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Sediqullah Towhidi: "We Must Guard Vigilantly Against a Return to Despotism"

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Sediqullah Towhidi is the head of Nai [meaning: Flute], the leading non-government organization supporting open media in Afghanistan. Alongside training Afghan journalists, Nai produces a monthly newsletter, 'Media Watch News', which monitors threats to the media and is distributed to more than 3,000 journalists and media organizations worldwide in Dari, Pashto, and English. Towhidi was a reporter and correspondent for Bakhtar, the official state news agency of the Afghan government during the rule of Dr Najibullah (1986-1992) and became the first director of the agency after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.


Photo : Rooholamin Amini / Matthieu Hackière

Have your rights ever been violated?

For decades in Afghanistan, we were living under despotism, and many people were deprived of their human rights. Often, we did not even have the freedom to make our own decisions. Many individuals were denied the opportunity to even live in the cities and lead a modern and productive life. I have also been subjected to a great share of these human rights violations in my lifetime.

What are three important achievements in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban?

The greatest achievement in Afghanistan is the triumph of a free media. Secondly, the administrative and governmental infrastructures have been re-established, even though they are contaminated with corruption. The third important achievement is the reform and re-establishment of the army and the police.

What do you see as a positive development in Afghanistan? What gives you confidence in the future?

The media has created a mindset that gives a reason to have hope for the future. If this process continue to develop in the right direction, there will be no room for totalitarian regimes to re-emerge and no need to fear the return of despotism to Afghanistan.

What you fear most today?

My biggest worry is that these positive developments could abruptly come to an end, and that we might fall back on the path to despotism. There are a number of risk factors that could take Afghanistan back to the 1990s. I am particularly concerned about government weakness, the growing administrative corruption, the rise in drug smuggling, and the prevalence of regressive, traditional mentalities in the society.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

Lack of good governance and social justice, corruption and abuses by government officials for their personal gain, and absence of effective plans for the development of Afghanistan
Is it possible that girls could once again be banned from schools and women excluded from social participation, as was the case under the Taliban?

I'm not worried about a return of the Taliban: I don't believe that we will see them in their previous position of power. Nonetheless, if there is a conspiracy under way to topple democracy in Afghanistan and governmental officials collaborate in that conspiracy, the whole foundation of the gains made in the last 12 years could be destroyed. Afghanistan is a country where political and social changes happen abruptly; people are easily convinced and seduced.

Thus, if the current system keeps working properly, and transparent democratic elections are held in Afghanistan, I am confident that the Taliban will not return to power. But, if there are behind-the-scenes conspiracies and deals to advance particular political goals outside the democratic process, the Taliban would naturally be a part of that equation. We must guard vigilantly against a return to despotism.

Have the rights of any of your female family members ever been violated?

Polygamy, abuses, the subordination of women to their husbands, the lack of freedom to study, work and choose a husband: these situations occur in many Afghan families and they are all violations of human rights.

In the village where I was born, a girl was never asked if she wanted to marry her husband. It was the role of fathers, brothers, and uncles, and in some cases, even mothers, to decide for their daughters. I remember one girl, a close relative of mine, who had a suitor. Because the girl had given some indication she was content to marry this man, the girl's brother killed him. Awful conflict broke out between the two families, to such an extent that within three months, three other people had been killed.

What are the major factors that hinder women's participation in social, economic, political and cultural spheres?

The social structures of Afghanistan are still primitive. Clans continue to wield more power than citizenship rights and laws. The astonishingly high rate of illiteracy among women deprives them of their rights. And finally, the despotism of patriarchy is a social phenomenon in Afghanistan which is yet to face a serious challenge. These basic issues have ensured that Afghanistan remains a country where women are deprived of their fundamental rights.

What do you wish for your daughters?

I want to see my daughters educated to such a level that they will be able to defend their rights and resist oppression, whether it arises from their family, the society, or the government.

What have you done in your private and professional life to fight against obstacles to women's participation in Afghanistan, including discrimination?

In my private and family life, my wife is in charge of all family issues, from economic matters to managing relationships with our relatives. She decides what should be bought and what should be sold. I do not have much involvement in these issues. I have ensured my daughters have access to education.

At work, I would be very surprised if any of the women I have worked with in different places have been unhappy or felt discriminated against in the workplace.

"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