Beyond Malalai: Give Afghan Women a Chance

The US and NATO withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014 and its likely outcome have garnered global attention in the past few months. Whether Afghanistan will strive towards maintaining internal and external security or relapse into another long-drawn conflict remains a lurking question. Since much of the discourse in the past few years has been replete with issues of women’s safety and empowerment in Afghanistan it is imperative to sieve through the rich legacy of powerful women in Afghanistan who have assumed leadership roles both in the ancient and contemporary settings. These facts are however meagerly documented in the history books. As the West would like us to believe, the conditions for women in Afghanistan have not always been dismal and oppressive until they suffered a backlash during the Taliban regime, which was most likely sponsored by the major global players.

The pre-Aryan history establishes the existence of many matriarchal societies in the region, the remnants of which are still found in certain tribes in Afghanistan as also in parts of Kerala and Northeast India where women enjoyed power within their communities. Similarly, the legendary poet and Afghan warrior Malalai who had fought along with Ayub Khan and defeated the British in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 has been slowly vanishing from the pages of history. Goharshad Begum had played a very important role in moving the Timurid capital from Samarkand to Herat and is also said to have started a cultural renaissance in the region by inviting illustrious philosophers and artists from around the world. Contemporary figures like Shukria Barakzai who is labelled as the “woman who the Taliban and the NATO fear” and Malalai Joya who is known as “the bravest woman in the world” for speaking out strongly against the American occupation in Afghanistan also go on to prove that women have been more than just ‘victims’ in the Afghan society.

Considerable efforts have been made in the direction of women’s empowerment in Afghanistan; however a much-coveted space for women to prove their mettle still remains a distant dream. India has shared rich cultural ties with the region in the past and is home to a large number of Afghan migrants. Since stability of Afghanistan also falls under the purview of India’s strategic interests, it should make concerted efforts towards reviving and fortifying pillars of economic and internal security in the region. It is an accepted fact that a strong and educated woman goes on to affect her immediate family and the larger community in the longer run. For India, it would prove to be a low cost investment to award 5,000 scholarships to Afghan women every year in the field of science, technology, military training, horticulture, social sciences, history, and agriculture at a monthly allowance of Rs 10,000. These women could stay in India for a period of two to three years to learn the required skills and later work towards strengthening the legal, political and economic structures in Afghanistan.

The induction of women in the Afghan national army and police forces was a welcome step but their sustainability remains a concern. India could open up avenues to organise training programmes for Afghan women alongside women from the Indian Army and police forces in order to equip them with the kind of skills required to strengthen internal security in the region. On the other hand, it is also imperative for the Afghan forces to recruit more women for their internal security operations, since women are likely to be impacted by the Taliban hardliners. Equipping the women to protect themselves and their communities is the need of the hour. Currently there are only 1,551 female police officers in Afghanistan, which is just one for 10,000 women in the war-torn country.

Improving communication channels is another area of concern. India along with its booming media is also home to various successful and talented female journalists. Training programmes could be organised for the Afghan women on a mentor-protégé basis to help them knit stories that concern their society. In fact, a medium like CGNET Swara, which is currently being operated in the tribal belt of India, could well be replicated in the rural hinterlands of Afghanistan where computer and internet have not yet penetrated

Afghanistan is yet to establish an Afghan Women’s Commission; The National Commission for Women in India could play an integral role in lending its expertise to facilitate the process. India has made significant strides in improving women’s participation in local governance or Panchayat level.  Many Afghan women are already members in the Parliament with a few even aspiring for the Presidential elections in the year 2014. Interactions can be facilitated for Afghan women who are aspiring to participate in public affairs with the women Panchayats in India to learn about the challenges and best practices at the local level.

Since several women in Afghanistan are also involved in handicrafts and agriculture, a model like that of SEWA (Self Employed Women Association) will help several women gain financial stability. Simultaneously, health and sanitation programmes can be organised through these forums since these issues have a direct bearing on women and children.

Afghan women entrepreneurs are already looking towards India for business opportunities. India can perhaps play an integral role in fostering security in its neighbourhood by providing women with the opportunities that would facilitate growth and stability.  Afghanistan has had a rich legacy of women involved in the resistance movements against those who have lacerated their region with violence and extremism. The likes of Malala have already risen against the Taliban, and the clock is still ticking.

Original Source: Science, Technology & Security Forum, Manipal University

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