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.