Photo Essay by Suchitra Vijayan.
Images from Marefat High School, Dasti-e-barchi, Kabul, founded by Aziz Royesh for Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 1994.
Aziz Royesh and Orzala Ashraf Nemat worked close to each other in Pakistan and Afghanistan for many years as leading civil rights activists focused on education, but they did not cross paths until 2010 when Royesh became a Yale World Fellow. A leading advocate for equal access to primary and secondary education in Afghanistan, Aziz Royesh founded a school for Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 1994. With a focus on critical thinking and human rights, the school eventually moved to Afghanistan, where it now teaches 2,500 Afghan students, about half of whom are girls. The school, Marefat High School, has become a model for a new community building approach in Afghanistan.
Orzala Ashraf Nemat became a Yale World Fellow in 2008. She founded the Youth & Women's Leadership Centre in 2010 and was previously the founder and chair of Humanitarian Assistance to the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), a leading NGO in Afghanistan. Ms. Ashraf Nemat has established training programs for Afghan women and children in refugee communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan and launched underground literacy and health education programs for women and girls. She is increasingly involved in political advocacy and development at the national level and is on the board of directors of the Afghan Women’s Network and other human rights networks in Afghanistan.
YJIA: You have both worked to advance the rights of women in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to their access to education. Why is education particularly important to you vis-à-vis other issues such as health care and security?
Orzala Nemat: I started working on education during a time when it was entirely forbidden by the ruling power, the Taliban, for girls to get an education. My motivation was based on this strong restriction against girls’ education on the one side and the contradiction that I found on the other side when I tried to look into the religious principles. I did not find justification for it. I tried to look into our historical background and again, I could not find any justification for it. That is what motivated me to start in a very basic way to teach girls that were my age in the refugee camps back when I was myself a refugee. Then later on, it led to a larger initiative of creating home-based literacy classes inside of Afghanistan for girls. The main reason for focusing the organization that I led on education in those early years was the fact that education is the real means to empowerment. It is education that empowers children, girls, and boys. I believe it is not only the education of girls that is important. Education is important for boys and girls. It provides self-confidence to these children, who can stand and who can see things in a different way, away from violence, away from war and all the difficulties that they have experienced.
Aziz Royesh: I believe that education is an important investment for the community. We have to build on the resources that the community has and use education for people to deal with the difficulties and problems they have in their ordinary lives. But I do not believe that education alone can help something better to happen. There is a perception now that in Afghanistan—and in most Islamic countries—that people have difficulties with modernity, civil rights, and civil norms because they are uneducated. I do not think this is true because in Iran because, for example, 99 percent of Iranians are educated and the world still has problems with Ahmadinejad and with Khamenei. Education alone is not the solution. The important point is the vision behind education. That is how we started our education system in Pakistan and then brought back to Afghanistan. We concentrated mainly on a humanistic vision behind education programs. We tried to deliver the message to the community that if you regard all the individuals as human beings, then there is no difference between boys and girls. If you want to have a better life, access to facilities and to welfare, you have to empower the women even before the men because they are the part of the family and the community that is impacting the intellectual potential and the vision of your kids. This is why we focused on an equal access of education for boys and girls. We then went to Afghanistan and we talked to the local community to persuade them to support the idea of girls’ education regardless of age. In my view, education is important but with a humanistic view. People should feel themselves as worthy and as deserving of education.
YJIA: Do you believe that women's rights have improved since the Taliban was in power? Can you discuss what has changed for women?
ON: First of all, when issues of human rights and women's rights are discussed in Afghanistan by the media and international community, a picture is drawn depicting Afghanistan at an absolute zero level of opportunity before the military intervention and the fall of the Taliban, after which women were suddenly liberated and educated, becoming teachers, doctors, and nurses. I would like to counter and challenge that picture with the fact that historically in Afghanistan, the issue of human rights—and specifically women’s rights, their rights in the political field, their social rights in terms of their marriage age, and their access to education and so on—have been under discussion since the early 20th century. Back in 1919, we had a very progressive king, Amanullah Khan, who started to promote equal access to education. This continued for the years he was ruling after Afghanistan’s independence. That is a legacy that we cannot ignore. Then, during wartime starting with the Soviets and continuing with the Mujahadeen during the Civil War, the infrastructure of Afghanistan was completely destroyed. By the time of the Taliban, the very basic infrastructure that was left was used for Taliban headquarters and services instead of remaining as institutions of education.
