Monday, July 13, 2009
By Abbas Jaffer, June 5, 2009
Paula Lerner has been reaching out to the women of Afghanistan ever since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002. As a photographer and activist, she has seen the unique challenges and triumphs of women's rights activists there. I asked her about her involvement in Afghan women's development, as well as her views on the recent Sitara Achakzai murder and the dangers Afghan women face when advocating for broader rights.
When did you begin traveling to Afghanistan and working with the Business Council for Peace?
I have been to Afghanistan five times, beginning in 2005. The first three trips I was part of a team of volunteers working with the Business Council for Peace, a non-profit organization that helps women establish and grow self-sustaining businesses. Their motto is that more jobs mean less violence. My role on the team was to document Bpeace programs with photographs, with audio interviews and sound recordings. In 2006 I collaborated with the Washington Post to produce an award-winning multimedia feature about this group of unusual businesswomen, which is archived online. My last two trips I spent primarily in Kandahar working on a separate project about women in that city.
Do you see Afghanistan as a culturally divided country, between northern areas like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces? Is the coverage on Afghanistan in the U.S. painting an accurate portrayal of what's really going on there?
I have so far only spent time in Kabul and Kandahar, and unfortunately have not yet been to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, so I do not feel well informed enough to answer the first part of the question. As for the media coverage of Afghanistan in the U.S., I feel that it is generally not as in-depth or well rounded as it should be, and for that reason it is also not as accurate as it should be. In general, the coverage is limited, and heavily focused on the military and on the Taliban insurgency. There is very little coverage of daily life, or stories that would give Americans a better understanding of the cultural complexities or the human side of the Afghan people. Without that balance, I feel we get a very skewed picture. And with only a steady diet of skewed, mostly negative stories, I feel our capacity for compassion - and also for real understanding - is stunted. Since I am something of an "Afghanistan watcher," I monitor news reports about Afghanistan from many sources world wide. Between that and personal reports I get from friends and contacts on the ground, I feel I can get a much more accurate picture of what is happening there than from the general coverage in the American media.
Sitara Achikzai – the women’s rights activist recently killed by the Taliban – can you tell us a bit about her efforts and the challenges she faced?
Sitara Achakzai was an intelligent, educated, articulate and vibrant woman who was working very hard to improve the situation of men, women and children in her home province of Kandahar. As an elected member of the Kandahar Provincial Council, she had a price on her head, as do all of the council's members. It’s very hard to be outspoken about issues of rights and justice when one is constantly under the threat of death. She was very brave to continue her efforts under such circumstances. Her murder was a cowardly and dishonorable act on the part of the perpetrators. Afghanistan needs more people like Sitara Achakzai, not fewer of them.A few weeks before her murder, I did an in-depth interview with Mrs. Achakzai, and one of the things she told me that she was most proud of was that she and the other three women on the Provincial Council are recognized as being more honest and less corrupt than some of the male members of the council. When men in the province would bring a petition to the Council, some of them would seek out her and the other women to act as their representative on the case because of this. One of them even told her that at the next election he would vote only for women because he felt the women were more honest and capable than the men. She talked at length about how she was proud to be a part of that.
In your view, how is the situation in Kandahar unique for women’s rights work compared to the rest of Afghanistan?
Unlike for women in some other parts of Afghanistan, when the Taliban fell in 2001, not much changed for women in Kandahar. Because Kandahar is the Taliban homeland and the city from which the Taliban sprang, the fall of the regime didn't change the culture in the region. This means that the repression of women's rights imposed by the Taliban, such as the prohibition of the education of girls, of women working outside the home, of women to even leave home without a male escort, in large part, continues today even though none of this is mandated by law anymore. This is not unique to Kandahar, but it is certainly different than the experience of women in the capital city of Kabul and some other parts of the country.
Who else would you cite as examples of women’s rights leaders in Afghanistan?
For security reasons I would rather not mention names right now. The women I know whom I would cite are trying to keep a low profile, and for their security I think it best not to call attention to them at this time. I hope that will change in the near future.
What do you think the role of Western women should be in wanting to help Afghan women? How would you characterize these interactions?
I have seen firsthand some amazing efforts on the part of Western women to reach out to Afghan women. My first contact with Afghan women was through the Business Council for Peace, which has a very hands-on and practical approach to helping Afghan businesswomen. The Western women were successful businesswomen who reached out to advise, train and, in some cases, help launch their sisters in Afghanistan. What was beautiful to see about these interactions was that this was a clear case of Western women offering a hand up, not a hand out. I think this kind of effort is exactly what we in the West should be focusing on if we wish to improve things in Afghanistan. I saw many strong friendships develop between the Bpeace members and the Afghan women in the program, which have lasted over time. I think it’s fair to say that on both sides the women’s lives were changed in a positive way. Other groups that I have seen doing similarly good work is Women for Afghan Women and Project Artemis at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, to name a few.
