Afghan Women's Rights

Why Afghanistan Needs Women Like Shaharzad Akbar

When U.S. news outlets run stories about women in Afghanistan, they often focus on how dangerous the country is. Fourteen years after America invaded — ostensibly, to liberate women and girls from the oppressive regime of the Taliban, which barred them from education, freedom of movement, and personal autonomy — women and girls still face many challenges. But that’s only one small part of the picture.

Shaharzad Akbar is dedicated to improving life in Afghanistan for everyone, and especially women. Akbar, 27, is currently the head of Open Society Afghanistan and is a co-founder of Afghanistan 1400, a group dedicated to bringing young Afghans into the political process.

Akbar’s family fled the country when the Taliban rose to power, returning not long after the 2001 invasion. After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, she became the first Afghan woman to get a master’s degree at Oxford, in 2011.

Refinery29 sat down with Akbar at the Open Society offices in Manhattan to talk about her work, women in Afghanistan, and “global sisterhood.”

What’s a memory you have of growing up in Afghanistan that feels really special to you?
“When I was 10 or 11, we lived in a very old house in Mazar-e-Sharif in North Afghanistan, which had a very beautiful garden. I have memory of days and days of sitting in the garden and reading. My feet would be in the pool, and it was so quiet and so peaceful. I would read lots of literature.

“Another memory I have is from, again, in North Afghanistan. We lived in Sheberghan, […]

How did you get your education and end up studying in the U.S. and at Oxford?
“I was very, very fortunate to have parents to invest in my education at all times, regardless of what was happening in the country. We were migrants, we are at war, there are bullets flying outside. My parents say, ‘Education is a priority, you can never miss your homework, you can never miss your studies. You have to keep reading, you have to keep learning.’

“I think their vision made a huge difference in my life, definitely. But also a kind of luck, […]

What are some of the most common misconception people have about Afghanistan?
“I do see people outside of Afghanistan, not just Americans, that think Afghans have a universal problem with women’s education. I think that’s a very important shift to acknowledge and the credit goes to Afghan people. I think acceptance for primary education of girls is almost universal in Afghanistan.

“People are investing in their daughters’ education. People are sending their daughters to private university, […]

Tell us about what you’re working on right now?
“I’m the country director of Open Society Afghanistan, and the sectors that we focus on currently are women’s-rights issues, rule of law, good governance — on which we specifically focus on peace and reconciliation, […]

What makes you want to stay, even though there is this constant concern about prospects for long-term stability?
“Afghanistan is my home, and I believe it has a lot of potential. Because of all the hardship that we have been in, I believe that the majority of Afghans really understand the value of peace […]

In terms of your work, how successful have you been in terms of gender equality? What have some of the challenges been?
“I’m sure you hear a lot in the media about the challenges, from harassment to lack of social tolerance for women’s activism outside the house.

“What has been promising is that in the past 14 years, we had a wave of young women who are the first in their families, and sometimes their communities, to have access to higher education, to have jobs, to be breadwinners. This is a small group, but the social impact is really great. They are the pioneers, and they are changing people’s conceptualization of gender norms.

“For instance, in my own family, I have several cousins who are studying in Kabul […]

One of the projects you are working on right now is Afghanistan 1400. What is that, and why is it so important?
“Afghanistan is a youth-majority population. However, youth have very little voice in the political decision-making. They are seen as foot soldiers for the big political ideas of the older generation, or just as absolutely irrelevant to the political discussion and political power.

“We are a group of young people particularly invested in the idea of democracy […]

How did Afghanistan 1400 start?
“We had the initial conversations around September 2011, and we declared ourselves in December 2012, so it’s very, very young.

“We have a range of people, in terms of education and exposure […]

How do you think the generational shift you are trying to bring about can help women in Afghanistan?
“I think Afghan women had very few representatives in the post-2002 Afghanistan. A big majority of Afghan women from different parts of the country couldn’t speak for themselves. They needed these translators, a smaller group of Afghan women who speak on their behalf to the world, that small circle of representatives is widening, and more people from different parts of the country have the education now to speak.

“However, the younger generation of activists do not carry the same weight as the older generation, […]

What can people do to get involved or help others in Afghanistan?
“Americans have an election coming up. I think America is very powerful force in the world. Its policy decisions have implications for people around the world. When Americans make the decision about who to elect, I think they should closely look at their foreign policy. Are these leaders the kind likely to engage wisely with the issue of America’s power in the world?

“Seek out organizations that work in Afghanistan and support them. […]

What advice would you give to young women?
“One thing that I believe in is that this century can be the century of women, globally. So much has happened. So much more needs to happen, but so much has happened, and women who have the possibility to go to school, they also have the responsibility. They also have the responsibility to do something, no matter how small, for women who can’t do that.

“I really believe in global sisterhood. We need to remember every day that some of the things that we are doing, we are not just doing them for ourselves, we are also doing them for women around the world. Some of our success is beyond just personal successes.

“One thing that has really worked for me has been nurturing a network of support, meaning always looking out for mentors and always looking out for young women that I could help; [nurturing] both ends — receiving and giving. I have learned so much from my mentors that you cannot find in a textbook. So cultivating woman-to-woman friendships, looking out actively for women, is very, very important.”

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