Noorjahan Akbar is a student at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, a pre eminent women’s rights activist and Co-founder of Young Women for Change, which aims to fight the deep-seated beliefs that underpin the oppression of women in Afghanistan. YKA’s Alam Bains got a chance to interview Noorjahan. Below are the excerpts.
Firstly, tell us little bit about yourself and your organization Young Women for Change.
I am Noorjahan Akbar. I am twenty years old and the co-founder of Young Women for Change. Anita Haidary, my friend, and I started this organization in April of 2011 because we felt that young men and women of Afghanistan have the potential to bring change in the mentalities of people about women and that all we need is a little push, based on that belief we started working on forming a volunteer group. Now in less than one year, we are over fifty volunteers in three different provinces of Afghanistan. Young Women for Change, founded in April 2011, is an independent non-profit organization consisting of tens of volunteer women and male advocates across Afghanistan who are committed to empowering Afghan women and improving their lives through social and economical participation, political empowerment, awareness and advocacy. Now, YWC has a male advocacy group, the only one of its kind in Afghanistan, which also focuses on talking to people in grassroots level to raise awareness on women’s rights and the importance of women’s participation in the society.
There are many organizations in Afghanistan working for the human rights of women, like Afghan Women Social and Cultural Organization, Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan and others. Why did you feel the need for a new organization?
The reason we started YWC was to involve youth in fighting for gender inequality and empowering women to stand up against violation and abuse. We believe that youth have not been mobilized to work for women’s rights in Afghanistan and their potential remains untapped. In addition to that, we felt the need for grassroots, individual by individuals, advocacy for change in the mentalities of people about women and women’s rights and we felt most organizations were not very focused on that. To do these two things, we started YWC.
Please tell us about some of your personal experiences which have influenced your work as an activist.
Like most other girls, when I was born, the fourth daughter of the family, it was considered a disaster. My grandmother sulked with my mom, and if she didn’t have my father’s support, my mom would have been very depressed for giving birth to her fourth daughter. When I hit puberty, I was asked by my society to bend my shoulders while walking, be invisible and quite outside the house, talk softly and not tell my real views, feel ashamed of being a woman, hate and cover anything that makes me a woman, not laugh loud, not run, not communicate with boys, etc. However, because I have a very supportive family, I was able to break some of these laws and I learned to appreciate my womanhood. Because I had access to education, I was able to see myself as an equal to a man; equal in rights, equal in intellect, and that allowed me to dream of a country where every woman is able to feel that way.
What are the problems and the opposition that you and your organization have faced since its inception?
One of the main challenges we face in Afghanistan is that the level of tolerance for women’s activism is very low in the society. The religious leaders often accuse activist women of being non-Muslim and infidels and some of the media is also used towards delegitimizing women’s organizations and disabling them from continuing to work. However, after being bashed by the religious leaders and conservative and radical media several times, we have learned that there are people in our community who also support us. These people reached out to us and helped us and joined our front after the attempts to defame us. We learned that it is possible to create an alliance among youth in Afghanistan and that regardless of how many attacks are made on us by some religious leaders and radical thinkers and media, we are still able to continue if we have allies and if we persevere.
You had organized a protest march called Advocacy for Dignity against street harassment of women. How the experience and what was were the problems that you faced in realizing the march?
On July 14, 2011, we had the first-ever walk against street harassment of women in Kabul after during a small research we learned that 18 out of twenty women faced harassment, verbal or physical daily as they exited their houses. The walk was very successful. More than 50 youth came and walked with us. During the walk, we distributed flyers about street harassment and talked to the police and people about the problem. The walk was covered by The Guardian, CNN, BBC, and many other media out-lets inside Afghanistan. The aim of this walk to identify street harassment as a problem and combined with the media work, interviews, roundtables and debates that we held in Afghan media, this happened, while before street harassment was ignored as a natural part of the society.
What are your views on conservatism, orthodoxy and lack of education amongst women in Afghanistan and how do you plan to address these issues?
The culture of misogyny and the belief that women are inferior to men is the core of all the problems we face. This belief has been installed not only in men, but also in women, which is why in so many cases of violence; women also contribute to violence against other women. We need to change that mentality and we try to do it by educating the men and empowering the women so they see their self-worth. We help women who have complaints against violence to register their cases and get legal help to gain justice. We help women by raising awareness about violence in the society to decrease it. We also talk to women to empower them enough to tell their stories and stand up against violence. A big portion of our work is also promoting literacy using women’s rights topics. In our literacy classes, we teach women to not use violence against other women and in our debates, we work with men to teach them to respect women’s rights and to raise their awareness on the importance of women’s contribution to the society and how violence can decrease that contribution.
What are the changes that you would like to see in the future in the status of women and in the governmental policies that support the Taliban view?
I want to see an Afghanistan where women are 50% of the force in every governmental sector. I want to see an Afghanistan where the government makes an obvious effort to promote women’s education and speak against violence and violations of women’s rights. I want to see an Afghanistan where my rights will not be compromised for politically-easy so-called solutions to the war and peace is not brought at the price of injustice and violation of 50% of the country. I want to see an Afghanistan, where women and men will create peace in equality and justice, because that is the only way peace will be fundamental and long-term, not a country where peace is imposed at the cost of the freedom of thought, speech and social participation of the 51% of the country.
What issues are you working on at present? (Your campaigns, workshops etc that you are currently engaged in)
We have been focusing our efforts in talking to youth in universities and schools to gain allies and increase our numbers. We have also found friends in the more progressive media to support us and be our voice to advocate about our work and beliefs if we are attacked by others. For example, every Saturday, we go to local learning centers, and talk to youth about our organization and issues relating to gender and women. In addition to that, we hold monthly lectures that are open to public to raise awareness on our work and issues like harassment of women or violence. We also talk to individual youth about our work. So far, we have talked to over one thousand youth in universities in Kabul city and interviewed them about our work and street harassment of women in Afghanistan. In addition to that, in December of 2011, we had a poster project, that was designed to hang posters about violence against women and women’s education in the walls of Kabul city. During the event, fifty of our friends and members went to six different parts of the city, talked to shopkeepers and other people, explained the posters to them, and hang more than 700 posters on the people’s walls and shops. This allowed people to learn more about us, but also engage in conversation about issues relating to women.
We have begun to conduct the largest and first research on street harassment in the city of Kabul. We have surveyed over 1500 people so far.
We have created a documentary on street harassment and it has been screened in various parts of the city.
We had the first-ever walk against street harassment in July 14, during which we were covered by over 30 international and national media outlets.
We have begun classes of literacy and English language for women,Â debate sessions in learning institutions on street harassment and violence against women.
We have held five public lectures on issues relevant to women and gender,Â covered the walls of Kabul with over 700 posters on violence and discrimination against women,Â had tens of radio and TV debates on street harassment and other issues relevant to women,Â have worked with religious leaders to persuade them to talk against violence during preaches.
We have held a poster exhibition to raise awareness on women’s issues and raise funds for a harassment-free internet cafÃ© for women in Kabul.
We have helped several women, including Gulnaz and Sahar Gul, with advocacy for their legal cases or with finding lawyers, fundraising for legal costs, etc.
What are your future plans for Young Women for Change and for yourself?
We hope to make YWC a nation-wide organization so that we are reachable to every man and woman who wants to help women or need help. In the short term, we want to create net cafes and other space learning and communication centers for women all around the country. We want to increase our campaigns across the country and raise awareness on a larger scale.
I want to finish college and work for a couple years in many different parts of Afghanistan.