On March 29, the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and the Freedom Project at Wellesley College hosted “Women, Gender, Afghanistan,” a virtual social change dialogue. The program featured experts on human rights and gender politics in Afghanistan and was organized in collaboration with Scholars At Risk and the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University.
Panelists included Shaharzad Akbar, fellow in human rights with Chatham House and former chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; Pashtana Durrani, visiting fellow at WCW; Sayed Hassan Hussaini (Akhlaq), adjunct professor at Coppin State University; and Said Reza Kazemi, visiting researcher at Heidelberg University. The event was moderated by Nazan Bedirhanoglu, postdoctoral fellow in political science and interim director of the Freedom Project.
Women and girls in Afghanistan have been the focus of the international community since the early 2000s, triggered by the United States war in Afghanistan. The initial narrative of ‘saving the Afghan women’ was instrumental in the justification of the U.S.-led military operations and the war on terror. The international feminist movement, including many Afghan women, criticize this discourse, highlighting women’s agency and longstanding struggle for rights in their own country. Akbar kicked off the program by providing some background on the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.
“There’s a sense that the struggle for women’s participation started after the U.S.-led intervention in the country in 2002, which is completely not true,” said Akbar. “Afghanistan had decades of struggle for women's rights and gender equality prior to the U.S. intervention—many eras of progress when we had women at the minister level, cabinet level, and women in our elected bodies, and then eras of real regression, the worst of which was the first time Taliban were in power in the period of 1996 to 2001. So the first thing that I think is important to establish is the fact that the struggle for gender equality in Afghanistan is not just linked to international intervention, and it's not as recent as one might think.”
The best allyship for Afghan women right now would be to give them the space and the support that they need to go back and give back to their communities . . .
Durrani is the founder of LEARN Afghanistan (@LearnAfg), a grassroots organization established to safely and securely provide education to girls through a distributed network of tablet computers using an offline platform. She urged the international community to trust Afghan women to lead the way in seeking solutions for their country.
“Afghanistan has always been seen as a project by the international community… Afghanistan is not a project, it's a country,” she said. “The best allyship for Afghan women right now would be to give them the space and the support that they need to go back and give back to their communities, to support their communities, their families, their loved ones, but also their country in general. Because all these women that we see, they're fierce women.”
Akhlaq shared lessons we can learn from previous failures of the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. He spoke about the need for better terminology, as there is no Dari or Pashto (the two official languages of Afghanistan) translation for terms like “gender equality”; the importance of not positioning women’s rights as in opposition to men’s rights; the mistake of ignoring Islamic examples of strong women; the damage done by politicized activism and radical and rapid demands; and the reductionism of transforming a process into projects to sell.
“These are the lessons we need to pay attention to, and I hope in the future, we consider them,” said Akhlaq.
Finally, Reza Kazemi shared his ethnographic case study of a female student he called “Roya” who was in her final year at Herat University in western Afghanistan in 2021. Roya and her peers were part of an emerging female generation with unprecedented access to higher education and participation in the economy outside of the household.
“Roya's story shows tensions over gender norms in society,” said Reza Kazemi. “Roya—and the other women that Roya represents—managed to make a decision to study, to try to find work, to make an income, and they empower themselves to do so, but often in very tense ways and with difficult tradeoffs.”
March 29, 2022