Shakila Khalje was born in Afghanistan and as a teenager, witnessed the invasion of former Soviet Union, which was followed by civil wars. She has worked as the Afghan refugee community Liaison/ESL instructor for the UNHCR/UNDP. And has worked with many different international NGOs over the years. Since 9/11 Ms. Khalje has been fully engaged working on Afghan related issues in different journalistic/media capacity including women’s rights advocacy. She is one of the founding members of the U.S./Afghan Women’s Council which was created in January of 2002 to bring attention to the needs of Afghan women after the end of the brutal regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan. 
She is an independent  media/Afghan cultural/language consultant while working as the volunteer Director of Public Affairs at an educational NGO based in Afghanistan.

March 8th, 2013

Happy women’s Day to all my Afghan and women all over the world.

Here are some of my reflections, thoughts and take on what it is to be Afghan women during all past decades of wars, present and the rather uncertain future to come.  In honour of my mother, and my sisters who truly have been my first strong, struggling, smart and amazing women role models, I am proud and deeply grateful to be a member of female human race. I can never say enough about my mother who was the epitome of resilience, strength, nurturing. She fiercely, yet gently stood up against all elements oppressive. She embodied the spirit of all Afghan women.

Twelve so years later, There is some overall progress in the lives of Afghan women post Taliban regime, but still  long way before they can truly claim their basic human rights. There are still many obstacles and challenges they have to face in order to achieve and sustain their status as visible members of society.  It has been a tall order and recognized with much humility. I have witnessed firsthand all the ills and good things which we as women have to learn about, deal with and enjoy. I have been a direct witness at times victim/survivor of the war started by the invasion of former Soviet Union. I witnessed the brutalities of war and how women were the soft-target and causalities of the war which was not initiated by them. Wars rarely if at all, starts with women, but they, and the children are the most vulnerable targets. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, decades of wars, blood-shed and loss of their human rights, shaped Afghan women’s lives and unwillingly the very conflict and pain is deeply rooted in their social, cultural, educational, political and emotional narratives.

I, myself have spent most of my personal and professional life wearing many hats, but all dealing human rights, women’s rights and gender issues.  I try the best to give you MY take. Keep in mind, women’s plight all over the world is more or less the same; however, there are always specific challenges related to particular cultural, geopolitical, economic, and religious factors, and many aspects vary even within the same society.

Like many developing societies, women are traditionally homemakers and caretakers. However, within that framework, Afghan women play a very vital and strong role in the overall well-being of the family, community and the society at large, only it is implemented mostly in a rather passive manner. Naturally, the degree of their direct or indirect influence depends on their educational, economic level, and family’s social status as well as the role of the men in their lives and the degrees by which they relate to their social circles.

In Afghanistan discussing the roles of women in afghan society is a very complex issue. Women’s roles were very different before and post wars of more than 3 decades, women were part of mainstream society. They were totally shunned during the wars.  They have some level of participation currently. Education plays a key role in providing more opportunities for women to assert themselves even if limited and within “traditionally female” professions such as nursing, teaching, medicine, education and even activism. In the decent past, there was more wiggle room for raising women’s issues within the framework available to them. Post wars, due to many factors, security and lack of access to workforce, education to name a few, and their male counterparts, at war, dead or gone, living for years in the camps as displaced refugees within war-ravaged sub-standard refugee camps or in similar or worse ones in the neighboring countries with having little to no access to education, and basic opportunities.

Few  lucky ones could escape all that and find freedom and better lives in the West, having a chance at life and still dealing with the new sets of struggles unique to their lives, yet, universal to all refugees/immigrants, complicated a bit more by their gender. This chronic and decade old social, cultural, and emotional forced isolation, defined and continue to define the lives of  almost  most of ordinary Afghan women as survivors and  the sole provider for their families without any better  prospect of having a chance to become active members of society. The devastating impact of 30 plus years of l wars hit the rural, more vulnerable women even harder. When half of the population of a war-torn society is far from access to the basic human rights, naturally, the society continues to be sluggish in its progress despite of over a decade (mostly) of  mutually  mismatched, misguided, misused resources/efforts of the international community as well as the Afghans,  aimed at re-building Afghanistan. One can never forget the loss of lives from both sides.

