Originally posted December 2009

Hamida, 49 years-old, lives in Kabul and is the mother of two daughters and a son. She graduated from the Science Faculty and has been a teacher for over 16 years. She lost her husband due to a rocket attack in Kabul during the civil war. Hamida was young when she was widowed; her eldest children are her daughters. Based on tradition, Hamida’s in-laws asked her to marry one of her husband’s brothers, but she refused. Her husband’s family threatened that if she refused, they would not support her; Hamida had to promise them that she would look after the children on her own.

This is a real war-time story. Even men at that time were unable to feed their families and were unable to find jobs. However, Hamida was a determined woman. She did all kinds of work, ranging from sewing to knitting in order to support her children. As a committed teacher, she turned her tiny rented house into a home school where girls from neighboring houses came to study in several shifts each day. She had no choice but to serve as her children’s teacher as well. “It is really hard for a mother to teach her own kids; they do not take you seriously, they do not focus enough, but I had to do it, as there wasn’t any other option!” she recalled.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Hamida returned to her school as a teacher. The majority of her students earned very high scores in the school entrance exams. Her students’ families came to appreciate Hamida’s tireless efforts to educate their children. Hamida’s own children also succeeded. Her eldest daughter, who this year will graduate from the Agriculture Faculty of Kabul University, has been recognized as one of the most talented student in this department! Hamida’s second daughter also attends university, while her youngest son recently completed high school. Three of her children are the stars of their community in terms of behavior and talent. Hamida also earned the respect of her community.

Hamida is known as “Mother Jaan” by over 25 girls and women who are victims or at risk of violence against women. She is the manager of the Safe House in Kabul, one of the first centers of its kind. The Safe House provides education, skill building, and counseling to women and girls in need of protection and support. The girls at the Safe House include those who experienced the worst kind of abuses, such as sexual abuse, forced prostitution, immolation, and so on. Hamida is a strong and committed manager — deeply principled, kind and compassionate. Her ongoing role as the Safe House manager for the past five years has made her an expert in dealing with the most complicated cases of women at risk. “Believe it or not, when I listen to these women’s sufferings, I forget mine and what challenges I had faced during my life! … Then when I see the changes in their behavior, when I see them returning to their communities as empowered women, then I get an incredible power to continue this job!” Hamida adds.

Afghan women are often portrayed simply as victims of oppression, draped in blue burqa, and lacking the voice or the courage to stand up and speak. Hamida represents a different portrait — that of the thousands of Afghan women who, in the post-Taliban period, have sought to take control of their lives — to liberate themselves — often, at great personal risk and sacrifice.

The Bonn Conference of 2001, which was a landmark attempt to bring peace to Afghanistan, brought a few women into the process of rebuilding the country. However, due to the strong presence of warlords who have a track record of suppressing women, the voices of independent women from civil society were muted.

Two significant achievements at the policy level for women at Bonn was the creation of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and an Independent Commission for Human Rights. Regardless of how effective and functional both institutions have been, their establishment is the byproduct of the struggles of women like Hamida, who are working to change their own lives and the lives of others.

The relatively open atmosphere in the country allowed several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups to proliferate. Some organizations were already active under the high-risk circumstances of the Taliban regime. However, nation-wide programs such as Accelerating Learning, Return to School, and many others, helped get millions of girls and boys back to schools and universities. President Hamid Karzai’s decree that Afghan women have the right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab made it clear that there is no specific dress code that would be enforced by the state. Women in the transitional state made up nearly 27% of the civil servants, which unfortunately has been reduced in the recent years due to worsening security situation and decrease in the government’s commitment towards women.

The January 2004 adoption of the Constitution explicitly affirmed that women have equal rights with men under the law. The nature of the process was more important than the results, because the Afghan Grand Assembly (Loya Jirga) included not just warlords but also representatives of different Afghan constituencies. These representatives expressed a great deal of interest in moving Afghanistan in a progressive direction.

The constitutional Loya Jirga included women representatives, some of whom were leading women from civil society groups who previously had worked to ensure that the Constitution guaranteed equal rights for women and men. As a result of their efforts, the Constitution mandated quotas for women’s political participation, equality of women and men under the law, and several other articles concerning the Afghan government’s responsibility for fulfilling all relevant international conventions and treaties.

In 2004, 48% of the voters in the presidential election were women and over 28% of the elected members of Parliament were also women, exceeding the quota of 25%. The victorious female candidates included Malalai Joya in Farah, Fauzia Guilani in Herat, and Sabrina Saqib in Kabul. This, in itself, indicates that among the common people, the ideas or views of conservatives have no place, and if there are certain guarantees for women, they have the courage as well as the talent to be in the leading positions.

Following the 2004 elections, Afghan women in civil society groups remained active, advocating further women’s participation in the political decision-making process, defending women’s and children’s rights, and reaching out to those women in remote and rural areas in need of assistance and support. For instance, at the community level, the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which is a government-funded initiative, has helped to create women councils. In some parts of the country, separate councils for women were established, while in other parts, there are women community leaders who participate in the Community Development Council together with men. The function of these councils is to identify local needs and mobilize support to meet those needs.

The role of the international community and their support in women’s struggle also needs to be considered as an important factor in the process of women’s political participation. However, it is important to emphasize that, if the commitment and determination of women at the grassroots level were absent, perhaps the international community would not be in a position to facilitate change.

Since early 2006, the legal reform process is another field where women leaders from civil society, Parliament, and other institutions have been very active. Afghan women groups have created a strong coalition of women from Parliament, civil society, and the government to advocate for legal reform. One example of their efforts is formulating the Ending Violence against Women Law, which was recently signed by the President and is under consideration by the Parliament. They also have been lobbying to modify other laws that affect women’s lives, such as the Shi‘ite Personal Status Law.

Women’s voices for peace, security, and development also have been strong. In March 2009, a nationwide campaign for promoting women’s active participation in peace processes was organized by a group of dedicated women from different parts of the country. Their demand was “No peace without justice.” Hundreds of women from Kandahar, Bamyan, Balkh, Herat, Nangarhar, and Daikundi joined forces to advocate peace and insist on their active participation in such processes. Tragically, just one month after this rally, Sitara Achakzai, a leading female member of this campaign and Provincial Council member, was assassinated.

However, this tragedy did not blunt the efforts of courageous and committed Afghan women. In the August 2009 elections, 81 more women won Provincial Councils seats than in the 2005 elections. Sitara’s colleagues from Kandahar decided to run for office again despite the deterioration of security. Female civil society leaders initiated a nationwide campaign to support 328 women Provincial Council candidates and mobilize all women to participate in the elections. Despite widespread fraud, other electoral irregularities, and threats of violence, many women (and men) cast their votes — a strong indication that Afghans are eager for peace and are prepared to make further sacrifices in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

Historically, there are very few places in the world where women’s struggle for equal rights may demand that they pay with their lives or personal dignity. However, Afghanistan is a country where such risks are real. Merely educating women about their rights can cost them their lives or those of their family members. Nevertheless, many Afghan women — like Hamida — are agents of change, rather than hapless victims and continue to assume such risks, in the pursuit of peace, justice, and prosperity, if not for themselves, then perhaps for their children.