During the post-2001 era, there was definitely a need to focus on the education of girls and on human rights because we had just come out of war, where war crimes had been committed, human rights had been violated, and basic facilities for women had been entirely denied. So compared to the time of the war, especially from 1978 until 1992 and then from 1996 when the Taliban came to power until 2001, we have made significant progress in the field of women’s rights and girls’ education. Now by “significant,” I don't want to dramatize progress. With the help of the international community, we have managed to build more schools for girls and improve their access to education. In the remote villages, schools were built for children but the quality has not changed. Schools were built but because the approaches taken by international organizations resulted in a lack of ownership by the communities, schools were burned down by the Taliban, insurgents, and anti-government forces.
YJIA: You mentioned that you believe the approach to community development by international organizations fails because it does not emphasize local ownership enough. Can you elaborate more on these approaches?
ON: What I am very critical of is the militarization of development assistance. To me, building a school in a village is development assistance and has to be done either by the government of Afghanistan through its institutional mechanisms, the Ministry of Education or by an Afghan NGO. NGOs have played a very significant role in filling the gap due to the absence of a proper government system for many years during the war. Now all of a sudden you see that schools are being built in the Laghman province by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), which are basically the civil side of the military. In order to win the hearts and minds of people, the military forces have decided to build schools. It is very unclear, however, whether the suggestion to build the school came from the community, whether the community itself agreed to the project, if the communities were consulted during the process and were given a role to play in terms of monitoring, constructing, and building the school. The school is built thanks to the money from the United States or elsewhere, but for the members of the community, this school is not something that they feel ownership for. It is something that was built by kharegies, or foreigners. And so they think that the foreigners are the ones who should protect it.
On the other hand, for an NGO, the process of building a school is totally different. First of all, we have a very clear account of where the money is coming from and who the donor is. We do not even think about the donor until we have the consensus of the local community. We go to the community and ask them to come up with a priority list of the three things that we have to do for them and their community. For example they might come up with a clinic, a school, and a bridge. Then we can negotiate. Clinics are excellent, but we are not an organization of health professionals. Bridges are excellent but let’s encourage another organization with more engineering experience. So collectively a decision is made by the community to build a school. Then, they monitor the whole process and also have to contribute in some way, such as by paying for construction. This is the model that I have in mind when I criticize the military model. Based on this model, the school [my NGO built] has existed for six years or so. There is no record of insecurity. The school is directly protected by the local people. They have taken measures to protect the school because they actually contributed the bricks to the building, and they can see that their children are benefiting. They do not see it as an outsider’s school. This is one of the key factors, which is lack of ownership.
AR: Orzala has lots of experiences in the field of education and working with communities to launch community-based development program. In terms of the women’s rights in Afghanistan, we did not have constant growth throughout our history. There have been many interruptions. At the beginning of the century, Amanullah’s efforts were interrupted by the clergy. Then, we had attempts at development by Zahir Shah and this was interrupted by the Daoud Khan coup [in 1973], who himself tried some development but was interrupted by the communists. Then, of course followed the Mujahideen and the Taliban. We can, however, find one difference from the past. Throughout the history of Afghanistan, we did not have the democratic basis or the democratic concept of women’s rights or human rights. This is the first time that people directly talk about democracy and human rights. I am optimistic in the results and the achievements that we have made during the last nine years. The obstacles that we have are not products of this age but are the remnants of the past. They have been there for centuries. I am quite optimistic when I compare the civil society and the situation of women now in Afghanistan to the past. I feel that they are much stronger and more institutionalized than before. As for international development projects, I believe that we have to create an atmosphere where people have to contribute and fulfill their responsibility in creating, supervising, and protecting the schools. We can't merely rely on the military support or the international community assistance. And even the PRTs, their role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan has not been constructive because they have been interpreted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups as another face of the occupation. If it had been conducted through the government of Afghanistan or NGOs, it could have been more productive. These problems stem mainly from the lack of institutions and systems to maintain relations between all segments that function in Afghanistan.
