Under Taliban rule, women and girls in Afghanistan were banned from any type of formal education. Involvement in political, social or economic processes was unthinkable.
Although progress has been slow, the situation has undeniably improved in many areas. Today, women are active members of parliament; they are advocates, activists, entrepreneurs and mayors.
Zarifa Ghafari is the mayor of Maidan Shahr, in Wardak Province — one of the few female mayors and, at 26, one of the youngest mayors to ever be appointed in Afghanistan. Hosna Jalil is deputy minister of Interior Affairs and the first Afghan woman appointed to a senior security post. Twenty-seven-year-old Maryam Sama is one of the youngest members of the Afghan Parliament, securing her seat in the 2018 Parliamentary elections.
These leadership positions for women in government signal a fundamental shift within Afghan society, yet despite these substantial gains they face resistance, and a deeply male-dominated political system — one that has long since been stacked against them.
Read more about Fawzia Koofi and Shahgul Rezai, two women who are the forefront of change in Afghanistan:
Fawzia Koofi is Afghanistan’s first female member of parliament and Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of the lower house in Parliament.
She was born in Badakhshan province in the northeast of Afghanistan but moved to Kabul in 1978, when she was 4-years-old, after her father — a prominent politician — was killed.
Koofi went on to study at medical college in Kabul, “but this was during the civil war, so the Taliban came and they closed all the universities for the girls and so I couldn’t continue my studies.”
Koofi returned to her home province in 1999 and started working with UNICEF until the fall of the Taliban in 2001 when she traveled back to Kabul. Koofi’s husband was imprisoned by the Taliban and later died in their custody. “I was a single working mother in need of financial support for my daughters, so I shifted to a law and political science degree on a night shift at Kabul University, while I kept working for UNICEF during the day.” Koofi went on to get a master’s in international relations from the Geneva School of Diplomacy in Switzerland.
Koofi first ran for Parliament in 2005.
“After the fall of the Taliban there were a lot of opportunities for women and there was a quota in the constitution for women to be elected to office,” says Koofi. “I actually got a lot of votes, however this was for my family identity, not purely for who I was. People were voting because of the fact that I was the daughter of my father.”
“When I was elected, the challenge for me was to create my own image and have my own message. Yes, my father did something great for his people and he left a legacy which brought me to politics but I wanted to prove myself and leave my own legacy for other women.”
Koofi was successful in forging her own political identity — five years later, in 2010, she ran for parliament again. “This time I was regarded as my own person.”
Koofi was in parliament for nine years before being elected as deputy speaker of Parliament. She went on to set up her own political party in 2019 called Movement for Change.
“Today, 60 percent of our members are women. We focus on gender issues, because there is no party in Afghanistan that is led by a woman or where the majority of members are women. To fill that gap and have women’s voices in the peace process we established this party.”
On Feb. 25, 2019, peace talks began between the Taliban and the United States.
Koofi was present at all three rounds of peace talks. “I decided to be part of these talks because I think we as women have to be able to take responsibility for our country. We’re talking about women’s empowerment and women’s participation. If we don’t have women in difficult places like peace negotiations, then we limit ourselves on where we can go and what we can do. I wanted to use my participation as a way to open the door for other women, a way for women’s voices and issues to be brought to the table.”
“The men who are the decision-makers think that peace is not something that women can participate in. They always view war and peace as the business of men.”
Shahgul Rezai has been a member of Parliament for 14 years and was one of 12 women who joined Koofi at the peace talks, which took place in Doha.
Rezai says that women’s issues should not only be the responsibility of women. “Right now only 27 percent of parliament are women but men in parliament think women are only able to talk about women’s issues. When there is an issue of violence against women, they say that women should raise their voice. … Both men and women should take the responsibility of our country together and both take responsibility for issues affecting both men and women.”
That said, Rezai says that there has been significant changes in the country in terms of women’s progress, “Today we have women working in different sectors. We have women in academic institutions, active in civil society, in provincial council and women as ministers etc. These are big changes.” While Rezai says that there is a long way to go to reach a level of equality and women’s rights, “we should appreciate our current progress and work to make plans for the future.”
Rezai says that the quota system established to make sure women had a seat in government may mask the realities of their reach as politicians — giving them positions but no power.
This was something she was particularly aware of during the peace talks.
“Any decision about peace will have an affect on the position of women,” she says.
Rezai says that Afghan people are desperately in need of a solution. “The people of Afghanistan are very tired of war, families are losing their sons,” says Rezai.
While the peace talks are reignited, it remains far from certain when or if they will bear fruitful results for ordinary Afghans.
In the meantime Koofi, Rezai and their peers continue their own battle closer to home, in the hope that their struggles for political participation will yield tangible results for the next generation of reformers.
Women will lead by example against all odds and constraints to set up high standards of unprecedented dedication, professionalism and service, says Koofi.