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Suraia Perlika: 'We Cannot Trust Our Statesmen'

02/20/2014 10:25 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014

Suraia Perlika is an activist for human and women's rights. She founded the Democratic Women's Organization with five other women in 1965. In 1978, she was held as a political prisoner and tortured for her activities related to women's rights. After her release, she resumed the presidency of the Democratic Women's Organization, became President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and assisted in the establishment of the office of the International Federation of the Red Cross in Kabul. Today, Perlika is the Founder and President of the All Afghan Women's Union, the successor to the Democratic Women's Organization.

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Photo : Mahshid Rasti / Matthieu Hackière

Can you tell us about a time when your human rights were violated, something which has influenced your life?

I was held in solitary confinement for 18 months in 1978 without a trial because of my political activities. I was subjected to torture during investigations by the intelligence service and then transferred to Pul-e Charkhi prison. After I was released, I organised an international conference on women in Afghanistan. Because of my role in organising this conference, I was a victim of an assassination attempt and hospitalised for six months. I needed medical treatment for a long time to recover from the shooting.

What do you see as some of the important achievements in Afghanistan?

I am very pleased about the introduction of a 25% quota for women in parliament, the establishment of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and President Karzai's signing of the law prohibiting violence against women.

What gives you hope for the future?

There is increased attention in Afghanistan to the role of women and an expanded role for the civil society institutions in decision-making, for example, in the Independent Elections and the Elections Complaints Commissions.

What are your worst fears today?

The security situation is still acute in Afghanistan, and there is a lack of safety for women. I am deeply disappointed at the failure of the parliament to pass the law prohibiting violence against women. Also, I am concerned that we are losing all of the gains we have made for women in the last 10 years because of the secret, completely non-transparent talks that are being held with the Taliban.

It worries me greatly that President Karzai has not yet signed the bilateral security agreement with the US. If the agreement is not signed, the US will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Without their presence, we can be sure that the forces opposed to women will regain their influence in politics and society.

Will the present-day Afghanistan allow a recurrence of the closing of schools to girls and the blocking of women's social participation?

If Afghanistan loses international support and the NATO forces leave the country, women may face a return to the miserable condition of exclusion. We cannot trust our statesmen: they are working behind the scenes and conducting deals with those who oppose the participation of women. These deals are in violation of human rights, and in particular, the right of women to access education and participate in society and politics.

What are the challenges facing Afghanistan?

Failure to implement the laws, corruption in the administration, drug trafficking, and land grabs. Our statesmen are not committed to ensuring women's participation in the various political and social domains. And as I mentioned above, the failure to implement laws and corruption in the government administration are other major challenges for women's progress in Afghanistan.

What do you think needs to happen to see a positive change for women in Afghanistan?

Laws should be implemented uniformly. Perpetrators of violence against women should be punished. And there must be expansion and growth in the range of opportunities available to women to access education and attain economic independence.

What the sources and centres of power which women can rely on to promote their rights and demands?

Women look for support to civil society, female members of parliament, and also the progressive male members of parliament. Cohesion of women in all domains is a necessity. Women should participate in politics and elections. They need to establish relations with good presidential candidates in order to obtain their support for women's issues in the future when they form a new government.

What do you wish for your daughter?

I have one wish for all of the girls in Afghanistan: that they live a peaceful life, free from fear and discrimination, and that they have access to education and opportunities for intellectual development.

What have you done/are doing in your private or public domains, e.g. your civil and professional work, to eliminate the obstacles including discrimination?

In my private life, I have taken a stance against sexual discrimination. In the public sphere, I was a member of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, where I fought for a quota for women in parliament.

Earlier, in 1965, I was one of the women involved in establishing the Democratic Women's Organization. During the period under Zahir Shah called the "decade of democracy", I encouraged three women to stand in the parliamentary elections, and encouraged other women to vote for the female candidates. At that time, some of the male parliamentarians had stated that women were not allowed to travel abroad without being accompanied by close male relatives. We demonstrated against this for 50 days, finally forcing the parliament and the government to back down.

Do you have a specific message?

Women need to make informed choices about who they vote for in the elections, free from the interference and influence of men. They should read for themselves about the background of the candidates, not simply rely on campaign promises. This is important because many candidates speak about women's rights as tactics to gain votes in the election, but when you look at what they are really doing, they are acting against women's rights.

"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