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Afghan activists live unconventional lives

Oct. 13, 2015

The murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan religious scholar who had dedicated her life to fighting superstitions within the religious community, shocked the world in March 2015. She was killed by a group of more than 100 men who beat her to death, ran her over with a car and then set her on fire. She was killed because a senior religious cleric falsely accused her of burning the Quran, according to the BBC.

After her death, protests were held to demand justice in Afghanistan and around the world. Despite global and national efforts, the trial for Malikzada was called a failure by many activists because several killers and policemen who watched the murder were recently acquitted.

“muslim_woman”

Illustration by Sam Ward, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Malikzada's is only the latest in the contemporary history of assassinations of Afghan women for their work. In September 2008, Malalai Kakar was shot by two unknown gunmen on the way to her work in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Her teenage son was seriously injured. She was perhaps the most prominent female police officer, and she was known for standing up for victims of gender-based violence. After her murder, A Taliban spokesman took credit for the job with pride. Malalai Kakar, Benafsha, Hanifa Safi, Safia Ahmed-jan, Zakia Zaki and Shaima Rezayi are only a few of the dozens of women have been killed under the watch of the internationally backed government of Afghanistan for protesting or for simply participating in public life in the past 13 years. 

What is certain is that Afghan women who live publicly and participate in the political and social arenas of life do not feel safe. In interviews done over the last six months by phone and online, they say they do not see local officials as allies, but often as a hurdle or threat. They are not certain that they will not be beaten, raped, tortured or killed. Yet, they say they want to continue their struggle for a more progressive Afghanistan.

They are painting murals, organizing protests, singing songs about gender-based violence, lobbying for more progressive policies, running businesses, joining the armed forces, teaching and learning every day. Many of these women are publicly involved in changing laws and mindsets and introducing a new role for women in the country. 

All the women interviewed for this project were adamant about continuing their struggles for equality and seemed fearless in the face of threats. This investigation examines the struggles and hopes of some of these activists as well as why they continue to speak up.

 

Photo of journalist Humira Saqib

Courtesy of The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women

Journalist Humira Saqib runs the Afghan Women's News Agency.

Humira Saqib, 32, is a journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan. She runs the Afghan Women’s News Agency and Negah-e-zan, a magazine dedicated to women. She has been working in Afghanistan for most of her life but had to leave the country in 2011 after an attempt by unknown men to kidnap her. 

After Saqib attended the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan and advocated for continued focus on women’s rights, she received many threatening phone calls. The threats only increased when Saqib took it on herself to stand up to a declaration by the Ulema Council that curtailed women’s rights and demanded that women seek their husbands’ permission prior to leaving their homes. 

“After I wrote several articles critiquing the Ulema Council on its misogynist fatwas, the threats increased,” she said in a recent interview. “At the time I lived in Macroyan-e-seh, Kabul. My little daughter was pushed and threatened, and I was kidnapped. I was able to escape, but the threats only increased,” she says. 

Saqib recorded the threatening phone calls and took them to the local police station. No one was arrested for the assault on her safety, but the local law enforcement authorities promised “to keep an eye on the neighborhood,” she said. Her official letters to the security officials remained unanswered. She also went to civil society and human rights organizations, but none of them had a solution. 

“I was supported by nobody; no one in the government or the civil society supported me,” she said.

Meanwhile, the phone calls became more frequent and Saqib began to fear for her life. Soon after the kidnapping, she and her family moved to Tajikistan, but a year later, she returned to her country to continue her work.

“I could have stayed in Tajikistan and remained safe,” she says, “but it was the spirit of the struggle that brought me back. I think our goal of gender equality and justice is a sacred one, so even though I have no sense of safety and my family is in danger, I have come back to work towards that goal.” 

Saqib does not feel lonely in her struggle. She says that most of the messages and calls she receives are supportive, and despite the threats, she knows there are people who are on her side. In addition, although she reports on gender-based violence and women’s issues, Saqib sees her struggle as one against terrorism and extremism as well. Leaving the country, to her, would be the equivalent of leaving the “battleground for the extremists.”

