Every day a new story of horrifying violence against woman in Afghanistan comes to light and I believe everyone now knows how much Afghan women suffer from mistreatment, insecurity, poverty, lack of access to education and healthcare – all of which prevent them from exercising their rights.
Every year, the International Women’s Day is celebrated in Kabul; but seldom does it happen that painful voices of women from provinces across the country are taken to the presidential palace where the President and First Lady listen to it.
The Afghan Samoon Society undertook an initiative in which women from war zones were gathered and invited to the Presidential Palace to share their painful stories directly with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and First Lady Rula Ghani.
This year, 46 women from Logar, Kabul, Wardak, Nangarahar, Helmand, Kandahar, Herat, Khost , Parwan, and Paktika provinces were identified and organized by Malalai Shinwari and myself, Zakia Wardak, along with our group of 10 young amazing volunteers. These women included widows; mothers who had lost their sons while protecting their country; daughters who lost their fathers; young teachers who feared for their security; women who were forced into prostitution by their husbands; and women whose husbands were using and selling drugs.
At 08:00 am on 9 March 2017, I arrived at the Presidential Palace with my assigned group at the security gate #12. Some of the women were already there and by 8.30am everyone had arrived. I noticed that everyone was excited and they were dressed well, not in new clothes, but all clean, and I could smell their perfume. I tried to contain the excitement of the group, as the women were in disbelief that they were at the Presidential Palace, a place they never dreamed they would visit.
We all began walking towards the Palace doors and one by one the women were walked through the security clearance checkpoints. I noticed how all the women after leaving the checkpoints fiddled with their scarves and clothes so as to look their best. I saw their eyes darting from corner to corner trying to absorb everything about the palace. I could see how amazed they were by its beauty, its grand architecture, the tall trees that lined its gardens and the walking paths of kings, queens, presidents and first ladies.
Slowly they marched down the same path to the beautiful hall where President Ghani holds his cabinet meetings.
One by one, they entered the hall and sat in their seats and tried to be quiet. The portraits of Afghan leaders framed the walls and seemed to add to the energy and anticipation that was building in the room. We waited for the moment our leader would enter.
President Ghani and the First Lady arrived at 9:30 am. The President walked around the table and greeted each of us separately and welcomed all the women while the First Lady waited for him to join her at the head of the table.
We began. We explained to the President and First Lady the objective behind the Afghan Samoon Society’s initiative, which is to create a mechanism through which the voices of women at the grassroots level can directly reach the leadership of the country.
All of them were very nervous and worried about how they would speak, and whether they would be able to convey their struggles, their grief, their despair into words, but they did it.
Before the President’s arrival, Zolheja from Helmand told me that her heart was beating fast and that she did not know if she would be able to speak in front of him. But she did. With a shaky voice and tears rolling down her eyes she looked at the First Lady and the President and began sharing her story.
“Di millat baba (Father of the Nation),” Zolheja spoke, “I am a patriot and a soldier of this nation. Three of my sons were police officers and were killed by the Taliban and my fourth son is wounded. This morning I received threats from the Taliban. They were telling me, you are going to your father to complain about us, we will kill you. Di millat baba, I am ready to die for my country, for my people, and am ready for more sacrifices. But my grandchildren are too young to fight for their nation,” she said, pointing towards her three grandchildren whom she had brought along with her to the Palace.
“They are hungry; I do not have money to feed my family. I had a home and some small land, but some people and the Taliban robbed me of it and I was forced to leave. I now live in a house that no human can live in. I live in very bad conditions, and have only two pairs of clothes.” She pulled a corner of her dress and tried to show to the President.
“I have only this and owe people money because I have no source of income. I had no other option but to borrow from some family members to feed my family of 11. For days, I was eating flowers that grow with grass next to drains. I was collecting flowers, boiling them, and adding a little oil to it to give some taste to feed my family.”
She began crying and tried to control her tears so she could continue speaking. “I came today to ask, when a woman loses her husband, like my daughters-in-laws have lost theirs, fighting for this nation and trying to protect others, why is your government then not looking after their families?”
“I have knocked on many doors in the government and they are telling me they cannot give me my son’s money because they were not on duty when killed. Now tell me how will I be able to survive?” She started crying again and drying the tears with the corner of her black scarf. “Please help my family; please help me pay off my loans, please give me, my three widowed daughters-in-law and my grandchildren a roof to live under.”