What are some accomplishments that Afghan women have achieved that don't always get highlighted in the mainstream media?
There are many women's success stories that go under reported in the mainstream media. Over the last four years I have personally interviewed Afghan women in business, the media, and in politics who are doing outstanding things in their fields but whose stories are for the most part unknown in the West. On just this last trip in March I met with women in traditional garment-making and embroidery businesses, women who are beekeepers and honey producers, and women who manufacture soccer balls. Collectively they employ hundreds of other women and have a significant impact on their communities, both financially and as role models. Part of my personal mission as a photojournalist and multimedia producer is to shine a light on these women, and to tell their stories to a larger audience in order to give a more balanced perspective on the experience of women in Afghanistan.
Abbas Jaffer is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.
Friday, May 8, 2009
There are concerns for the participation of women candidates in this year's elections in Afghanistan. Friday, 8 May marks the last chance for candidates to register for the 20 August presidential and provincial council elections.
So far only 177 out of the 1,575 registered candidates are women, less than nine per cent of the total number of candidates.
One hundred and twenty four seats on provincial councils are reserved for women according to Afghanistan's Election Law.
"We are really concerned because with this trend we are loosing rights that we got with a lot of difficulties," said Kabul Member of Parliament Mrs Shinkai Karokhil. "Among the many reasons for this problem are the weaknesses of the provincial councils at the local level, insecurity, lack of cooperation of male leaders in a male dominated society, the lack of political will of the Government and the poverty that women are facing."
Dr Daoud Najafi of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission added: "Either security or economic issues are the main reasons of this trend."
According to the Election Law each provincial council candidate should present the signatures and voter registration card numbers from 200 supporters as part of the registration process (10,000 signatures are required for presidential candidates).
"A number of men do not give their voter cards for women to qualify nor give economical support to this very poor part of the population," said Mrs Karokhil. "The consequences of this situation are that we are going back toward a society controlled with only one gender. This is a failure of democracy because if women do not go to the provincial councils today, then they will not go to parliamentary election tomorrow and finally women will again be excluded from political participation."
Around 49 per cent of Afghanistan's population of approximately 24 million is female. A very low literacy rate estimated at around 16 percent for women compared to 31 per cent for men and a high mortality rate standing at around 1,600 to 1,900 deaths per 100,000 live births, or the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, contribute to the plight of women in Afghanistan.
Following the parliamentary and provincial council elections in 2005 women held 121 out of the 420 provincial council seats; the remaining three seats had to be given to men. In parliament women gained 27 per cent of the seats with women holding 68 out of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House), and 23 out of the 102 seats in the Meshrano Jirga (Upper House).
In terms of the executive and judicial bodies in Afghanistan there is only one female cabinet minister, while almost 26 per cent of civil servants and 30 per cent of farmers are women.
So far two women have registered as presidential candidates for 2009 compared to one presidential and two vice presidential candidates in 2004.
Figures show that the number of women who registered for elections in Afghanistan increased from 41.5 per cent in 2004 to 44 per cent in 2005 but has decreased to 38 per cent for the 2009 vote.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Sadly, Mrs. Achekzai was brutally killed as she was exiting her vehicle in front of her house.
Officials said the attack happened in broad daylight. The Taliban have claimed responsibility. Friends said Mrs Achakzai was returning from a provincial council meeting; her assassins were lying in wait nearby.
“This cold-blooded assassination puts in question the direction that Afghanistan is heading,” warned Wenny Kusuma, the director of the United Nations Development fund for Women in Afghanistan. “There is no respect for the rule of law.”
Mrs. Achikzai was planning on leaving Afghanistan because of the security situation. She already had a ticket for a flight out on May 1.
Mrs. Achekzai's death is a major loss for the women's rights movement in Afghanistan.
(note Sitara's blue scarf)
Sitara Achekzai, a female member of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot to death in broad daylight by unknown assassins in southern Kandahar province on Sunday. A spokesman for the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack. Sitara died shortly after four men traveling on two motorbikes opened fire as she exited a vehicle in front of her house, provincial police chief Maitullah Qateh Khan told the Associated Press. Sitara, a proponent of women’s rights, had returned to Kandahar in 2004 after living in exile in Germany during the Taliban era.