The threats have only increased Saqib’s determination because she sees them as proof of how important her work is. Since returning to Afghanistan, she has campaigned to pass the Elimination of Violence against Women Act, to increase women’s participation in the government and the political arena and to end discrimination against female journalists, among other things. She is an active member of the Committee for Afghan Women’s Political Participation, and she often participates on public media conversations to raise awareness about women’s issues. In addition to harassment and threats in the offline world, her outspokenness on social media has led to many attempts to hack her platforms and smear campaigns, but she says, “Someone has to speak.” 

 

Photo of journalist Shakila Ibrahimkhail

Photo courtesy Shakila Ibrahimkhail

TV journalist Shakila Ibrahimkhail reports on women's issues and endures constant threats.

Shakila Ibrahimkhail is another female journalist reporting on women’s issues in Afghanistan. Unlike Saqib, who runs the independent Afghan Women’s News Network, Ibrahimkhail works with Tolo TV, which is owned by the biggest media company in Afghanistan, Moby. 

Ibrahimkhail was the first reporter to break the story of Sahar Gul, a 15-year-old girl who was sold in marriage by her brother and tortured by her in-laws because she refused to give in to prostitution. 

Many supported Ibrahimkhail when she reported that case. Her reporting led to change. Nonprofis and women’s organizations rallied support for Sahar Gul and placed her in a safe shelter, where she remains. Then-President Hamid Karzai spoke to religious leaders about gender-based violence and encouraged them to speak out against it. And Kabul youth organized protests and campaigns against violence. 

However, when Ibrahimkhail covered a story on the selling of women in the Shinwaar district in Nangarhar, her story brought international attention to the issue — and threats to her life. 

Many thought her reporting was an insult to the country and the culture of Afghanistan. She was called a “Westerner” and a “traitor” among other things. She was followed home by unknown men who threatened to kill her several times and received dozens of threatening calls every night. The callers questioned the need to publish this story and “defame” Afghanistan.

Later, when she reported the gang rape of a woman in Badakhshan by local “armed criminals” she received threatening phone calls from them. The warlords who had raped the woman also threatened to kill the rape survivor’s husband, who was a police officer. 

The consistent threats led the couple to leave Badakhashan and move to the capital city of Kabul, but the phone calls to Ibrahimkhail continued.

“I usually answered the phone calls and reasoned with them. I told them why I report these stories with determination and fearlessly,” Ibrahimkhail said. 

Reporting on women’s issues has not been the only cause of threats for Ibrahimkhail. When she wrote about the government’s incompetency in forming a cabinet and reported on Afghanistan’s most-watched television on the outrage of people with the newly established government of Afghanistan, supporters of President Ashraf Ghani and Vice President Abdul Rashid Doustum harassed her. They wrote threatening posts about her on social media and tried to hurt her character and reputation. Many of the women interviewed for this report were afraid of characterizations that implied they were “loose” women or immoral, as that could lead to real physical harm.

Ibrahimkhail argues that those who write about her on social media are “weak and unable to do anything themselves.” She dismisses messages on social media but knows there are bigger, more pertinent dangers. When she reported on the killing of a young municipality worker during a suicide attack, which was widely reported in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents and their supporters threatened to kill her. When she covered government corruption and bribery, top government officials even slipped her threatening notes.

“There is no security for female journalists, especially if they cover dangerous territory and issues,” she says, but for Ibrahimkhail, the harassment, stalking and threats are a part of her job. 

“If you want to fight for your rights and that of others, you should expect these things. Life is a struggle. You cannot retreat,” she said.

She argues that if she stops traveling, writing and reporting, her enemies — the enemies of progress in her country, she says — will win. 

