#09 Prejudice
Shukria Barakzai / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Interview: "I Try to Break the Taboos"

Shukria Barakzai has had a seat in the Afghanistan Parliament since it was established seven years ago. She is optimistic that Afghanistan has a bright future, but there are still many stereotypes overcome. She talks about her struggle to combat enduring traditions, misguided policies and bomb attacks.

How are biases and prejudices shaping Afghan society?

First of all, the capacities and capabilities of women are constantly misjudged. Afghans believe that women can only do simple work and not act as leaders. Furthermore, when it comes to politics, there is a mentality that you can only trust your tribe. People tend to vote according to their ethnic interests rather than their political will, which presents obstacles to democratic progress.

Afghanistan does indeed have a strong tribal culture, and many of the members of parliament represent tribal groups.

Yes, even many politicians believe that they cannot get votes unless they have gunmen at their backs, are part of a mafia group, or supported by either a foreign country or some jihadi faction. But that's a wrong assumption. When my husband and I both ran for parliament seven years ago, he didn't get as many votes as I did, although he is a millionaire. Because I brought the content! My case shows that you can indeed win votes in a very civil way – without using violence, money or serving ethical interests. You see I don't like to complain, I prefer to try to bring change by breaking taboos.

"Many politicians believe that they cannot get votes unless they have gunmen at their backs, or are part of a mafia group."

How did you manage to get enough votes? It must have been difficult to make your voice heard in these first elections ever held.

Many people already knew me and my ideas because I taught training seminars at university and have always been very outspoken in the media. I even worked as an informal adviser for some TV stations and newspapers. This helped me make my voice heard, even though there had been almost no women in the media up to that point. Furthermore, I was already a public person and an active member of civil society when the Taliban were in power. After their defeat, I had the privilege of becoming a member of the group that drafted the constitution.

Do you think the prejudices you mentioned are due to tradition, religion or politics?

Politics play a part. Over the last four decades, none of our leaders have acted on behalf of the people or the nation. They have all made decisions that favour the big global powers – either Russia or the United States – and thereby destroyed so much, throwing Afghanistan back many years in history. The early 20th century was really difficult for women in your country too, for example. But improvements in education and the women's movement brought about the non-violent gender-equal society you have now. We now have to struggle as once upon a time your grandmothers and their mothers did. Considering that reconstruction always takes much longer than destruction, this will take a lot of time and effort.

What needs to be done to repair the damage?

We need the young generation to fix things quickly. I am very optimistic when it comes to them. They are hard workers and so full of energy, ideas and talent. They will be good decision makers, and we will have a future that we can be proud of.

"The young Afghans are hard workers and so full of energy, ideas and talent."

This image of young people eagerly seeking change doesn't really fit the image most foreigners have of Afghanistan. It seems Afghans are generally considered backward rather than forward-looking with a focus on tradition and custom.

This is just one of the stereotypes damaging the democratic process in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the international community thinks Afghans have a tribal society with no democratic values. Some people may have this attitude, of course, but you can find such people in almost any part of the world.

But if we look at women in politics, for instance: of the almost 70 female members of parliament, only very few stand up for women's rights. Don't Afghan women in fact want to continue the restrictive legislation of the past?

If these traditions were good for women, why do we have forced marriages? Why are there so many illiterate women and so few female entrepreneurs? And why don't we have healthy and wealthy women? Women who want to live the lives of yesterday shouldn't come to parliament. They just take a seat away from those who have ideas for a better tomorrow. If they like their customs so much, they should stay inside their houses as tradition tells them to do.

"Women who want to live the lives of yesterday shouldn't come to Parliament."

I don't want to impose my ideas on anyone; I simply want to open up opportunities. I would never ask a woman to take off her blue burka and wear blue jeans for instance – that is her choice. But I want to open the doors to schools and health services.

But these representatives also got enough votes to get a seat in parliament. Aren't they representing the will of a considerable group of voters?

You can't win an election campaigning for "tradition" and promising that everything will stay the same. No: they all had nice slogans with wonderful messages to garner public support in the run up to the elections. Now they should uphold their promises.

"You can't win an election campaigning for "tradition" and promising that everything will stay the same."

You said before that you try to break taboos. How do you think you can change the perception of women's capabilities?