On April 1, the Taliban attacked a Kandahar provincial council meeting shortly before noon, unleashing five suicide bombers in a complex assault that left 13 people dead including provincial education minister Mohammad Anwar Khan and the deputy of the provincial public health department, Dr. Abdulhai Razmal. Sitara Achekzai, who also attended the ill-fated meeting, suffered shrapnel wounds to her face after one of the bombers succeeded in penetrating the building’s main lobby and detonated, collapsing parts of the roof. Six of the ten policemen tasked with securing the building were among those killed in the attack.
Abdul Wali Karzai, a provincial council member and brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Pajhwok News that the head of the rural development department, Eng Abdul Latif Ashna; council members Bismillah Afghanmal and Haji Syed Jan Khakrizwal; and an official of UNAMA's political branch, Mujeebur Rehman, all were injured during the attack.
Taliban officials have reportedly offered 200,000 Pakistani rupees, around $2,500, to anyone who murders a councilor.
The Taliban have a long history of attacking both provincial council meetings and high profile female personalities in Kandahar. In November, a suicide truck bomber detonated a fuel tanker truck near a government compound hosting a provincial council meeting. The massive blast killed six people, wounded 42 others, destroyed five nearby homes, and damaged the provincial intelligence headquarters. General Rahmatullah Raufi, the governor of Kandahar province at the time, said that two of the dead were provincial intelligence officers.
Last September, the Taliban assassinated Captain Malalai Kakar, the top female police officer for Kandahar, in a similar brazen daylight attack that included motorbike assassins shooting her point blank in the head as her son drove her to work. At the time of her death, Ms. Kakar was head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women.
Other Kandahari commanders and MPs have also been targeted and killed. Two Taliban suicide bombers succeeded in penetrating Kandahar’s provincial police headquarters in September and nearly assassinated the Border Police Commander Abdul Razzaq. On July 7, 2008, MP Habibullah Jan was shot dead by assassins after visiting an Army base in the Zhari district. In February 2008, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 55 people including a pro-government militia commander named Abdul Hakim Jan at a dog-fighting match in the Arghandab district of Kandahar.
April 27, 2009
We hear about the remarkable life of Sitara Achekzai. She was born and raised in Kandahar -- a city known as the birthplace of the Taliban. Sitara served as a local legislator in Kandahar, where she was a vocal proponent of women's rights. Earlier this month, she was shot and killed outsider her home.
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LISA MULLINS: We’d like to take a couple of minutes here to tell you about a remarkable Afghan woman. Her name was Sitara Achekzai. She was born and raised in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Achekzai served as a local council member in Kandahar. She used her position to advocate for women’s rights. Earlier this month, Achekzai was shot and killed outside her home. The government of Afghanistan blamed the attack on “enemies of Afghanistan,” that’s code for the Taliban. The resurgence of the Islamist movement has made Kandahar increasingly dangerous. Women rarely go out on their own anymore. It was a lot different when Sitara Achekzai was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s. Here’s how she described it last month, just a few weeks before she was murdered.
SITARA ACHEKZAI: It was much easier to ask for our rights then than it is now. My family was the first family to allow its women to ride on a bicycle in Kandahar city. My sister-in-law was the first woman to come out in public unveiled, and she was also the first woman to ride a bicycle. I was a girl at that time. And I remember my father always telling his children, us kids, “rights are not given, they’re taken.” And so by buying us bicycles and riding bicycles, we were taking our rights.
MULLINS: Sitara Achekzai went to college. She taught high school and she became a principal. Then she moved to Germany. She married an Afghan man living there. The couple didn’t have children. And Sitara Achekzai said she had mixed feelings about that.
MULLINS: In 2003, Achekzai and her husband returned to Afghanistan to help their country. She said it wasn’t easy.
ACHEKZAI: I have made a sacrifice of choosing to come and work and live in Kandahar. Nobody asked me to come. I left my comfortable life in Germany, a peaceful life in Germany, to come and be here. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.
MULLINS: What Achekzai was doing was serving as one of four women on Kandahar’s Provincial Council. Local men would go to the council to air grievances and petition for relief.
ACHEKZAI: One pride that I’m happy to note is that after this many times, many of the people who come to bring complaints to us, they’re old men – but they will come and ask for me or the women to be their representatives for their case, because they’ve proven. they’ve seen now that the women are less corrupt and that they will truly hear the voices and requests of the people. So this is my pride. This is what I have done. I’m also happy to note that most of the people who come, they say the next elections they will vote for women, women only, because they see that women are doing a better job, and I’m part of that.
