The woman fighting for equality in her native Afghanistan
Meet Noorjahan Akbar: a 24-year-old Afghan woman who won’t rest until women have equal rights
19 Nov 2015, 21:41 GMT Report
A few months ago, I decided to start interviewing young people who were fighting for freedom in their native countries. My first subject was Noorjahan Akbar: a 24-year-old Afghan writer who battles for gender equality day in, day out. She helped open Afghanistan’s first women’s Internet café and has been one of the leading forces against her country’s street harassment; all while writing for Free Women Writers, a site she set up to shed light on Afghanistan’s continuing social injustice. In light of the recent atrocities, it seemed apt to publish something that highlighted the people challenging outdated traditions and pushing for a better society - no matter how horrifying the situation.
It seems an impossible task to sum up all the work you’ve embarked on in Afghanistan in the past few years. When did it all begin?
I was raised in Afghanistan and partly in Pakistan, when we were refugees during the Taliban. I started working at a very young age as my parents created a learning centre for refugees in Pakistan and then one for women in Afghanistan. I used to teach in both. I also worked with women’s organisations and advocated for youth and children’s rights from a very young age. I have worked with kids in orphanages, translated and published books for children, published a collection of women’s writings in Afghanistan, and I now run a social justice blog and website that has over 20,000 readers called Daughters of Rabia: Free Women Writers.
The West seems to see Afghanistan as an unsafe, war-torn country with a severe lack of equality. What is it really like to grow up there?
I think the media often focuses on what is going wrong in Afghanistan. Especially in the recent years when Western countries have been pushing for negotiations with the Taliban, it appears that the media has also been co-opted to portray Afghanistan as a backwards place that we should all give up on. While there are a lot of security issues (and the threats seem to be growing), there are also a lot of positive things happening in the country. By focusing on terrorism - which we must talk about - and ignoring the progress in the country, we marginalise people who are working for change in Afghanistan. We need to create more platforms for change-makers, activists and everyday people who are resisting terrorism to speak up.
What would you say is the biggest problem facing young women in Afghanistan today?
Insecurity is a big one. If there is no security, women are less likely to go to schools or to be active members of the society in other ways. The rise in radicalism and increased support for negotiations with the Taliban - who would limit women’s freedom - as well as local militia groups armed to fight the Taliban, have made it increasingly difficult for women around the country to feel safe.
So when was the first time you experienced gender inequality?
I can’t remember exactly, but I grew up with street harassment and that was the most obvious and explicit form of inequality that I faced as a child.
Did you notice a difference in living your everyday life once you moved to the States to study?
There are the obvious bigger differences: the fact that I can walk alone at night being an example, but there are also similarities. Especially as a woman of colour, I have noticed that the feeling of ownership over women’s bodies is a common theme here. Street harassment, though not as prevalent as in Afghanistan, is also a common experience between here and at home. I have learned from living here and traveling in other places that misogyny may be different in its symptoms but it’s the same in its roots and at the heart of it is a fear of women taking ownership of their own bodies, of public spaces, and of their communities. This fear is what is noticeable in sexual assault issues on my university campus as well as sexual harassment in Afghanistan. I do want to go back home. There is a lot of work that needs to be done there.
You’re quite outspoken against the Taliban and ISIS on social media. Do you ever hesitate to express your views?
I think it is important for us to speak against the Taliban and to make it clear that the people of Afghanistan don’t support them. They have been imposed on us for decades and we want out. I am not afraid to say what I believe in though I have received numerous threats. The thing I remind myself is that if someone was going to kill me, they wouldn’t announce it before doing so.
Saying that, I do censor myself all the time - not just because of security, but also because I think it is important to prioritise some battles over others. There is a lot I could write about. The issues are overwhelming, but I have learned to prioritise ones that impact us deeply and cut at the root of the issues. I sometimes write things that might seem too radical and I just keep them for when things are better and the society is more tolerant because I believe things will get better. Terrorism, radicalism and sexism are not sustainable.
How would you like Afghanistan to be in ten years?
Peaceful. If there is no peace, there can’t be any real progress. War prevents progress. Any progress during war time has only the strength of a baby. To nourish it, we have to live in peace.