for only setting an agenda for an exit strategy for Nato and others from Afghanistan, rather than planning for an inclusive process towards building peace in the country. Of course, that was a high time for the elections in the UK and the Brown administration was looking for success stories.

Questions asked by many Afghans whose voices do not make the news are:
Will the Bonn II Conference now planned for December this year be another step in speeding up the withdrawal and Inteqal (transition) process? Or, can it bring some meaningful stability for Afghanistan's future?

What we have today in Afghanistan can in large parts be credited to the process started with the first Bonn Conference that was held in December 2001. There have been a number of achievements. For example, first time power-transfer through elections, 27 percent women in the parliament, eight million children in schools, 80 percent of Basic Health Package access to rural communities, thousand of miles of roads constructed and reconstructed and the flourishing telecommunication business in the country are the direct or indirect outcomes of the Bonn Conference plan. Therefore, similar expectations can be attached to Bonn II.

However, there was an important negative outcome of the Bonn I which was the power sharing that took place and many Afghans believe that it was a historical mistake as it supported promotion of warlords and faction leaders in the political arenas. Or in simple terms, it created grounds for the revival of the Taliban movement.

There is an interesting rhetoric taking shape with the leadership of many international community representatives when it comes to Afghanistan. They have a default response to every query. " Well, this is an Afghan process, and the Bonn Conference is going to be chaired by the President of Afghanistan and we as the international community don't have anything to do with it". This is what I would call selective respect for sovereignty, particularly when I learnt more about the Conference in meetings in Europe than from many discussions with the relevant officials of the Afghan government. Especially when the Bonn Conference is being led by the International Contact Group chaired by the German representatives.

Only if that "Afghan leadership" listens to the voices of millions of ordinary Afghans in setting the agenda of the Conference. That is, will it be the voices of those who continue losing family members in the weekly suicide attacks, the clerk who has his/her salary pending for the 4th month in a government ministry, the farmer whose daughter was gang-raped by the police forces? Or, will it be the voices of those who sit in secured compounds miles away from the society and who only hear about the situation through the news?

Meanwhile, there are growing ‘Khabar Haye Sare Chawk' (unofficial version of the news spread in people's circles) that the international community leaders and the Afghan President have decided to bring in some of the Taliban leaders and their representatives to the Bonn II in order to make up for their exclusion in the first Bonn Conference.

If the leaders and politicians of the international community and some of the out-of-touch government officials are the only voices from Afghanistan, then who will represent the opposition, or in the words of ‘the anti-Taliban constituency'?

Anti-Taliban not in the sense of being against Talibs as the human beings fighting a violent war in Afghanistan but being against their political missions as we experienced prior to 2001.Who are these ‘anti-Taliban constituencies?

It is the 12.9 million female population[1] of the country that are not regarded as a human being by the Taliban standards, it is the 30,000 Helmandis who cheered at a female concert in Lashkargah for the first time in the history negating Taliban's ban on music -or the 27% women politicians who struggle everyday to change their realities in the Afghan parliament- it is the thousands of local civil society organizations that are losing lives at the fore fronts of fights for media freedom and democratic values.

Will they get a chance to envisage their version of Afghanistan's vision?

More importantly, how will the Bonn II create a roadmap to end the ongoing violence that has taken thousands of Afghan lives so far, through a political settlement between the Palace and some of the ranks of the Taliban?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Interview on PBS newshour : Afghan Women and Peace Talks

Amid Push for Talks With Taliban, Where Do Rights of Afghan Women Fit In?


Three Afghan women, influential figures in politics, business and non-governmental organizations, were in Washington last week meeting with senior members of the Obama administration and Congress on the topic of negotiating peace with the Taliban. Margaret Warner gets their views on the situation in their country.

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Who Should Define Afghanistan's National Security?- ToloNews

The key to lasting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan is not in encouraging the culture of rewarding the insurgency through political deals, but in providing justice to the common Afghan and so winning public support.

Gone are the days that government's strength was manifested in its political and military powers. Today the concept of ‘national security' is not about world wars or invasions alone, how are the common people being treated in their communities by their local governments, is the reality that is shaping the national security of any country or can cause national havoc, as we witness in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Afghanistan is no more an exception. The common Afghans living circumstances are the most important indicators of the country's security, if the Kabul-based government can understand and realize.

While suicide attacks in the hospital, military bases, bazaars, highways make their ways into the national and international headlines about Afghanistan, the monstrous culture of impunity creating human miseries go unnoticed.

Mina, 12- year old girl child was brutally gang raped in Taloqan, Takhar early last month. While recalling that nightmare, Mina's mother claims that 6 of the 8 men who were alleged in the gang rape were in the national army uniform and the other 2 were the locals. Mina was raped one by one by the 8 men who had broken into their home at 1 am late night, and they were successful in escaping afterwards.

For many, who heard the story as a piece of news, expressed their regret and continued with their lives. The first reaction is oh, another case of child rape in Afghanistan and the story vanishes into the more demanding news and events around transition, withdrawal, politics of Afghan government, Washington's reactions and now Bonn2.

I would not even get into the debates around our own political hypocrisy. How can any Afghan, any Muslim can be this cruel to a child? Would not even argue that it was indeed us Afghan Muslims who killed ourselves in the riots against the burning of the holy Quran by Florida pastor. Nor would mention that it was the same Takhar'is that killed 12 and injured as many as 70 in apost Nato raid riot that had allegedly killed 4 civilians, two of them women.

According to one of the family's neighbors, the men who are accused of breaking into Mina's home had been seen in another robbery incident in the city of Taloqan. There are reports that the 8 armed men belonged to one of the experimental projects of ‘self-defense' orchestrated through arming local militias and arming local warlords against the Taleb militants. Local armed militias and local police forces are also accused of similar crimes in other provinces of Afghanistan.

While exploring the story further, a female teacher who teaches in girls high school in Taloqan told me: "Whenever the men in my family started remembering the times of the Taleban government, I was the one who was fighting against because I had lost all my rights under that regime. But today after having seen a corrupt, shameless authority that is supposed to bring rule of law but only deals with rule of dollars, I am the one who supports the Taleb government". If such an incident had happened during that time, she says, " They wouldn't even let this happen, nor would allow the perpetrators to escape because they were very strong in implementing strict laws".

Media reports, local radio accounts that only in the first two months of the year 1390, they had almost 5 unreported incidents of child rapes in Takhar province with the youngest victim as one year old, and there has been several gang rape incident of children in Takhar so far. Many of the perpetrators escaped and while responding to media, the local governor's office and Police Chief has a by default response: Cases are under investigation.

And no one knows when and how these investigations will be completed and how will the perpetrators be brought to justice.

I don't want this piece to contribute towards the ongoing propaganda machinery for the Taleban era government popularity, but it is important to highlight that its not only the regional geopolitics and ‘external infiltration by Pakistan' that insurgency is expanding its geographic coverage, but IT IS the local dissent, social multiplication of fear and revenge that drives thousands of Afghans to join militants and fight against the Kabul regime.

No political settlements aimed at peace can unite Afghans against their enemies, but real action on rule of law and justice for the common Afghan can give them some hopes that the Kabul government doesn't only send corrupt governors and Police Chiefs but fulfils its responsibility towards the ones who have risked their lives voting for the current leadership.

Women groups were lobbying for police effectiveness at one of the parliamentary Commissions that had called in the Deputy Minister of Interior and head of MOI Intelligence, some of the women activists demanded the removal of Police Chief to set an example for other incompetent officers in other provinces. The Deputy Minister smiled in sarcasm, nodded his head and left the room in silence.