MULLINS: Sitara Achekzai, from a conversation with photojournalist Paula Lerner back in March. Thanks to Stoorai Ayazi for her help in the translation. Sitara Achekzai was gunned down on her way home from work on April 12th. She was 52 years old.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The first time we met Sitara, who returned to Afghanistan from Germany in 2004, she discussed her country in depth. She told us that while it would be a long struggle, women and men of Afghanistan must work together to demand women’s rights, and that equal power would never be achieved without a struggle. She described peace as a calm in which the rule of law could be implemented justly, and described a true leader as a person with a vision for equality and change. Throughout our three days with Sitara in February of this year, she astounded us with her bravery, courage and strength.
‘In other countries, day by day, human rights develop. But in Afghanistan, sometimes it feels like they move backwards.’ Despite this challenge, in 2008 and 2009 she and two friends gathered 2,000 Kandahari women in a mosque in the heart of Kandahar to call for their vision – a vision of peace with justice, and to hold those in power accountable to the voices of women.
Her killing was a cold-blooded act of cowardice, a means of refusing to engage in debate and dialogue, of silencing a powerful majority of the country through fear and violence. Sitara symbolized what Afghan women leaders pose nationally – a vocal minority, asking for change, asking questions about the role of women in Afghanistan, and demanding inclusion in the reconstruction and development of their homeland.
The killing of women like Sitara not only has tremendous personal ramifications for family and friends, but social repercussions that cannot be understated. Her killing silences thousands of other women and men in Afghanistan who believe that human rights are not a western imposition, but are central to their understanding of Islam, and to their beliefs and cultures.
The remaining few people who continue to bravely speak out in defense of human rights, both men and women’s, are crucial to the future of Afghanistan. Attacks on their lives are not spontaneous. They are premeditated and forewarned. Weeks and months before Sitara’s death she was telling anyone who would listen of her fears. An attack on women and men like Sitara is an attack on all human rights defenders. Brave women and men willing to stand up and be heard on issues of human rights must be supported and they must be protected. Violence with impunity must not be allowed to continue, and the Government of Afghanistan and the international community must join in holding the perpetrators of Sitara’s murder accountable to this standard.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
A wonderful short segment on Danish TV2.
We also know that the action was covered by the Norwegian press, with a picture on the front page of a national paper, and the German press. If you have links to these clippings, please send them to us at email@example.com
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Sunday, March 8, 2009
'A U.N. report this week on human rights in Afghanistan said that "threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase."
Still, there are Afghan women passionately working for change. In cities across Afghanistan on Sunday, groups of women donned blue headscarves to show their support for women's rights and prayed together for peace and justice.'
Afghan women in Kandahar praying for peace with justice. Sunday, March 8, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)
UN Afghanistan holds an inter-faith prayer in support of the women of Afghanistan praying for peace with justice
Saturday, March 7, 2009
We, the woman of Afghanistan, are gathered to call for peace with justice, to show the world we are ready to be equal partners for peace. We are not invisible. We are here.
During the years of conflict, women suffered the harshest of punishments, and their most basic rights were taken away. And, we are among the first to organize ourselves to demand an end to the conflict and the start of accountability. There can be no peace without justice.
We are the victims of war, but more importantly we are the messengers of peace. We must be included in building peace in our country. Only the bird with equal wings can fly.
We are united in a single vision. We come together from different provinces, united by the same concerns and the same challenges in our lives, and we see the same solution: peace with justice in Afghanistan.
Our solidarity goes beyond ethnic, language, tribal affiliations, which the enemies of this nation use to try and show that we are divided. We are not divided, we are together.
Peace does not come through guns. We will not have peace in Afghanistan until we are guaranteed education for our daughters, jobs for our mothers, healthcare for our sisters, and dignity for all. This cannot be negotiated.
The women of Afghanistan risk their lives to come out today. But we are not afraid. We are the sign of hope: for a new day of peace with justice for the people of Afghanistan.
