The Freedom of Afghan Women Depends on Education and Empowerment

I am a girl who was born and raised in a male-dominated society. When I was introduced to democracy, human rights and the concept of freedom, it changed my life.

Jamshidi, donned in graduation attire, holds a sign written in Dari which reads, “I dedicate my degree to my only sister who was not allowed to go to school because of patriotic values.” (Valerie Plesch)

I am an Afghan woman who was born and raised in a male-dominated society and where education for girls is not acceptable. On May 24, I graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in government and justice and peace studies with honors. I dedicated my degree to my only sister, Adela, who was not allowed to go to school because of patriotic values. For me, this symbolizes the struggles of Afghan women as they strive for basic human rights and education in the 21st century. 

When I was 5, my sister, who was my closest friend, was coaxed into an arranged marriage. I still remember seeing her as a 13-year-old girl wearing a white wedding dress. A little girl, who knew nothing about marriage, had now found herself among a family of 11 who expected her only to serve. As I grew up, I witnessed her being violated and mistreated. What we call “basic human rights for all” was an unfamiliar concept among the group of people with whom I lived. There was only one way for me to avoid that preordained direction in order to obtain a better future: get an education. 

I realized that the broken system—sustained by our clan—could and should be resolved through education. Reading books opened up an entirely new world—a world so different from the one full of the difficulties that were my everyday reality, a world that made it possible to see hope among numerous disappointments and hardships. I wanted an education in order to excel, and to get one step closer to breaking away from the life my older sister and mother endured. I wanted to find a way to liberate myself rather than silently weep as a way to cope under the control of the men in my life. So, I continued with school despite the many challenges and oppositions I faced in my family.

Era of Democracy, Human Rights and Freedom

In 2005, my family and I returned to Afghanistan from Iran, when Afghan women across the country were changing their aspirations and dreams with the support and encouragement of the international community and a democratic government. This was all happenings when the country’s legal framework was improving to better protect women and their rights from violence and discrimination. Millions of girls were going to school and women’s social, political and economic participation were increasing.

I lived in a small village in Herat in Western Afghanistan, and I remember watching all of these developments on television, and thinking how I wanted to join the women who were striving to break the taboos and change the social norms. Listening to promising and inspiring voices of women’s rights champions like Dr. Sakeena Yaqubi, and observing women in my family who were aggressively targeted for being women inspired me to work at the grassroots level in Afghanistan to promote women’s rights and gender equality. 

I found a position where I worked to promote human rights, gender diversity, youth and women empowerment programs with various international organizations, including the United Nations, USAID and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society. Working at the grassroots level enabled me to better understand the challenges that Afghan women were facing, as well as my strengths and enthusiasm for helping my community. Moreover, working in those areas and gaining skills and knowledge about women’s rights and gender equality made me more committed to human rights. 

I know that my upbringing is not unique. It is the story of thousands of women and girls in Afghanistan whose basic human rights are not fulfilled merely because they live in a society with undeveloped social norms and a severely undeveloped justice system, or lack thereof. I was inspired by all the stories I heard from women when I started traveling across the country, from province to province, city to city, and sometimes village to village. These were women who demanded improved living conditions and basic human rights from their government.

Observing Impacts of Human Rights Advocacy in My Community

Today, Afghanistan is home to female educators, policymakers, law enforcement officers, politicians and peace negotiators. However, it took more than 20 years of tireless work and efforts by women who had made considerable change in public opinion about basic women’s human rights, such as access to education, economic opportunities, and possessing the rights of freedom in making decisions over their lives and autonomy. It is evident that there is still a long way to go to realize these rights in every area of the country. 

After graduating from Georgetown, I posted on Facebook a picture in my graduation robe while holding a sign in my native Dari language that said, “I dedicate my degree to my only sister who was not allowed to go to school because of the patriarchal values.”

In less than 48 hours, the photograph went viral on social media and many Afghan local media outlets. I received loads of messages from both Afghan men and women condemning the patriarchal acts that have been preventing women from accessing and enjoying their basic human rights. I received supportive messages from men from the village, where some days I was the only girl who worked with male colleagues outside of home. Some indicated that education should be a birth-given right that no one can violate. 

Afghan Women Bore Violence Over Many Years but Enjoyed Notable Gains in the Last Two Decades

Twenty years of active advocacy for Afghan women’s rights by Afghan activists and the support of the international community and organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation has significantly changed public views about women’s rights, particularly regarding education. Women’s legal standing has dramatically improved, but there are undoubtedly more efforts to be made. The country is now legally obliged to protect women from violence and harassment, a law which significantly reduced underage marriage and physical violence against women.

Now that Afghan women are aware of their rights and have been introduced to democracy and freedom, it is essential for the international community and Afghanistan’s international partners—the United States in particular—to stand with Afghan women after the withdrawal of troops. With continued international support, hard-won gains by women must be preserved and advanced. Protecting women’s rights must be at the top of every agreement as the troops continue to withdraw and a new government is eventually formed.

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Nazila Jamshidi is a gender equality and human rights specialist involved in Afghanistan's development and democracy processes for more than a decade. Nazila was a teenager when she began her feminist and human rights activism in Afghanistan and made notable efforts for increasing awareness on women's rights among various groups of Afghan men and women. She also worked with various international organizations, like the U.N., USAID, and IFRC, to integrate gender perspectives and human rights approaches in creating and implementing development policies and humanitarian programs. Nazila moved to the United States from Afghanistan in 2016, where she pursued her undergraduate education at Georgetown University, and she currently an M.A. candidate at Columbia University.