Let me give you an example: last year, I was the Head of the Defence Committee. This is a very important department for a country like Afghanistan. At that time, I visited the military bases, talked to the soldiers, and issued a report that is still being used for policy decisions today. No other MP had ever dared to do that before because it can be life-threatening. So I showed the people that women can indeed be leaders – and not only for women's affairs, but even in domains perceived as men's territory, such as security.

How do your colleagues in Parliament react when you act so differently than other delegates?

Sometimes my colleagues say: "Shukria, we don't count you as a woman; you're a great leader!" They say it in a friendly way and think I should be proud of it, but I really don't like it. I want to show them how important it is to be a woman – a woman who is proud of her sex and believes in her own power.

"I want to show them how important it is to be a woman – a woman who is proud of her sex and believes in her own power."

As a member of the Constitution Commission, you had to travel around the country and ask people their opinions. What was different back then?

This happened right after the Taliban fell, when there was still no media except one government TV station, and every woman was covered by a blue burka. It was very unusual for most people to see me, a woman without a burka, standing in front of thousands of people asking: "What do you think the constitution should be like?" It was great. I had to start by explaining what a constitution is, but then we developed very good ideas together.

If people weren't used to seeing a woman without a burka, weren't they cautious initially?

You know, when something is very strange it makes people curious and they listen. Today, some of the people I met in the provinces are working in governmental offices or at universities. They sometimes call me and say: "You were the first woman I saw. You came to my school and you held that great speech." I enjoy that. Otherwise, when someone tries to hurt me, I try to hurt him back badly – but with a big smile. Not the young generation, of course, but the warlords and the drug dealers.

There are reports of female members of Parliament being threatened. Have you ever received threats?

Women are always under attack here; this is the hard and true reality in Afghanistan. Nine years ago, when we were drafting the constitution, someone tried to kill me with a bomb attack on my house – luckily I wasn't there. My newspaper office has also been attacked. And on my first day in parliament, there was a car bomb outside my door. Even today, I continue to be directly threatened by some jihadi leaders in the parliament.

What can you do about it?

I try to ignore the threats, but it is getting increasingly difficult. Just recently, security officers asked me to leave the country for a while, stating that they couldn't protect me anymore. But what worries me most are my children – when I am under attack, they are too. That's why since 2008 I have not been as active in the public arena as I was before. But I have never thought about leaving the country, not even in the dark age of the Taliban when I lost two of my kids. I think I couldn't live without Afghanistan.

"I never thought about leaving. I couldn't live without Afghanistan."

This year, Taliban leaders executed an Afghan woman accused of committing adultery. Local authorities seemed unable to prevent this crime. Do you as a politician think you have any influence at all, considering the predominance of these informal leaders?

I'll respond with another question: Why wouldn't I? It was thanks to our influence that people now send their girls to school, that people are trying to stop violence and starting to see child marriage as a crime. The number of girls enrolled in school rises every year, more women are working and political participation is increasing. We haven't changed everything, but we have changed some things. And we have changed the male perspective on women. May I tell you a story?

Please do!

In the period right after the Taliban fell, I was hosting some ambassadors at my place. After I shook hands with them, a young guy who worked at my office told me he wanted to resign from his job and reproached me for having touched men who were not from my family. I told him that in my opinion, shaking hands was a matter of politeness. Just a year later, I saw this same guy filling out a form: he wanted to apply for a scholarship for his sister to study abroad. It's not easy for a family to let their daughter go abroad, and she was only 21 years old. Imagine how much this man had changed in just 12 months! He now says: "Please don't blame us, we grew up with the Taliban."

"He now says: 'Please don't blame us, we grew up with the Taliban.' "

You always emphasize the importance of education. Would there be less prejudice in Afghan society if people could attend school?

Of course! Education changes people's minds, gives them courage and makes them responsible citizens. It leads to less discrimination, less violence, fewer women in poverty and better health for children.

You're planning to run for president in the next elections. Is it realistic to hope you'll get there?

Well, first of all, I'm trying to remind the people in the government that there should be elections. Otherwise they might forget all about it.

"I'm currently trying to remind the people in the government that there should be elections. Otherwise they might forget all about it."

How will Afghanistan change when you become president?

I want my country to be a proud, prosperous and developed one, as the great nation of Afghans deserves. But achieving this will take generations – decades are not enough. Therefore, my first goal is economic growth. With a stable economy, you can set up a proper justice system, deliver better social services and good education. I am convinced that we Afghans are millionaires because of our natural and human resources, our energy and our ideas. But no one has ever put these things together.

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