Afghan ‘Girl Power’
By Priyali Sur
“My first love is coding. People think that girls can’t code, but I forget about the war and conflict in Afghanistan when I’m coding,” said Nooria Ismaelzade, a 25-year-old student from Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities located near the border with Iran. Wrapped in a black chador (a headscarf and robe), her eyes bright with enthusiasm, Nooria dispelled all of my preconceptions about Afghan women as I spoke to her from Washington, D.C. via video link. “The minute I leave my laptop, I’m reminded of how unsafe it is for girls here,” she said, smiling confidently into the camera.
Having suffered through 30 years of war and internal conflict and a Taliban regime that stripped women of their basic rights including formal education, Afghanistan’s female literacy rate stood at only 13 percent, according to a 2011 UN survey. As the country struggles to stabilize, Nooria—whose name means “light” or “radiant”—is like a ray of hope for many girls in her hometown. Despite facing strong social pressures to get married, she is studying computer science at the university in Herat. She also mentors other female students in her department. “I tell them that girls can be good software developers, and that they are not inferior to boys. It is important that girls never lose their confidence.”
When I asked her about her marriage plans, she laughed and said, “I want to marry Bill Gates. Tell him if you happen to see him.” We laughed together—a hearty and hopeful laugh—as she added softly, “I hope for a better future…for me and my country.”
UNEVEN PROGRESS IN IMPROVING GENDER RIGHTS
Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula—who in 2015 was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world—have been championing women’s rights. Four women were appointed to cabinet positions in April 2015, and the government adopted a National Action Plan on women, peace, and security in June. In an April interview, the first lady insisted that despite the government’s possible rapprochement with the Taliban, the rights that Afghan women have acquired during the past few years will not be reversed.
But despite these assurances, local women’s rights groups are worried. “Regarding the peace and political processes, we are concerned and unhappy that we have not been consulted. The government has not been very transparent with women about the peace process,” said Hasina Safi, Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Network, which works for gender equality. Despite promises by President Ghani, the first meeting between Afghan government officials and the Taliban in Pakistan, which took place in July 2015, lacked female representation. In addition, a 2015 Amnesty International report highlights how the Taliban, warlords, and even some government officials target and attack women’s rights defenders, while the state fails to provide them with adequate protection or bring the perpetrators to justice.
In the past few years, Afghanistan has taken steps to build a legal framework supporting women’s rights. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which was decreed into law by executive order while parliament was in recess, criminalizes 22 acts of violence and harmful traditional practices against women, including rape and forced marriage. However, conservative members of parliament have successfully blocked its approval by the national legislature, a factor cited by its supporters for its poor implementation. According to an April 2015 UN report, of 80 cases related to female victims of violence that were seen through to completion under the 2009 law, only 4 resulted in criminal convictions; most of the cases were settled out of court through mediation, a process often plagued by arbitrary documentation practices and the weak enforcement of decisions.
THE NEED FOR ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT
While protecting women from gender-based violence is crucial, there is an equally important need to promote the social and economic empowerment of women. According to data from the United Nations, only about 16 percent of adult Afghan women participated in the labor force in 2012, compared to nearly 80 percent of adult men.
“After studying English for five years, I wanted to work and be helpful to my country. I even got selected for a job, but my husband didn’t want me to work,” said 26-year-old Marzia Habibi, who was educated in Iran. “In Iran, women are free to go to school and to work. I received my diploma in mathematics and studied English there. But as soon as I came back to Afghanistan, I got married, and I now have an 11-month-old baby.” Although Marzia misses the freedom she enjoyed in Iran, she does not want to return there. She says that she loves Afghanistan and hopes that someday it will uphold and protect her rights.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
As Western governments slowly reduce their involvement in Afghanistan, the country may be fading from the global spotlight. But the struggle for gender equality continues to require the active support of both the Afghan government and the international community.
Nooria and Marzia echo the voices of many young Afghan women. When asked why she chooses to live in Herat and not find work abroad, Nooria replied, “My country needs me. I have a lot to do. I have to stay and educate other girls.”
These Afghan girls have made their choice. They have chosen Afghanistan. But will Afghanistan now choose them?
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