The woman who the Taliban and the NATO fear

Meet Shukria Barakzai, a leading advocate of women’s rights in Afghanistan who wants to run for the country’s top office in 2014
Change Agent
Shukria Barakzai, a mother of five, with her toddler twins
SHUKRIA BARAKZAI, 39, activist, editor, politician and  presidential hopeful
A day in Parliament

When Shukria Barakzai’s headscarf slips off, as it often does while she speaks, she does not hurry to pull it back up. She takes her time, leisurely readjusting the length of purple silk or pink chiffon one or two sentences later, without interrupting her flow of thought. This happens in public, not only in private, and reveals much more about her than the colour of her hair. I ask her if writing this would be too much of a provocation. She throws back her head and laughs, delighted and self assured. Barakzai laughs often, mostly when she is saying things that might endanger her life. “Sure I’ve had threats, many of them,” she says, crystal glint in warm brown eyes, “I am not afraid. I am a strong, proud, democratic Muslim woman fighting for the lives of my children. When a mother is fighting for her children, there is no force in the universe that can silence her.”

There is a new uprising afoot, one we have been waiting for. “From Syria to Afghanistan, from Libya to Iran, Muslim women have had as much as they are going to take,” says Shukria Barakzai, 39, Member of Parliament, editor-in-chief of Afghanistan’s first women’s magazine, champion of women’s rights, and mother of five (including twin toddlers). “Most people think of Afghani women as victims,” she says, “victims of violence, of forced marriages, of terrible rates of maternal mortality.  Well, this is all very true. But it is also true that countless women, smart and beautiful and brave, will not bow their heads and will not be victims anymore.”

Barakzai, head upright, is walking her talk—last year, she declared her intention to run for President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2014. “This is something I must do,” she says, as if it explains everything.

Barakzai’s career as a political activist began on the streets of Kabul at the age of 25 on the day the Taliban’s ‘religious police’ caught her on her way home from a visit to the doctor—without a male escort. They flogged her, in public, with a shalock, a rubber whip. “There was no way I was going to just accept that kind of thing,” she says. She set up an underground school for girls in her home, her friends serving as teachers. Hundreds of girls, defying danger, received their education in this home school.

It is hard not to think of Malala Yusufzai, an advocate of education for girls who was shot at by extremists in Pakistan. But Barakzai is not one to be deterred by such violence. “I had no time to worry about getting caught,” she says. Several months after the defeat of the Taliban, in 2001, she started a national weekly newspaper for women, Aina-e-Zan, with the goal of ‘improving the understanding and knowledge of Afghan women in society’.

“I did not even own a computer,” she says with a smile. “I had nothing, but I managed.” In 2005, she received the International Editor of the Year Award from the World Press Organization. She also founded Afghanistan’s first union for women journalists.

“Nothing will change and democracy has no chance if women do not know the truth about what is happening around them,” she says, “But being aware cannot protect you from everything. We also need the law on our side.”

In 2004, Barakzai was chosen as a member of the committee charged with writing the country’s new constitution, her special mission being to advocate women’s rights. Around the same time, her husband of 12 years, Abdul Ghafar Dawi, married another woman and did not even bother to tell her; she found out from friends who told her what everyone else already knew. “It is an indescribable pain,” she says, “It hurts in the deepest places.” Ghafar, a millionaire businessman, was running at the time for a seat in parliament. Barakzai decided to run against him. Despite the large funds at her husband’s disposal, in contrast with her small kitty of street-corner collections and donations from friends, Barakzai was elected. “No one can say I won because of the support of my rich husband,” she laughs.

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I first met Barakzai at a conference for innovative thinkers, where she was introduced as ‘The woman both the Taliban and Nato are afraid of’. Her clear and brave message, both intensely personal and universal, electrified the audience. When she was finished, she looked around in the dark hall for somewhere to sit. To my great luck, a chair next to me was empty. She took it, and before long, had invited me to Kabul. “You will love it... [it’s] a wonderful place,” she says. But Kabul is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, I say. “Ah well,” she laughs, “It sounds much worse than it is.”

According to Barakzai, “Not to be afraid is the most important choice I ever made. It is a choice, you know.” Though busy round the clock, when she does make the time to talk she is fully present, intimate and warm. While we speak, I am overcome with a peculiar feeling that I am looking into a mirror. “It happens to me with many women,” she laughs when I tell her, “It is because we are mirrors of each other. When we look into each other’s eyes, outer differences like race, class or religion fall away.” Only later, I find out that the name of her newspaper, Aina-e-Zan, means ‘women’s mirror’.

Barakzai was born in Kabul to a well-to-do Pashtun family. As a girl, she loved to play handball and write short stories. She was a married university student with one small daughter when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. “It was like all of the beauty broke into little pieces,” she says. Like many of Afghanistan’s upper-middle class, her parents fled the country, taking with them Shukria’s six brothers and sisters. Shukria and her husband decided to stay. “I do not like to run away from things,” she says.