“We will find all this and continue to do so with more determination. Let them say and write what they want, make accusations, humiliate us, defame us, threaten us to death and violate our privacy. Despite all this we will stand together and continue our work. We will never stop. We will never give in to pressure,” Ibrahimkhail wrote on her Facebook page after a recent smear campaign against another female journalist.

Photo of writer and gender-equality activist Khaleda Khorsand

Photo courtesy of Khaleda Khorsand

Writer and gender-equality activist Khaleda Khorsand is organizing the country's Human Rights Film Festival.

Khaleda Khorsand, 30, is a writer and gender-equality activist in Herat, Afghanistan. In the past she has worked as a journalist for Pajwok, one of Afghanistan’s oldest news networks, and for BBC Persian. She began working in media and at aid and other nonprofit organizations while the Taliban was still in power in Afghanistan. At the time, in addition to reporting, she attended a women’s underground literary circle called The Golden Needle with Nadia Anjuman, a poetess who was killed by her husband for writing. 

When she began as a journalist, she was one of the two female journalists in her conservative town. She regularly faced discrimination at her workplace. When reporting in public, she faced sexual harassment, and even among other journalists, she was not treated with respect.

“Sometimes, I was not even allowed to ask a question in press conferences… after more women joined, it got better,” she says. 

During her earlier years in journalism, Khorsand reported on the sexual abuse of a young woman by a religious leader from whom she had sought help. The religious leader was well-known in Herat. He was wealthy, powerful and widely respected. Khorsand’s report led to months of harassment and threats. 

“He called my husband and threatened to kill both of us. I did not feel safe for a long time after that because I knew that the religious leader had a lot of followers,” she said in a recent interview.

Khorsand was worried about her own as well as her family’s safety, but she said that leaving journalism would be a betrayal to the survivor of rape whose story she had written. Her silence would satisfy the local religious leader and encourage others to believe that there were no consequences for their crimes, she said. She continued to report until more women joined newspapers, radios and television. 

Although she left her job in journalism, Khorsand continues to write. She writes about women’s issues, participates in the activities of Afghanistan’s Committee for Women’s Political Participation and advocates for human rights. Aware of the historical importance of her work, Khorsand continues to work for gender equality in her hometown. She is among the organizers of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Film Festival, a national event to highlight human rights issues through art. The festival has come under attack by religious clerics many times. 

Khorsand also facilitates debates on social and political issues. Among other things, after she ran a debate on the topic of Islam and secularism in her office, attendees threatened to kill her while in the debate room. Later, she was followed home and stalked for a few days. She continues to be threatened because of her work.

“They told everyone that I had changed my religion and I deserve to be killed,” she said recently. 

The attempts at character assassination not only create physical dangers for women but also endangers their social status, Khorsand said. In a society where rumors spread by men hold real weight, accusations of moral and sexual corruption can lead to physical violence. 

“In addition, the threat is never only towards the women who are fighting. It impacts and endangers our children, our husbands, our brothers… because of my work, my brother could be beaten up, injured, killed or imprisoned,” she says. 

Khorsand calls these threats dangers to one’s “societal (not physical) security” because they threaten the degree of a woman’s legitimacy. She said she spends a large portion of her time proving to people that “I am not a prostitute. I have to keep saying that ‘working outside and working for women’s rights is not prostitution.’ This is how I spend most of my energy. If I can’t prove that I am not a prostitute, no one will accept my work or my words.”

She said she feels unsafe not just among local people, but also is wary of the growing movement of youth drawn toward extremism. She describes a systematic movement that is engaging with youth, men and women, who “are taken to Pakistan, taught in extremist religious madrasas, and brought back to Herat to promote extremism.” 

Khorsand said these groups work to ensure that women do not participate in public life in ways they don’t approve as Islamic and require that women cover up in public places. The trained youth then engage in threatening activist women, running smear campaigns that put women’s lives in danger, and even violently beat those who disobey, Khorsand says.