However, Afghan women as a whole, despite of their social and political status are still very strong and thriving to assert themselves within the sluggishness and at time chaos. , Afghan women are deeply loyal, extremely protective and supportive of their male counterparts and families, while very traditional and somewhat compliant. A lifelong struggle of mine has been the marriage of the two, thus, the chronic pattern in which the women’s voices are being silenced very easily, their rights taken and their roles, ignored simply because tradition (mostly the bad ones) and sometimes extreme religious practices, feed into that sense of submission, providing the perfect opportunity for the traditionally male-dominated society to push the women aside or worse, down. Sometimes, wars and ‘sensitive political priorities’ put women even further in the very back burner as far as their rights and voices. It is time for both, international community and the Afghans to stop using all those issues as excuses for avoiding to honestly facing women’s rights and struggles.

Right now, we are deeply concerned about what will happen after the international community leaves. Women are soft targets, the first to get hit and the last to have a say in the matter of their rights and fate personally and politically.  In the past decade, there has been some progress, but faced with many struggles, the very case of one step forward, and 100 back.  It is expected of any society emerging from decades of wars, and lack of rule of laws and functioning civil society, but for Afghan people, in particular, women, the re-entry has been much harder and the fear of losing ground for their hard work is very overwhelming even though, they are used to struggling, fighting, surviving, pushing through, retrieving, a constant juggling act of thriving, surviving, backing out, backing up and being ever supporting, sacrificing and nurturing.

It is true that there has been some progress in the areas of basic and higher education, and in having the opportunity to be allowed to have some official political seats for Afghan women.  No one argues that the status of Afghan women has improved post Taliban regime when they were shot in the head in public and were living with death threats if going to school or even getting home schooling. Yet, so many brave women continued to educate girls under dire and inhuman circumstances.  However, the progress is slow, with mostly rhetorical attention.  We have women members of parliament, but they have very little say in the key political decision-making. They run ministries, but have very little funding or support to run them. They are educators and political activist, but constantly struggling to survive the backlashes, threats and obstacles. One can call it positive change, even if it is mostly in name, but the key for a real sustainable positive outcome are: access to education, physical and emotional safety and security, and access to financial and business opportunities.  Having a real voice in the political decision making is key s well.

I am all for providing women with skills to establish their own small businesses within and respectful of their communities and at grassroots level. It empowers them with tools to be more self-reliant, sustain a healthy sense of empowerment and equal say  for themselves, their young daughters/raising gender sensitive sons/ and families. A solid education followed by financial self-reliance is the key to better society for men and women as a whole.   All said above is not new, nor impossible, unfortunately, the lack of proper, effective and functioning leadership on both sides of the pond, has been the crippling cause of getting so little achieved in carrying out most of the rebuilding Afghanistan projects.

I leave it to political experts, economist and policy makers to further debate and explore the failures and unfinished business of rebuilding Afghanistan so they can come up with a better, more functioning, more effective and cohesive policies in Afghanistan post withdrawal next year. It is highly debatable whether or not the Afghan leadership, army and police force are fully ready to run the country. We also need to factor in the on-going and sadly thriving political and security chaos around and in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. Add the crucial task of upcoming elections which sincerely and equally another source of tension, anxiety and fear among the ordinary Afghans/women. What will become of them if another bloody civil war stems from ethnic power-struggle, hijacked by yet again, foreigners, extremist and terrorists using Afghanistan as their backyard/ battlefield?

While progress has been made in the areas mentioned above, it remains that women face many challenges they still experience and suffer, from bad customs, forced marriages, lack of financial independence, lack of access to basic education, being the sole bread-winners, continued lack of security, and lack of access to basic legal, medical and human rights. All these apply to both urban and rural women since the lines are so blurred by huge internal displacement/refugee status. These are challenges which all need to be addressed in order to allow women to reach   their human rights/potentials.

To ensure women’s equality, attitudes within society further require changing.  Both the governments well as the civil society need to take the lead.  The international community must also stay guarded and ensure that existing human rights laws are respected and implemented. The top leaders need to be more accountable. There must be a basic level of political and judicial transparency.  So far, there are very few if any. It is crucial that women must be educated about their constitutional and human rights.

Women themselves must continue to be more resilience and less compliance.  As we have a famous saying in Dari: “if the baby does not cry, the mother will not feed.”

