Twenty-three-year-old Heleena Kakar is the leading force behind Afghanistan’s ‘first feminist weekly’. In India to explore social and business partnerships, Kakar is busy engineering a brave new world for Afghanistan’s next generation of women.
Kakar and her audacious team of university students and young professionals with support from a UK-based feminist funding agency and the US embassy are all set to re-launch Ruidad Weekly as quarterly magazine in January. Kakar graduated from Herat University with a degree in computer science and works in the Ministry of Narcotics.
Firstpost spoke to Kakar about life as a young feminist in Afghanistan and what the US withdrawal in 2014 will mean for her and her band of change-makers.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you introduce Ruidad Weekly?
We launched Ruidad Weekly in 2011. It is the first feminist weekly in Afghanistan. We want to build a network. The weekly is about women’s rights, highlights violence against women, their value in society and how women can be independent in society. We started as a weekly with six-pages in Dari, Pashto and English. In April, we got a fund from FRIDA (a UK-based feminist fund) and we are all to re-launch it as a 14-page quarterly magazine. We are a 50-member group of students and young professionals drawn from different fields.
Tell us about how the idea for a feminist weekly came about.
We already have a lot of NGOs that are working for women’s rights. While I was studying at Herat University, we were involved in social activities. I am a young girl and I am aware of the difficulties in our society. We cannot accept this. The idea came from there. So we sat together and brainstormed. When we started out, we didn’t know who or what we stood for. By the end of our research and discussions, we realized we are feminists (laughs).
So we get a sense of the weekly, could you tell us about some of the articles featured in last issue?
I wrote three articles in the last issue titled, ‘Why I am a feminist’, ‘I am me’, and ‘What does the future hold for Afghan women’.
We have an article on Afghanistan and feminism that talks about the background of feminism, the situation in Afghanistan and how we can contribute. You know that Afghanistan is an Islamic country. A Muslim woman can also be a feminist.
We have articles on the problems women face, a legal perspective on women’s rights. And then we have an interview with an athlete - a young girl from Afghanistan who has won many medals - and how she can achieve her goals. We have some poetry by written by women and a sample from a novel written by a woman who barely went to school.
What kind of response has the weekly got? Have there been any controversies?
It is not easy for our society to accept us. The situation in Afghanistan is different. We have had some problems. We’ve also been threatened. We have had to change our office. We now operate from a less conspicuous office.
Earlier this year we wrote an article addressed to President Hamid Karzai’s wife, Zeenat. She is a doctor. When she was in Pakistan she was a women’s activist. But once she came to Afghanistan, she is nowhere to be seen. While Karzai talks about women’s rights, his wife has withdrawn from public life.
The reaction to that article was mixed. Some wished us luck, some said be careful and still others said we were wrong and that we shouldn’t play with danger. Even though some people told us to stop, it only motivated us more. I believe that we did a good job.
What kind of threats did you get? And from who?
Some of our members were being followed. We once got a call and were told to shut the office down. We don’t know who they were. And we are not interested in knowing either.
Who is your target reader?
The young generation. The weekly is distributed for free in universities, colleges and schools. We print about 1000 copies. In Kabul, distribution is not a problem but in Herat we’ve had some trouble. We have friends who take copies by car.
Do you have a lot of women readers? What is the literacy rate among women?
We do. But up until now we didn’t have a mechanism to assess the readership and get their feedback. In the re-launched edition, we have introduced an interactive segment and put out an email address and a phone number so that readers can communicate with us. We haven’t given our office address for security reasons. In the next 2-3 months we’ll have a better sense of how many readers we have and how they are reacting to us.
As far the literacy rate goes, according to the Ministry of Women, it is around 1o percent. I’d say about five per cent of women can read. In the last ten years, we’ve seen more women go to school and university, despite problems. The percentage of literacy is going up.
With every issue, what do you and your team set out to achieve?
We are a diverse group of students with different ideas. We brainstorm about where we are, where we were and where we want to be as a society. We have a lot meetings and discussions. We have to think about how it will affect the reader. If the reader is a man, it shouldn’t reflect him in a bad light. We take care of that.
So the idea is not to shock the readers.
No. Afghanistan is an Islamic society. In fact, we use Islamic words in our articles and talk about how our work is not against Islam. This way it is less controversial and it becomes more acceptable to them.
What does feminism mean to you? How people react when you call yourself a feminist?
We want to be recognized for our talent not our sexuality.
People have different ideas about feminism. They say it is a European ideology. They don’t accept it. A feminist can be different in different societies. In America, we have one kind of feminist. In Afghanistan, we are going to start a different school of feminism with new rules, new expectations. A feminist movement starts where there are problems. And to correct those problems one has to struggle for a movement. Feminism is not something that is distant to Islam. It is all there in our religion. If any woman works for the movement and empowers an another woman, she is a feminist. To me feminism is a political movement by women who are working for the rights of women to achieve their goals - be it political, social or cultural.
What is your vision for women in Afghanistan?
A woman should be accepted as a human being. She should be independent. Her thoughts should be respected. Every woman has a dream – to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer.
Rights for women in Afghanistan are only on. Although they have the right to stand for elections, it is only a minority of women can actually do that. And even those who do, are only symbolic. They are propped up by men and controlled by them.
A woman should be recognized an individual.
We have about 15 women in Afghanistan’s Parliament that has a total strength of 225. We have a new reservation law for women in government. But like I said, those who are nominated are only figureheads. We don’t want that. We want women to stand independently.
Although women have the right to study, not all women have the freedom to do so. Again, it is only a minority. My family is open-minded and therefore I have the freedom to work, to study in a university in a different city. Families like mine are very few.
Are you worried about the impact of the US withdrawal in 2014?
Of course, I am. After 2014, there will be changes in Afghanistan. NATO will leave and there will be election for a new president. These are the two big issues. We are worried about what will happen.
There are talks ongoing with the Taliban. Does that worry you? Are you afraid of the Taliban?
No. We know that efforts are on to make peace with them. They will be involved in the government system. If anyone wants to do something, they can try. We are not doing anything wrong. I’m convinced that I am right in my position as per Islam and as per the law of my country. That is why I am not afraid.
Will you be able to accept a government that is supported by the Taliban.
It depends. Talks are in progress. It is not yet clear how they will be involved. If they come with the same mindset, they will not be part of our government. If we have the freedoms and the rights that we have now, it is fine. But if they come with the same mindset, it will not be acceptable for us.
Are a lot of young people leaving Afghanistan?
Yes. A lot of young boys want to leave. They want to emigrate to Europe or the US. They are worried about situation after 2014. They are not optimistic about the future.
What about you?
I don’t want to leave. Why should I? I have everything I want. I have the support of my family. I have my friends. I have my work. I have respect.
What are your dreams?
I have lots of dreams. With every new member, comes a new idea. My goal is to build a big network of women. I want every woman to stand on her own feet and to be someone in society. A woman should be able to head a network of her own. I want members in my group who can empower other women in our society. We are the new generation. We are young and we have time to work on ourselves. In ten years, when there is an election, we will have 2-3 members from our network as members of the government, as ministers or deputy ministers.