YJIA: There has been discussion of striking a peace deal with the Taliban. How would this deal affect women’s rights?
ON: First of all, we at the civil society level have been saying from the beginning that the military does not offer a solution in principal. By saying this, we do not necessarily mean that development assistance should not have arrived to Afghanistan or that political pressure should not have been made by the collapsing Taliban regime on the first day back in 2001. But we have seen the consequences of the military intervention. As a result of the military intervention and all the things that have gone wrong, we are now in the tenth year, and unfortunately, Afghanistan is still not a secure country. The majority of the population, especially in the southern and eastern parts, is living in extremely depressing insecurity. This insecurity comes from both sides. People do not feel secure because of the presence of insurgents and anti-government groups such as the Taliban and many other criminals, bandits and groups, which also exist under the brand of Taliban, but who are also not secure in terms of being potential targets of the military bombardments. Thus, the Afghan people are hostages to both sides of the conflict—the international forces and the local forces.
Given this kind of situation, if you speak to ordinary people, the immediate response is that they want peace so that they can carry on their lives. But the question is what price should be paid to maintain a peace deal? Unfortunately, from my perspective, the situation is very bleak because, on the one side, you see the Taliban as a force that is fighting against the international forces but also against the Afghan government. They have never come up with an agreement or an open statement that they would sit at the negotiating table. On the Afghan side, instead of finding a third-party mediator group, the government of Afghanistan has used the people, who were the main motivation behind the existence of the Taliban in the Afghan context, in the Peace Council. Back in 1994, when the Taliban had started to intervene in Afghanistan through the bordering provinces in Pakistan, they used this as their main message: that they are there to end corruption and to kick out the warlords. And now the same warlords want to negotiate peace between who and who? Nobody knows. Peace in principle is agreed. You cannot find anyone who will advocate for war. But peace at what price and with what conditionality is an important question for the Afghan people.
Women active in the field of political advocacy and human rights strongly believe that the status of women’s rights and the values of freedom of media and freedom of speech, are critical values of justice that should not be compromised at any price, even if people try to convince us that values are on one side while peace is on the other. Our response is very clear. Peace without these values is an artificial peace. It is a peace that we are not buying but renting. We pay money to certain groups of people, or we pay them some power position. The moment the position of power leaves this person’s hand, he will be the same person as yesterday. So before reaching any peace deal or negotiations, it is very critical for both sides to speak about and consider these values. Justice is the key around everything else because it is not based on values from outside of Afghanistan. It is based on our constitution, and it is based on our position as a nation.
AR: Adding on to Orzola, I think we should be very cautious of the impacts of these negotiations on values in Afghanistan. When you talk about the stability of the country or the growth of democracy, you are dealing with the reality on the ground. Respecting this reality is one thing, and submission to some of these negative narratives of Islam and Sharia law is another. The negotiation with Taliban comes at the cost of these values because the Taliban will not respect human rights or norms. Women's rights, minority rights, and freedom of expression—these are the three lines with which Afghanistan is defining itself. When it comes to some democratic practices, you can make compromises because that depends heavily on the level of stability. But now negotiations with the Taliban have scared the people because there is lots of ambiguity in this context. Are we justifying the narratives of the Taliban and their ideologies as well? Are we trying to bring them into the political system of the country to disarm them? If this is the case, then negotiations are very good because peace is needed in Afghanistan. We have to put an end to the violence and the cultural hatred, but at the same we have to be time very cautious [in ensuring] that the international community and the Afghan people are not afraid of the Taliban [to a degree] that they would submit everything to the Taliban.
An extension of this interview addressing issues of corruption, culture, and reconstruction can be read online at: www.yalejournal.org, along with an Op-Ed piece by Aziz Royesh entitled, “Women in Afghanistan.”
– Interview conducted by Hanna Azamati