I think having access to basic education followed by economic opportunities, which leads to self-reliance, is also the key to allowing women to have a say in the direction of their lives. Again, the laws in favour of women are only as good as their application. Otherwise, women will continue to struggle for the basic human rights.

Afghan women do not want to dismiss,  deny, nor want to reject their rich cultural and moderate religious heritage or beliefs, they do not want to take the role of ‘men’ and be more like men, they do not wish to overpower men, they have no desire to go out and burn their bras to claim their freedom and equality, it may have been very relevant  to the western women and their political and feminist sensibilities and thus, effective,  The Afghan women  deserve to be allowed to find their path to equality and decent human treatment and basic human rights their way, with their pace and input, It may involves wearing their traditional garments, covering their face or whole body with burqa.  They are more than their clothing items and need not be judged, criticized, disregarded or worse, forgotten about their struggles.

Afghan women are capable of embracing, enjoying and thriving on modern progresses  without making any waves religiously, culturally or politically  if absolutely necessary. They can use their women strength without the drama and noise if the basic rights are not blocked/ ignored.

To my dismay, I have witnessed many times the negative attitude of  some of our western advocates who determine the progress or stagnation of Afghan women by whether they wear burqa/chaadari/chaadar (all body and head covers) or not. Afghan women care more about having access to the basic human rights such as the right to go to school without death threats, the right to basic health care, the right to work, the right to have a voice in the shaping of the policies and plans at the political level than what they wear. They say what they wear or do not wear while focusing on bettering their lives should NOT undermine their resilience, strength, intelligence, and abilities. A woman should have her basic rights honoured regardless of what she wears. Democracy and women’s rights must be conceptualized within the particulars of a woman’s emotional and personal choices and sensibilities.

I urge the west not to also get caught up with the rather superficial aspect of women’s rights, freedom and equality by how they see fit.  It is a shame to see sometimes the international community size up their successes and failures based on their standard of freedom, democracy and equality and ignore the sensibilities and perhaps much slower pace and path to those noble goals for the troubled war-torn and deeply traditional and at times religious societies.  The international role best not be based on “my way or the highway” attitude. That flawed policy, ultimately victimize the victims and leaves dangerous political voids which leads to more regional or international conflicts and wars. We have seen it happen in Afghanistan once. We are still suffering the consequences of it.  It is equally the responsibility of the Afghan leadership and people who never fail to shy away to claim they are the most fierce, brave and independent people, to take a more active, responsible role in rebuilding Afghanistan stemmed from that world famous pride and the will to be self-governing and the much debated and talked about being free of ‘foreign hand-outs’.  It is time to match actions with that reputation and claim.

I personally believe the media can also play a major role and take a very active lead on educating society and men in particular on bad customs which is one of the leading causes of women’s suffering and abuse. There are many media outlets that do a wonderful job at this but we hear that the voices of extremist as well as the government censorship/imprisonment discourage the media to do their job. I believe the international community must not abandon Afghanistan in providing sound developmental and educational insight particularly on women’s issues. The anxiety of Afghan people/women need to be addressed at this very crucial political moment when the international community will leave and hand over the fragile peace back to the hands of more fragile Afghans.

I still hope for a better life for Afghans and Afghan women. Safe to say I know what it means and how it feels to be Afghan women in Afghanistan:

“Being a woman in Afghanistan means: being mad about getting an education; Being hopeful, being strong, being concerned about her future on the face of the on-going political uncertainties; being just loud enough to keep her hard-earned rights while continuing to be gently and quietly the ever supportive /nurturing mother, sister, friend, wife and daughter, respecting heritage, religion, and the beautiful traditions while fighting the bad ones to the teeth”.

“Being an Afghan woman means being the voice, the ever very- broken-hearted-but-strong carrier of the legacy of survival and resiliency, being the quiet, un-sung war heroine, the victim, the abused, the soft target, the educator, the nurse, the nomad herds woman, the farmer, the politician, the homeless, the internally displaced/refugee, and in the midst of it all, throughout history, carrying all the burdens and blessings of ancestors, invaders and violators. All in all, I say the Afghan woman is a work of art, perhaps beaten up and very tired, a little damaged and destroyed, but still holding her own by simply being a woman.

By Shakila Khalje


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