By Pragya Narang
“The only difference (between the 1990s and now) is that the Taliban are more sophisticated, they are on social media and Twitter, and they are young men who know how to use technology to spread their message,” says Najiba Laima Kasraee, an award-winning British journalist of Afghan origin, now based in Prague.
Speaking at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, Kasraee, who is a broadcaster, writer, and associate standard editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, shared: “My grandmother who was born in 1905 said that my generation is luckier than my mom’s because in those days women were simply not allowed to speak as her voice shouldn’t be heard by strangers. We are now going back to an area where women are silenced again.”
The Summit, which brought together 50 eminent women from 13 countries, also saw the presence of Afghanistan policy expert Mariam Safi, the founding director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), a Kabul-based research institute, who is currently in Canada after having escaped from Kabul during the Taliban takeover and is now helping to evacuate others.
Kasraee narrated an event when she had interviewed a Taliban commander, the then 25-year-old Niazi – who was recently killed just before Taliban took over – in Jalalabad two decades ago with her face uncovered. “I asked him, ‘Would you like to take your wife to a male doctor or a female doctor?’ He replied without hesitation, ‘Obviously a female one!’ I had asked him where female doctors would come from if girls are not allowed to be educated? The same questions are appearing again after 20 years.”
Sharing figures, she revealed how women had progressed in an Afghanistan free from Taliban. “Only 9000 girls remained in school during the Taliban regime, but today we have 4 million. The most recent figures show that we had 450 (female) judges, and it is an extremely rare situation for women to have a higher authority as per Sharia; 27 percent of Afghan government comprised of women; 5 percent of our total military and police force were women, and 20 percent civil servants across Afghanistan were women – this includes the rural areas. Now the women’s ministry itself has been disbanded,” said the Afghan-origin media-woman.
Kasraee is known for her work in BBC World Service, where besides memorable interviews with world leaders such as Tony Blair, she also founded the first language training for BBC Academy, which led to the creation of training resources in more than 42 vernacular languages for journalists worldwide.
Her panel was titled “Feminist Lens: Women’s Visibility and the Culture of Silence”. Her copanelists included Pakistani columnist, writer and TV show host Mehr Tarar, and Indian-Australian actor, feminist author and entrepreneur Saloni Chopra.
Mariam Safi, who has participated in many peacebuilding efforts, including briefing the United Nations Security Council on the challenges faced by women in the Afghan peace process, echoed Kasraee’s thoughts and categorically called out the bluff that the Taliban had changed.
“Two days after the fall of Kabul, Taliban came out with calming pro-women statements to assuage the public. However, a month later we see that their words have not translated into action. Secondary school has been banned for girls, along with sports for women where their bodies shall be shown inappropriately in the media. They have even banned women from becoming ministers, snatching away their spots in decision-making,” Safi said.
Women also have an inherent fear of returning to spaces such as private educational institutions or healthcare, which remain open. “What we had in the last 20 years wasn’t perfect but there were spaces for improvement through media and civil-society organisations who could operate,” shared Safi, who is a scholar and academic in the area of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, specialising in women and public policy in Afghanistan.
Safi had moved from Toronto to Kabul some years ago to set up DROPS to reduce the growing gap between citizens and the government. “Women were always objects of research but not the lens behind it, as research in Afghanistan has largely been donor-driven,” she explained.
Her organisation put in place a structure that could help equip women with tools required for critical analysis, research, and policy development as well as bridge the gap between policymakers and policy researchers, so that the funding is used in areas that are relevant to them.
DROPS set up Women and Public Policy Journal, which was first of its kind in Afghanistan. It covered essential topics such as elections, regional security, and the peace process.
Last year, they also launched the Afghanistan Women and Peacebuilding Journal to document the peacebuilding initiatives that had been adopted by the country through international partners since 2001 to identify what worked and what didn’t in their context. This knowledge was then tabled to ensure that policymakers made the correct decisions.
Safi was joined in her panel, titled “Doctrine of Oppression: The Gendered Cost of Religious Extremism”, by Khushi Kabir, social activist, artist and environmentalist from Bangladesh; US-based journalist-filmmaker Beena Sarwar, who heads the peacebuilding platform Aman ki Asha and is founder-curator of South Asia Peace Action Network; and Riya Singh, co-founder of the collective Dalit Women Fight, and ICSSR doctoral fellow from India.
South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe and was timed to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence. The first in a planned series of annual events, it aims to promote women’s leadership and create a space for courageous conversations on peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.
The event was supported by WISCOMP – Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace, an initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. See all the sessions here.
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