“I have never felt safe in Afghanistan. I joined this fight because I believe it is my duty to fight against discrimination and injustice, and I will fight for as long as I can,” she says.

Khorsand talks about the struggles of women around the world. Women “were killed, raped, burned” for asking for their rights in order to guarantee basic human rights to women in other parts of the world. Afghan women have to do the same, she said.

“Many of us in this generation are martyrs for the next generation of women,” says Khorsand.

Photo of rapper Sonita Alizada.

Photo courtesy of Sonita Alizada

Rapper Sonita Alizada's family wants to sell her into marriage but has agreed to a delay. 

Sonita Alizada, 18, is an Afghan rapper who has lived most of her life as an undocumented immigrant in Iran, where legal restrictions have kept her family and other Afghans from being recognized. 

Like millions of other Afghan refugees, she was also prohibited from attending Iranian schools or universities. She left Afghanistan before receiving a national ID card and for most of her life, was neither a registered Afghan nor an Iranian. 

Before our recent interview, she was planning to travel to Afghanistan; once there, she was able to get an Afghan passport for the first time.  

When Alizada began singing a year ago, her family told her she was “betraying the moral code.” 

“Girls don’t sing,” they said, and they tried to prevent her from going to the underground studio where, with the help of an Iranian organization, she is recording. 

Alizada sang about being a refugee and also about racism in Iran, child labor, war, elections and democracy in Afghanistan. More recently, she has recorded songs about child and forced marriage

Her family members were not the only ones who had hoped to silence Alizada. It has been illegal for women to sing solo in Iran for 30 years. Getting caught while recording or being known for singing could have many consequences for Alizada and others like her, but the most certain one would be imprisonment in jails notoriously known for violence, torture and rape. Alizada is among the few women in Iran who are able to record in underground studios. 

“If I am caught, really terrible things could happen to me, especially because I am singing political and social songs,” she said. 

Both her Afghan community and the Iranian government have been unsupportive: Alizada gave shelter to her sister and her child because her brother-in-law was violent and attempted to sell the 9-year-old daughter. When the brother-in-law discovered that Alizada had provided cover for his wife and child, he threatened to kill her, then attempted to do so by pouring gasoline on her and lighting her on fire. 

“Drenched in gasoline, I went to the police station. The authorities told me that I was undocumented and an Afghan and they couldn’t do anything about my situation. ‘This is none of our business,’ they said,” says Alizada.

Soon after, at the police office, the brother-in-law arrived. Enraged, he told the police officer that Alizada is a female singer who raps against the Iranian government. 

“The police stopped asking him about trying to light me on fire and began interrogating me for singing political songs. In addition they said ‘You are a female singer. That is illegal in Iran,’” Alizada said. 

But the in-law did not have access to Alizada’s songs and could not provide any proof, so Alizada was set free with a warning. Then the brother-in-law found her at a desolate corner of town and beat her with bricks. This time, she did not go to the police. 

After a few songs, Alizada became more known in Afghanistan and among certain circles in Iran. The fame and support led to increased support among her family, she said. 

She brought copies of her songs and had them listen to them; they realized the songs were about their shared pain. Her family encouraged her, she said, but the support did not last. 

Alizada’s family was adamant about selling her in marriage in exchange for nearly $9,000. Her marriage would have probably prevented her from singing in the future and ended her budding career. Though they were not able to provide the entire sum of the money, a center dedicated to supporting Afghan refugee children was able to pay some money to Alizada’s family to delay the marriage. 

“The marriage has not been canceled. It has just been delayed,” an official from the center, who did not want to be named, said. 

Alizada is dedicated to singing political and socially aware songs, and she also dreams of more educational opportunities. To this end, she has been able to secure a scholarship at a private music school in the United States. 

“I have things that need to be told to more than one or two people. I want everyone to hear me. I want to become a well-known rapper and give concerts in Afghanistan. I want to help other children and youth who have lived through what I have,” Alizada said.

This story has been modified since its original publication.



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