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Mary Nabard Ayeen: 'Women's Rights Must Not Be Sacrificed in a Peace Deal With the Taliban'

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Mary Nabard Ayeen is a journalist. She is the Deputy Director of Bhakhtar News Agency, the official state news agency of Afghanistan, and Managing Editor of the weekly publication Seerat. She is an active member of the Women's Political Participation Committee.

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Photo : Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA / Matthieu Hackière

Can you give us an example of a time your rights have been violated?

During the dark period of Taliban rule women were banned from leaving the house and moving about in the city. One day, I went to fetch my children from school. A member of the Taliban beat me up with a cable. This was an awful experience. I was so worried about the whole situation at the time - women were imprisoned within the four walls of their homes and their education was stifled. The Taliban's rules led to a shortage of female teachers, and the consequent emergence of an illiterate generation.

What gives you hope for the future?

Article 22 of the Constitution, enshrining gender equality, is an innovation. Similarly, the international community's support for the women of Afghanistan is a positive development. The highlights of the past decade are the presence of women on various scenes including the social, cultural, and political scene.

What do you see as an important achievement of the new era in Afghanistan?

The developments I just mentioned are the major achievements. Furthermore, the establishment of civil society institutions working for women's rights is also an important achievement of the past decade.

What do you fear most today?

I am concerned about the fragility of the achievements of the past 10 years. This past decade of relative stability has presented a golden opportunity but we have failed to undertake the fundamental actions necessary to attain self-sufficiency. I worry that the international community and the ruling parties in Afghanistan will throw it all away: women's rights must not be sacrificed in a peace deal with the Taliban.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

One of the important challenges is the economy: we are heavily dependent on foreign aid. We have not planned for a dynamic and self-sufficient economy. Furthermore, the lack of security undermines people's trust in the future. This present time is similar to the final years of Dr Najibullah's presidency. A dependent economy, reduced security, excessive migration abroad, and increased violence against women - all of these factors occur today, just as they did during those years. People are worried about what might happen after the withdrawal of the foreign forces. Unfortunately, neither the government, nor the civil society institutions and women's rights activists have planned for the transition through this stage to enable us to stand on our own feet afterwards. People's enthusiasm to reconstruct the country has subsided.

Will present-day Afghanistan allow schools to once again be closed to girls and women excluded from social participation?

Even if the Taliban play a role in the future system, I believe they will arrive with a more modern program, in light of the negative implications of their government in relation to the status of women. Importantly, women would not allow the restriction of their social participation or the closing of schools. The Taliban left bitter memories in the society that will never be wiped away from the memories of the men and women in this country.

Can you tell us about any specific occasions where the human rights of a female family member or friend were violated?

My niece suffers violence at the hands of her father and brothers because she works outside the home. They do not even speak to her. They tell her that going to work brings shame on their family. Such examples are numerous and are bitter realities of our society. My niece is supported by her mother, her other aunts, and I.

Which factors deter women from participating in social, economic, political and cultural spheres?

Illiteracy of families, in particular of women, is the most important deterrent factor. How can a woman imprisoned within the four walls of the home raise children in a progressive way that will allow our society to develop? We need to combat illiteracy, in particular among women.

Repressive customs and traditions are another factor that pass from one generation to another. The economy is dependent on men and this has made women also overly dependent on men. Consequently, the intellectual and social progress of women has been restricted.

What are major demands of women?

Women want to uproot illiteracy, have a self-sufficient economy, and see the consolidation of women's struggles into a solid social movement. We cannot achieve our demands as long as our actions are dispersed. Women make up half the population, but we have only 68 female Members of Parliament amongst a total of 249. There are only three female ministers among the 24 ministers of the Cabinet. Women's presence is very small and symbolic in all political, social, and cultural organizations. Furthermore, sporadic and individual struggles of women have prevented them from being taken seriously, despite the existence of golden opportunities during this period. We must all move together in the framework of a pervasive and active women's movement.

Which sources and centers of power can women rely on to promote their rights and demands?

The Constitution and the newly born civil society, if it keeps in step with the people, can be dependable sources for women.

What do you wish for your daughter?

I wish that she will not become a woman deprived of everything, like I was. That she will not surrender to the society and the reprehensive traditions, like our generation did. That she will not allow her rights to be violated.

What have you done in your personal and professional life to fight against discrimination?

In my writings, I call on women to join in voluntary struggles. In the organizations I am active with (for example, the Women's Political Participation Committee, and the weekly publication Seerat), I have always prioritized work on women's rights.

Do you have a specific message to share?

Organizations working for women must try to act cohesively in order for their activities to bear fruit. We have been working at this for a decade now: we need to make sure we are achieving results with our actions.

"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. 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