Indian Decade

An Afghan Feminist Movement?

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Indian Decade

An Afghan Feminist Movement?

In a society dominated by males, one young activist is pushing for a feminist movement in Afghanistan.

At first glance, Ruidad Weekly looks like a simple pamphlet, but it’s more than that. The first and second pages, which are in the local language, Dari, carry some news items with pictures. The third page, which is in English, carries a long analytical piece “Where are you Zeenat?” that addresses the wife of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The piece asks Zeenat Karzai to come out of the shadows and speak up for Afghan women. On the other three pages, which are again in Dari, issues related to women who have been marginalized by Afghan society are discussed. At the end, various vacancies are advertised for women looking for work.

The weekly has a circulation of around 1,000 copies, and has a target audience of university students and some social activists and workers. However, even a year since it was established, the paper is still struggling to officially register with the appropriate ministry.

The problem is not with the content, but with a word in the newspaper: feminism.

Its masthead claims that it is the first “feminist weekly” paper in Afghanistan. In a highly male dominated society where violence against women is rampant, the word “feminism” sets off alarm bells for some officials. And ringing this bell is a determined 22-year-old woman – Heleena Kakar.

Responding to the inbuilt biases Afghan society has against women, Kakar, the founder and brains behind the paper, is determined to shake up the system.

“One of the major challenges that we are facing is that the government agency responsible doesn’t offer approval for the paper to be registered because of the word ‘feminism.’ We are trying to convince them the word ‘feminism’ doesn’t go against any legislation and law,” says Kakar, who adds that she hopes to lay the foundations for a feminist movement in Afghanistan.

When I met Kakar at her office in the Karte Char area of Western Kabul, she was rushing to attend the paper’s weekly meeting with her other five colleagues to discuss the content for the next issue. She says her colleagues – all females in their early 20s – are also motivated to make an impact in a society that has pushed women to the periphery.

“Our focus is on the empowerment and promotion of women,” Kakar says. “Through the paper, we aim to change the negative perceptions about feminism and create a reformed mindset towards women and their rights in Afghanistan society.”

A computer science graduate from Herat University, Kakar is currently pursuing an MBA from a Malaysian university through a distance education program. She currently works for the Counter Narcotics Ministry and also runs an NGO called the Third Thought Organization.

But although Kakar tells me she also wants to be a table tennis coach for young girls, her main focus is on developing a feminist movement in the country. She says feels that the time is now ripe for such a change.

“Movements are created in societies when injustice, unfairness and discrimination replace justice, equal rights and social prosperity,” she says. “The injustices against Afghan women, which are rooted in cultural values dating back to the pre-Taliban era, have reached a peak. It’s time a feminist movement was launched.”

Kakar is perhaps surprisingly critical of the current role of female politicians occupying seats in Afghanistan’s parliament, describing them as “symbolic faces” who work at the behest of their male counterparts.

“What we need is to empower women, something which female politicians have failed to do, she says. “Our country claims to be democratic, but that’s not the reality. Women can’t say openly what they think and want to say…We want to enlighten people about their rights, we want to tell them how to defend themselves and say freely what they want to say.”

In a society where many women can’t step out of their homes without the permission of a male, how has Kakar managed to buck the trend? Unlike as is the case with most Afghan parents, Kakar’s father and mother, an engineer and a pediatrician respectively, are quite supportive of their daughter’s activism.

During the Taliban regime, the family of eight relocated to Pakistan, returning to Kabul in 2003 after spending seven years as refugees. They have all been victims of the country’s religious obstructionists, and understand the importance of nurturing a liberal tradition in Afghanistan.

But there’s also the question of the weekly paper’s funding. Kakar says that it has been running on individual contributions and support, although it recently received support for two months’ worth of issues from a global feminist organization called FRIDA.

Unlike many others in Kabul who are skeptical about the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014, Kakar says she isn’t worried about a Taliban takeover of the capital. She adds that she feels that the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the U.S. will ensure the safety of the country.

Kakar is a symbol of a new stirring in Afghan society, and with her tireless dedication, she will hopefully continue to be one of the many new voices for a more prosperous Afghan society.

(Sanjay Kumar is currently reporting from Kabul).