Yet, she was forced to leave the university, cover up in a burkha, and take a male escort along every time she left home. “I get a terrible feeling in my skin when I think about those times,” she says. The day the Taliban lost power, she threw away her blue burkha. According to her she was the first woman in Afghanistan to do so. “You will never ever find one in my home again,” she says, rearranging her sheer lilac headscarf. “Not that the burkha is the main issue,” she immediately adds, “If women prefer to wear it, that should be their choice.”

One of Barakzai’s special achievements is her recent two-year term as president of the Parliament’s Defense Committee, ‘one hundred per cent a man’s job’. “During my time, we never rested,” she says, “I asked all the tough questions and insisted on getting the answers.” Her questions turned out to be so tough that  Abdul Rahim Wardak, defense minister at the time, demanded her dismissal (she is still active on the committee, but he was ousted from his post). “He said to me he wasn’t willing to answer to a strong woman,” Barakzai chuckles, “Anyway, I only wanted to show everyone that a woman can do the job, and I did.”

In less than a couple of years, Barakzai intends to run for president. But before that, she says, she and others must ensure that the election does indeed take place—something not to be taken for granted. Afghanistan is run by a ‘house of lords’, she likes to say, drug lords, crime lords and war lords, none of who has any real interest in a democratic Afghanistan. “At the heart of it, we are a very proud people, but now most Afghanis are very tired, and so accustomed to the ‘leadership’ of foreign occupiers that it is not so easy to wake them up to take back full responsibility for their lives. Democracy cannot be airdropped together with troops of marines. So the first step towards a truly independent Afghanistan is to remind the people of their self-esteem and give them self-confidence. This is a major challenge. I’m ready for it.”

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“Spending time with my children in our little home is my greatest joy and pleasure,” says Barakzai. She is back from another long trip, and sounds a little tired. “I would do anything for my children,” she says; it is for them that she has chosen to continue living with her husband. “Of course it is painful for me, but my children have a right to live with their father. If I were to make them suffer because of my own suffering, it would be very selfish, no? Life here in Afghanistan is hard enough; I would not like to add any more pain to their lives.”

Meanwhile, Barakzai is involved in a campaign to abolish the right of Afghani men to marry up to four women. “I don’t bother talking about this with the men,” she says, “It would be pointless. I talk to the women; I ask them never to agree to be, or let their daughters be, a second wife. I explain that it is for the sake of their dignity, and for the sake of not hurting another woman, a sister. I tell them I have suffered this pain myself, and I know.”

One evening, I catch Barakzai on her cellphone; she is with her children, outside Kabul’s sports arena, a few moments before a big game. The day before, by a petrol station near the airport, a woman had blown herself up, killing 12; there had been little let-up in the violence for months. And yet, Barakzai reports, thousands of people surround her this evening, families and friends and newly-weds, snacking on tasty street food and making merry. But how do you conquer the fear, I ask, how do you muster the courage to take your children out into those streets? “Because we choose to live,” she says. “Please do not imagine Afghanistan as a dark, frightening place. The vast majority of our people stay far from violence, love peace, and want to be part of the 21st century. Part of the community of nations. We are the real Afghanistan.”

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I have a few more questions, and she answers them with clarity and conviction:

Q Are you eagerly awaiting the US withdrawal?

A “The bitter truth is that we are not ready for them to pull out tomorrow; the situation is too unstable. I say this with terrible regret because I am so hungry for independence, and wish to be finally free of them all. Obviously, the Americans and Nato did not come here to help us. They came here to help themselves, and they will leave to help themselves as well. We do not really exist for them. If we greeted them nicely because they helped us get rid of the Taliban, they should have realised it was not an invitation to move in, take our country, and do whatever they like with it. Ten years have gone by, look at the chaos they have created. But that is their speciality, no?”

Q Do you fear the return of the Taliban to power?

A “First of all, and I am speaking from the field, there is no more a cohesive, centrally-led group called the Taliban that is strong enough to rule the country. But more importantly, we are not the same Afghanis we used to be. There is no chance we are going to let them rule over us again. No way. Look at our youth: they are really fantastic; they are awake, they want peace, they are on Facebook connecting to each other all over the world. Also, a tremendous amount of political power is held by our amazing women. There are many thousands of us, your sisters, and we are fighting for our lives. So we will invite the Taliban to join us in a democratic process. If they agree, welcome. If they try to force their way in, we will stand in front of them and block them in any way we need to, in an armed way if we need to, with our lives if we need to. And when I say ‘we’ I mean firstly the women of Afghanistan… it is we who have suffered the most and we who have the most to lose.”

Q Would you like to say something to women in India?

A “Well, to the women and to the men as well, if they like. What happens in Afghanistan, or Syria, is completely connected to what happens in India, or in the USA. It is the job of each of us to fight for better lives, to bring light where there is [darkness]. There is no one else out there who is going to do it. Sitting at home and complaining about all the wrong things everyone else is doing is a complete waste of time; it makes one weak. So fight for change in the place closest to you: in your town or your child’s school or even in your family. And know that wherever you succeed, you have done it for all of us. The world is One.”