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International Women’s Day – With Afghan Women in mind

By 8th March 2022No Comments

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. As we celebrate women across the world, it’s very important to celebrate the strength and the resilience of refugee women, who fight to find safety while building their home in a foreign land.

Sarah Baskerville, a member of Grace Church, Sandbach has been working with Afghan’s who served the British forces and were evacuated to the UK as the Taliban entered Kabul. She shares with us the story of one brave Afghan woman, Laila*, who fled to the UK for her safety. As you read on, Laila herself writes about the plight of women in Afghanistan. 

About Laila

Crossing into Pakistan earlier this year along with four other families fleeing their home country, Laila*, a young single woman, took flight to the UK. Laila received dangerous threats because of her involvement working to support the British forces. Advised by her family, she accepted an invitation to leave Afghanistan and move to the UK.

When I first met Laila, I was on a routine visit to the hotel as one of several Welcome Churches’ volunteers who were on the ground to help newly arrived Afghan refugees to settle in their new communities. To help with the settling in of Afghans, our church has introduced regular ‘Pop-In’ evenings where the women volunteers will chat with Afghan women, and our men volunteers will sit and talk with Afghan men. This is a good time of community and interaction.

As I got to know Laila more, I identified that she had a lot to say about the role of women in Afghanistan, past and present and their rights. Laila expressed a desire to write about this topic and a month later, she shared this essay with me.

Afghanistan’s Women in Mind – by Laila 

Since the world was created, women have always played an important role in a society. Afghan women are no exception. In the last hundred years, the role of women has vastly fluctuated mainly due to the political backdrop of the day.  These changing seasons were brought about in the first instance by King Amanullah Khan in 1919. Before the King’s reign, women lived for domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and giving birth and raising kids. 

First school for girls, first hospital for women 

Around 1920, Queen Soriya Tarzi broke tradition by building the first school for girls and the first women’s hospital (Mastorat).  In full support, the King also made radical changes. King Khan prohibited men from having more than one wife. His controversial initiatives included increasing the age of marital consent to 18, previously it had been as soon as a girl reached puberty. 

Hard-line regime returns

The forward-thinking Royals introduced a publication specifically for women called Ershad-I-Niswan (A Guide for Women). The Queen shocked the nation when she attended parliament in Western dress, this perhaps was a step too far. The King and Queen survived a decade in power before they had to flee their homeland and their departure meant a return to strict Muslim dictatorship. Women once again returned to the old way of life for four years. However, during the next King Zaher Shah’s reign new reforms were gradually introduced which were more sympathetic to women. These changes meant school doors opened for girls and young women were able to enter into university. For the first time women also actively took part in politics.

Cultural changes also included women singing on the radio – notably Merman Parvin. Merman inspired many women of the day to follow suit. Women never gave up, and struggled for their basic rights. They wanted to show they could be more than just a wife in the kitchen.
The progressive reforms continued until 1992 and flourished in the main cities like Kabul and Harrat. However, women living in the country didn’t benefit from these reforms.

Power struggles 

After 1992, civil war broke out and women’s reforms halted. Despite the Mojahedin being the dominant power, they themselves were broken by rival groups and infighting. Once again, women throughout Afghanistan suffered as a result. Consequently, the opposition took power in 1996. This power was the Taliban, who caused women to suffer by restricting their freedom.  

The Taliban were barbaric, dictatorial and oppressive on women who had no role outside their home, let alone in society. They abused their role and could commit any oppressive act they felt like. If women refused to wear a Burkah outside, they would be publicly lashed. The freedom women had known was obliterated.

Education for girls returns 

Girl schools and further education sprang up throughout Afghanistan. They carved out careers in their own right. I knew women doctors, lecturers, lawyers. I know of women in politics, the film industry and the arts, many who I understand may still be living under the oppressive Afghanistan regime today.

One female writer now living in the U.S. has written several inspirational books and really impressed me – Homira Qadiri (Dancing in the Mosque).

The process of women integrating in society has never been easy. The backdrop of tradition in my lifetime has made it hard for women. They found opposition in their own families. But they did not give up and would fight traditions.

Dreams shattered  

However, the achievements we gained, were sadly only to be lost to the Taliban, in one dark night on August 15th 2021. Today, I sit in a bridging hotel in the North West of England, until I have found a new home. I have hope for my Afghan sisters. I will not accept their current circumstances. I pledge to help them anyway I can, I am not with them physically, but I will pray for them and I will speak for them. I will cry out for their pain and their loss.

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