I noticed the pain and emotions our President and First Lady were experiencing while listening to Zolheja. Their empathy moved me.
After Zolheja finished speaking, the President spoke. He said “you all believed in me and gave me your votes. I will take a serious look into all problems shared today.” He told the women that he will look into their matters and promised that justice would be delivered.
After his speech, the President left the room to attend another meeting but the First Lady stayed on and more stories of pain were shared as the she sat with the women, intently listening to each one of them.
Fatima, a woman from Paghman, spoke next. With a shattered voice, staring at the First Lady, she spoke of her husband who is in prison for selling and using drugs. “He has been sentenced to eight years. He was the breadwinner of my family and was keeping a roof over our heads.” Drying the tears from her cheeks she said: “I am illiterate and very sick. I have psychological issues because my in-laws beat me and tell me to divorce my husband and leave my children in the orphanage and return to my brother’s house and live there. My brother is very poor and can hardly feed his own family, how will he support me? First lady, if using and selling drugs is against the law, then how is it that my husband is receiving drugs in jail? I love my husband. Please reduce his sentence and put him in a hospital. I live in Paghman and in our province; it is considered a big shame for a woman to go out of her home and work. Even if I want to work, what kind of work would I do? My youngest child is only a year old.”
Another lady from Wardak spoke about her struggles of survival. She works on her small piece of land at midnight so that men do not see her working. That is her only means of income. She spoke about how culture conservatism is limiting her from working in broad daylight and how she therefore uses the moon to provide her with light and guide her at night.
Each story told came with such pain and detailed grave struggles, sacrifices, and suffering that women continue to endure in Afghanistan.
In the end, the First Lady promised to look into each matter and went and hugged each one of the women and invited them for a group photograph.
The time I spent with these courageous women has been enriching and eye opening for me. It was an experience in which I feel we all learned from each other, felt each other’s pain, and realized that only together, as a whole, can we bring the changes we are seeking. There were also some light moments that will stay with me forever. It was empowering to see that despite their struggles, these women did not hesitate to smile and laugh with each other.
Anargula, who relocated from Helmand and is now living in a tent in Kabul and asked me at the Presidential Palace if she could wear my sunglasses to take a picture with the First Lady. I smiled and said, “sure.” She ran to the table, picked up my sunglasses and walked fast and stood next to the First Lady. The start of her story was so sweet by telling first lady “Di padsha maienei (Kings wife) assalamualaikum, we came here because of our hopeless situation, I hope you can help us by giving us a home, a roof to live in.”
Another great memory was when I took Zolheja to an award ceremony, where I had the honor of receiving the ‘Appreciation of Leading Afghan Women in Recognition of their Achievements’, award by Sheba Radio. As we were driving to the venue, Zolheja put her hands in the pocket on the side of her dress and pulled out 50 Afghanis and asked me if I had change. I asked her what she needed the change for and she replied, “I want to give 10 Afghani to that beggar.” I was taken aback. She had but 50 Afghanis and still wanted to share that with others whom she felt needed it more than her.
Another day I took her to Mr. Abaseen who promised to help her with 50,000AFs at the Award ceremony and after she received the money from Abaseen, in the car she offered me money. I looked at her with surprise and I said are you bribing me? She got embarrassed and said no, I want to share some with you because you helped me a lot. I felt sad that she learned the system is corrupt and the only way to get work done is to bribe people. I felt so sad for her; I felt her pain, her hopelessness and her struggle.
Many questions crossed my mind after we left the Palace.
How seriously are these ladies’ issues being taken by our leadership?
How soon will the government act to resolve the issues discussed?
Will these ladies take the lead to find solutions for their problems?
Will they contact us again after they go to back their provinces?
What steps could we take to continue helping these women and resolving their issues?
I spent four days with these remarkable women and in that time I heard stories of loss, poverty, hunger, and immense struggles. It is beyond imagination to see how these women continue to survive in these destitute conditions and how they do so with a hope that some day everything will be fine and that their children will have security, education, and a brighter future – something they did not have.
Zakia Wardak is the President of the Society of Afghan Women in Engineering and Construction and has a strong passion for Afghan women to excel in the area of governance, human rights, education and entrepreneurial leadership skills.