ما زنان افغانستان برای فراخوانی صلح با عدالت گردهم آمده ایم، تا به جهان نشان دهیم که ما آماده هستیم تا شرکاء مساوی برای صلح باشیم. ما محسوس نیستیم. ما اینجا هستیم. در جریان سالهای جنگ، زنان خشن ترین مجازات را تحمل کردند، و حقوق بسیار ابتدایی شان از ایشان گرفته شده بود. و ما در میان اولین ها هستیم که خود را منسجم میسازیم تا اختتام جنگ و آغاز جوابگویی را مطالبه نماییم و هیچگاهی صلح بدون عدالت بوده نمیتواند
ما قربانیان جنگ هستیم، اما مهمتر از آن ما پیام آوران صلح هستیم. ما باید در ایجاد صلح در کشور مان شامل باشیم. فقط پرندگان با بالهای مساوی میتوانند پرواز کنند
ما برای یک هدف واحد متحد هستیم. ما از ولایات مختلف آمده ایم، ما بواسطه دیدگاه های مشترک و چالش های مشرک زندگی مان باهم متحد هستیم، و راه حل مشترکی را مشاهده میکنیم: صلح با عدالت در افغانستان
همبستگی ما فراتر از وابستگی های نژادی، لسانی، و قومی است، چیزی که دشمنان این ملت کوشش میکنند بواسطه آن ما را جدا ازهمدیگر جلوه دهند. ما از هم جد نیستیم. ما با همدیگر هستیم
صلح بواسطه تفنگ بدست نمیاید. ما نمیتوانیم در افغانستان صلح داشته باشم مگر اینکه تعلیم به دختران خویش، کار به مادران خویش، حفظ الصحه به خواهران خویش و کرامت به همه را تضمین کنیم. و این با مذاکره بدست نمیاید
زنان افغانستان زندگی شانرا به مخاطره میندازند تا امروز برون آیند. مگر ما نمی هراسیم. ما نشانه امید هستیم: برای یک روز جدید صلح با عدالت برای مردم افغانستان
7 March 2009
To mark International Women’s Day at least 15,000 women across Afghanistan will come together, united, in a call for peace with justice.
On 8 March at 10am across the country, women will meet in their thousands wearing blue scarves, to stand side by side, regardless of language, ethnic and tribal differences, to pray for a common vision for the future, for peace with justice in Afghanistan.
The gatherings will take place in Kandahar, Bamyan, Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Daikundi, and Jalalabad
In making history, this will be the first gathering in Afghanistan of this size and scope, uniting Afghan women under a common vision of the future.
Last year on 8 March 2008 three brave women from Kandahar defied all the odds to bring together more than 1500 women in one of the worlds most hostile environments, Kandahar.
The women came together in peace, to meet in a public space to pray for peace with justice in Afghanistan, and the action caught the attention of the world.
“We can not gain peace only through guns, through bombs, and through killing people. If that were the case, we would have had peace by now. Real peace relates to security, but it also relates to justice, equality and access,” said a young woman peace activist from Mazar.
“Afghan women are tired of being subject to egregious acts of violence, they are tired of watching their family and friends killed, and they refuse to accept the pervasive political, cultural, and economic violence which woman face on a daily basis both in their homes and in their pursuit to participate in public life”, Rangina Hamidi, Kandahar
This year, to highlight the importance of seeking a regional solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and to demonstrate that all women stand together for peace with justice, the 8 March action will be supported by radio messages from Nobel Laureates and other prominent men and women in the region.
The messages will be played on Afghan and international radio throughout 8 March.
The cross-border women already participating in the radio message are:
Ms. Shirin Ebadi (Iran) – Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist. She is the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ms. Asma Jahangir (Pakistan) – Asma Jahangir is a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist. She has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief since 2004 (first attached to the former Commission on Human Rights, now to the Human Rights Council).
Ms. Bushar Gohar (Pakistan) – Bushar Gohar is a long time human rights defender and an MP in one of Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Ms. Zeng Jinyan (China) – Zeng Jinyan is the online progeny of the protesters who blocked a column of advancing tanks during China's Tiananmen uprising in 1989, and is a vocal human rights defender in China. She is currently on hunger strike.
Ms. Mutabar Tajibayeva (Uzbekistan) – Mutabar Tadzhibaeva is a human rights defender, chairwoman of the human rights organization Fiery Hearts and a founder of the national movement Civil Society. She is a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and the 2008 Laureate of the Martin Ennis Award. In 2005 she was arrested and jailed in Uzbekistan for political opposition, and was recently released in June 2008 for health reasons.
For more details on Praying for Peace with Justice
Hosaun Bano Ghazanfar, Minister of Ministry of Woman's Affairs, wearing a blue scarf in support of the women praying for peace with justice in Afghanistan.
A discussion panel highlighting the multiple realities of living as women in Afghanistan today. Commission on the Status of Women, New York, NY, March 2009.
Wazhma Frogh, Afghan Women's Network with Susan Rice, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the US to the UN, both wearing blue scarves in support of the women of Afghanistan praying for peace with justice.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Amina Afzaili and Shinkai Karokhail, Member of Parliament, Afghanistan
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Asking women to come out of their homes is a provocative and dangerous act in many parts of the Afghanistan, and therefore this act symbolizes the scope of women’s desire for peace with justice, and demonstrates their demand to participate and be present for peace in Afghanistan.On 8 March, we congratulate all women of the world, and in particular we show our solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, who are present today praying for peace with justice.
For more information on the action please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.