Khaleda Khorsand is a writer and human rights activist with the Civil Society and Human Rights Network in Herat.
Photo : Rooholamin Amini / Matthieu Hackière
Can you tell us about a time when your civil rights were violated, something which has influenced your life?
One day, during the time of the Taliban, I was going with a friend to a secret literature course for women in Herat. The course was called the 'Golden Needle' and officially portrayed as a sewing group, because as girls, we were banned from learning and going to school. Two members of the Taliban militia stopped us on our way there and asked what we had in our bags - they wanted to search them. We had writing blocks and pens, which were prohibited then for women. We said we needed them to take notes on dressmaking. I can still vividly remember my fear of those two men and what might happen to us. How frightful it was to try to convince them that our writing blocks were not for education. I'll never forget that fear as long as I live.
What is your worst fear today?
As Afghan women, we carry a deep-seated fear in our hearts because, at the most fundamental level, we are not accepted and trusted in our society. When after 10 years, the parliament failed to pass the law prohibiting violence against women - even though women occupy more than 25% of the seats in parliament - it was a great disappointment. So much time, money, and attention - both domestic and international - had been concentrated on that law. The failure to pass it demonstrated beyond belief that women are not accepted within this society, and that at each turn, we can expect to face challenges of this sort. There was nothing in that law that privileged women; it was simply a law to prohibit violence against women.
What are the three biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?
First, a major challenge is the extremist interpretation of religion. Moreover, we are surrounded by neighboring countries with hard-line religious groups in power. The prevalence of extremist interpretations of religion in our surroundings has had a negative impact on otherwise positive social changes in Afghanistan. Just imagine, the provinces located in the west of Afghanistan are influenced by the extremist Islamic culture of Iran, and the provinces in the east are influenced by the undercurrents of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Secondly, we have the problem of low-level literacy and illiteracy of our people. Thirdly, we face problems of corruption, rooted in the government's lack of competence and planning and the system of cooperation put in place by the international community.
Will the present-day Afghanistan allow a recurrence of the closing of schools to girls and the blocking of women's social participation?
It is possible that the Taliban could return to power. The existence of the Taliban culture is more important than their physical presence. The Taliban culture and way of thinking persists today in Afghanistan, and it prepares the ground for their possible return. I, and many others, believe that that we must always keep an eye on the Taliban; we should never be under the illusion that the Taliban's return is impossible. The Taliban culture is not an external phenomenon. It has originated in the patriarchal structures of Afghanistan; it developed and took power here. It could still re-emerge.
What are three factors which deter women's participation in social, economic, political and cultural spheres?
First, there are the burdensome traditions and extremist interpretations of religion. Secondly, we have a certain cultural poverty, which prevents women from assuming their roles as equals in society. Thirdly, we are limited by persistent insecurity and the absence of a legitimate and effective central government to promote and defend the rights of women.
What the sources and centres of power which women can rely on to promote their rights and demands?
We need a liberal, democratic government, which believes deeply in women's rights and their role in society. Further to that, there is a pressing and fundamental need to change and consolidate the laws and pass legislation in support of women's rights. And then the government must take up the mantle of implementing the laws. Finally, we look to the educated intellectual population of Afghanistan, who have a valuable contribution to make in terms of developing a discourse on women.
"Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" is a campaign by Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA and FIDH, which explores views held by Afghan civil society actors. Over 50 days, 50 influential social, political, and cultural actors hope to spark conversation and debate about building a society that is inclusive of women's and human rights in Afghanistan.
You can read original interviews in Dari on Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA