By Rasha Elass
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Shukria Barakzai started the first newspaper aimed at women in Afghanistan. The editor began her work trying to inform women and girls under the Taliban when she started an undergound school. Now, she is running for political office.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The Taliban beat Shukria Barakzai with a rubber whip one afternoon in May of 1999 for being outside her home. Somehow, she decided it was time to fight back. She went home and set up a clandestine school for girls and enlisted her educated female friends as teachers.
Now that the Taliban's rule is over, 33-year-old Barakzai says her efforts at rebuilding Afghanistan are only just getting started.
Just months after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul by U.S. and Afghan forces in late 2001, Barakzai founded Women's Mirror, locally known as Aina-E-Zan, a weekly newspaper published in two national languages, Pashtu and Dari, and the first publication aimed at women in her country.
Barakzai, with three daughters of her own, is also now a candidate in the upcoming September elections to represent Kabul in parliament.
"Without women's participation, the democratic process will be like a human without eyes," said Barakzai in a May phone interview while she was in New York to receive the International Editor of the Year Award from the World Press Organization.
Barakzai was born and raised in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
"Before the Taliban the situation in Afghanistan was very bad to begin with," explained Barakzai, referring to warlordism and chaos after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s. "More than 65,000 civilians died in Kabul alone because of the war and the Mujahadeen. And violence against women day by day was very high."
The United States supported a guerilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Mujahadeen fighters came from all over the Muslim world to fight the communists. When the Soviets finally withdrew in the 1990s, the Taliban filled the power vacuum.
The Taliban enforced an extreme version of Islam. They forbade women from working outside the home, forced women to wear all encompassing burqas, punished women with a public whipping for the appearance of "pride" or "immodesty" and forbade girls from attending school at all.
"One day I was at the doctor's because I was sick and when I returned home the Taliban harassed me.
"I tried to explain that I was sick, that I had gone to the doctor, but they wouldn't listen," recalled Barakzai. "And they punished me with a shalock."
A shalock is a rubber whip the Taliban morality police used on civilians, primarily women, whipping them on their legs or torso as swift punishment for breaking the law. In Brakzai's case, she was guilty of being outside her home during the day.
That day, after the police assaulted her, Barakzai went home determined to defy the new oppression that had befallen her people.
"So I thought I would start a school for girls," she said matter-of-factly. "For the first time in my life, I was a teacher. I loved it because I quickly realized how much we needed to ensure girls' education--we needed it even more than food."
In less than three years, she and her volunteer friends, along with the blessings and support of parents, Barakzai says, taught hundreds of girls of all ages.
"The girls would arrive one by one," lest they get caught and punished by the Taliban, Barakzai explained. "Never in groups.
"They put their books and supplies inside their pants under their Burka," she said. "Some were so young they didn't understand why they had to be so discrete. We would explain to them they had to be careful."
The schooling paid off. Many of the graduates from Barakzai's secret school are now college students and aspiring teachers, civil servants and journalists.
"The other day I was at Kabul University and the professors were surprised that some students had studied inside houses," she said. "The professors are impressed with our students' education."
Now that the Taliban are gone, no laws prevent girls from attending school. Other obstacles remain, Barakzai said. The lack of security, makes some aspects of every day living more terrifying today than under the Taliban.
The United Nations has issued a statement of concern over worsening conditions for women in Afghanistan.
First Lady Laura Bush visited Afghanistan for the first time last March. During her six-hour visit, she met with Afghan president Hamid Karzai and pledged $21 million for the construction of an American University and an international school.
"That's a good thing," said Barakzai. "But it's not enough."
Afghanistan has one of the highest birth-related mortality rates, with one in nine mothers and one in six infants dying from labor-related complications, according to U.N. statistics.
"A mother in some of the poorer areas needs to walk more than eight hours to get to the nearest clinic and even then the clinic isn't very equipped," said Barakzai.
Women's education, though trumpeted in international circles, is slow to improve, Barakzai added.
"Married women, no matter how young, are not allowed to attend school with unmarried girls," she said. "There are over a million women demanding some sort of education--academic or trade-based."
Little of the funding pledged for educating girls is funneled to meet this demand, explained Barakzai.
"There are just two small schools serving about 500 women in Kabul, with two classrooms each. It's nothing." she said. "Yet all the time the U.S. points to these schools and says 'Look what we've done; we're helping Afghan women.'"
Barakzai cut short her stay in the U.S. to attend to her political campaign and duties as a newspaper editor. The paper now has circulation of 3,000 and informs women about their rights under the state and Islam.
Men, too, appreciate Barakzai's newspaper.
One of the most rewarding experiences was "when a couple came into my office and said because of the Mirror they now have a strong marriage," recalled Barakzai.
The man wanted to divorce his wife until he read an article in the Mirror about the husband's duties toward his wife in true Islam, she said. "That he must treat her kindly even when he thinks she did something wrong. So he went home and talked to her kindly and they resolved their issues."
Looking forward, Barakzai puts things into perspective.
"Some people would like to see Afghan women without a burka," she said. "But in my opinion the burka is not that important. What is important is education, democracy and freedom."
Rasha Elass is an intern at Reuters and a freelance reporter in New York.