Anita Haidary ’14 is the cofounder of Young Women for Change, a grassroots movement consisting of Afghan women and men volunteers who are committed to empowering Afghan women to improve their lives through social and economic participation, political empowerment, awareness, and advocacy. She spoke with Questioning Authority about the problems faced by Afghan women, how their lives can be improved, and what might happen once U.S. troops leave the country.
Haidary was raised in Kabul. In 2010, she was awarded an Initiative to Educate Afghan Women scholarship to attend college in the United States. She started at MHC that fall, and is majoring in film studies and international relations.
Questioning Authority: What is the role of Young Women for Change?
Anita Haidary: YWC was founded in April 2011; it is only a year that we have been working. Our goal is to work for women as women. We wanted to start a grassroots movement from within the society. We ask women what their problems are, and we try to find ways to solve these.
QA: What are the biggest problems faced by Afghan women and girls today?
AH: One of the biggest problems women face is that their existence and identity as humans are lost. They are not counted as human. Women are killed for being women. A woman is forced to marry a man who is 50 years older than her. A woman is raped and forced to marry her rapist; women are stoned when accused of adultery without a full investigation.
Women are not considered as equal individuals. Society is structured in a way that makes a woman hate herself and her existence. For example, in my high school, which is a very well-known high school in Kabul, teachers would say to us every day, “You girls are like a white cloth and you have to be careful because if you have a small stain on you, you can never remove it.” Society makes women so vulnerable and their body a property that they have to save, not because it is theirs, but because society will point fingers at them and their families.
QA: How do women deal with these current problems? Live in this situation?
AH: There are very few solutions. Not every woman is thought to be strong enough to fight. Some run away from their houses and end up in jail, others just accept life the way it is or burn themselves to get the frustration out. It depends where they stand and what choices they see–not many choices most of the time.
We have organizations that work for women and these are good at addressing some issues. Most of the time these organizations can’t really speak about things because of the religious and male-dominant society. Then there are other organizations that work purely for women and don’t really fear anything. Young Women for Change tries to be the second type. We raise our voices when no one else does. One of the things we do is to raise awareness among women and men about their rights and responsibilities. Our members are an active part of this change in their families and communities.
QA: What do you expect will happen when U.S. troops finally pull out of the country?
AH: There are many possibilities. If a fundamentalist government returns, all that Afghan women have earned and worked for to find a place in society will be lost. We may have civil-ethnic war, which I hope will not happen and will do anything to not let it happen. There will be large-scale poverty because international NGOs and organizations will pull out because of security issues. Afghanistan is not economically stable in any way; if the pullout is not handled well, we (Afghanis) will have to pay for the consequences.
Though I see all of those as consequences, what happened April 15 (when Afghan security forces repelled a Taliban attack in Kabul) brought a little hope. I have always said we need to train Afghan soldiers and police. They know the country, the culture, religion, and people. This knowledge is very important, especially in a country like Afghanistan, which is very religious with unspoken rules that mean a lot.
QA: What will it take to improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan?
AH: For women, it will take time and involve improving awareness for men and women. Make women financially independent and increase the years of education available to women. Help them find their identities as women, because the majority of women think it is normal to live in subhuman conditions. That kind of life has been imposed for so long that it has become part of women’s sense of reality. Women have to believe that they are equal to men. Women have to take some responsibility to work for themselves, because no one else can fix their problems if women themselves don’t give these priority and work to fix them.
What role can women and girls play in Afghanistan, if they're given the chance?
They are the 50 percent, they are important. I will not compare them to men because women can offer things that are not even in the society. They can see a different side of society which has never been there. If they are given the chance to work, then it is 100 percent of the society working rather than men only. We will have more doctors, teachers, architects, police, and other professionals.
QA: Is your work with YWC risky for you and other women?
AH: As cofounder, there are times that it is hard to make decisions. Sometimes I don’t want to involve people in my work because I think it is risky. But on the other hand, I think I have to include them to make a louder voice. It is risky because we are young and volunteers. We work for women’s rights, not as part our job but as part of our lives. I have received threats before, but at the end of the day what we are doing is changing lives. We have supporters as well, which gives us energy and hope. We try to stay positive even if at times it is risky and we are scared.