A Few Good Men For Afghan Women
By Lianne GutcherApril 16, 2012
Bringing men and women together in Afghanistan, a country where violence and discrimination against women have not been top priority for President Karzai.
Zafar Salehi knows his fellow students at university make fun of him and Tayeb Khan won't tell his family about his involvement — but as often as their schedules permit, the two young Afghan men make their way to a small office in the west of Kabul to volunteer at Young Women for Change (YWC), an Afghan non-profit organisation. The dirty little secret they keep from their families and many of their friends is that they are women's rights activists in Kabul.
On a March day, Salehi sits in the office surrounded by flyers advocating for girls' education and the elimination of violence against women, working out what still needs to be done to get the first women-only internet cafe ready for opening in a few days time. Stacked in the corner are 15 laptops, ready for installation at the site, once it has been painted.
Khan, smart in a business suit, arrives from his job as an administration co-ordinator at a local mobile phone company to help out before he rushes off to his evening class at the American University of Afghanistan, where he is studying business administration.
Salehi, 24, says he gets a "weird reaction" when he does tell people he works for free for a women's rights organisation.
"It's not [considered] a normal thing for a young Afghan male to do because [in this country] it's always been about men. They consider it weird. I knew before I joined I would be criticised," he says.
YWC was founded last April by two young Afghan women, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, and its volunteers work to empower women in Afghanistan. Early on, the pair realised that their efforts would be much more effective if they got men on board to do advocacy work. The men are useful because it is much easier for male volunteers to approach an Afghan man who is hostile to the concept of women's rights and talk to him about domestic violence, for example, than it would be for a young woman to do so.
The group now has 30 women and 15 male volunteers. Akbar and Haidary are both currently studying in the US but they maintain regular contact with their volunteers via Skype.
While some progress has been made in improving the lot of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban's hardline rule ended almost 10 years ago — especially regarding access to education and healthcare — there are other areas where advances have been negligible.
Although the 2004 constitution gives men and women equal rights, forced and underage marriages are common, and domestic abuse is rampant. Women in many parts of the country are still widely considered to be the property of men.
The collaborative approach was one of the reasons Khan, a 22-year-old Pashtun, volunteered to get involved seven months ago.
"When I saw the organisational structure, men and women working together in a friendly environment, I wanted to come and be part of it," he says. "I still cannot say to some of my relatives and friends that I am working for such an organisation. If people know that men are working for women in Afghanistan, they will ostracise us. I have shared this with many people and most of them were negative, saying it's a waste of time."
But this freedom to work together may be jeopardised. In March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed guidelines issued by the country's religious council saying that women and men should not mix in work or education, that woman are subordinate to men, and that women must have a male guardian when they travel. The president's endorsement is seen by his critics as a huge step back for women's rights and a sop to the Taliban, which his government is trying to engage in peace talks.
"It's always a challenge with the environment in Afghanistan," sighs Mohammad Jawad, 29, another male YWC volunteer. He said he is frustrated with young, educated Afghan men, whom he feels should be more open-minded but who do not want women to participate in society.
"That's what they have grown up with, it's what they have been educated to do," Jawad says. "I've always believed that women are the same as men. They have the right to live in society, work in society and be part of society."
He says that when he was growing up, he was allowed to go to school and get an education, but his sisters weren't. His father also married one sister off as a second wife to abusive man who subsequently abandoned her and their four children.
"People in Afghanistan say its God's decision," Jawad said. "But it's somebody's decision, it was my father's decision, to give my sister to a man he didn't know, and her life turned out to be hell."
Jawad, who has two children of his own, says he will bring up his daughter no differently from his son.
"I will educate her and send her to school and I will support her in whatever she wants to do in life," he says. "I will never force something on her."
Over the past year, YWC organised a street rally to raise awareness about the harassment of women on the streets of Kabul, and conducted a survey to find out the extent of the problem and how to tackle it. One volunteer, Arezu Omid, 21, holds Dari, Pashtu and English classes for women lacking education.
To mark International Women's Day on March 8, YWC opened a female-only internet cafe dedicated to Sahar Gul, the teenage girl who was tortured and kept for months in her husband's dank cellar after refusing to enter into prostitution. The volunteers selected a site near a girls' high school likely attract many customers, hired the requisite security guard, and persuaded a local Afghan company to donate 15 laptops and a printer.
"When we start a project, we do a brainstorming session," Salehi says. "We see where we can work so that with a little effort we can have a big impact on society. Now women can get connected with the world without harassment."
Internet cafes in Afghanistan are not places many women are comfortable visiting because they are generally full of men sitting around watching porn.
As of the start of April, business at the cafe is slowly picking up, according to Jawad. YWC is also organising a protest march to the Afghan parliament on April 14 to demand justice for the five women (at least) who have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of the Afghan New Year on March 21.
Three women were killed in western Herat province, one by her husband. Another woman was killed by her husband in eastern Khost province and another woman was killed in Paktia, also in eastern Afghanistan, as decided by the tribal court of the area. In addition, a 17-year old, Halima, was beaten nearly to death by her husband.
The organisation is very clear about distancing itself from westerners, though it has many supporters the world over on its Facebook page. The idea is to ward off criticism that its members are being overly influenced by non-Afghans. There is also the issue of the organisation's longevity, Salehi says.
"If Afghans work for Afghans, it is more sustainable and effective," he says.
There are plans to set up more women-only net centres in Bamiyan, Kandahar and Helmand, and the Kabul-based volunteers are reaching out to their networks in those provinces for help. In March, a Canadian chapter of YWC was launched. Again, the group there will be run by an Afghan woman and restricted to Afghan volunteers.
As a final message, Jawad said: "I would like to say something to the men of Afghanistan: Unless you let the other 50 per cent of society participate in society you will never progress and never develop. By women gaining their rights in Afghanistan, we are not losing ours."