Jamila Afghani
Jamila Afghani in New York City.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Afghan peace and women’s rights advocate Jamila Afghani created the first gender-sensitive training in Afghanistan for imams. From 25 participants when it launched in 2009 in and around Kabul it now reaches about 6,000 imams across the country. Afghani launched the training program in collaboration with WISE––headed by Daisy Khan in New York. Afghani is also the head of the Noor Educational Centre (NEC) in Western Kabul, which provides women, children and youth with health, literacy and language classes.

Due to the constant threats that she faces in her country for this work, Afghani rarely travels. On June 2, Women’s eNews interviewed her when she made a rare trip to New York. Some questions and answers have been edited.

1. What are the risks you face in leading such work? Have you received any threats?

My life has been in danger from the very beginning and especially for the past three years. Sometimes I really feel that I am alone and isolated . . .  I do receive threats and warnings for changing the mindset of some Afghans toward a peaceful understanding of the religion. The threats come from numerous groups. Even friends, after seeing me on TV, have sent me messages saying "I will kill you by myself." Because of this my son had to change schools three times. I feel bad that he has to sacrifice so much because of my work. He is being kept apart from his friends and we have no protection support from the government. Sometimes, I think my children do not enjoy their childhood as they should.

Now, I live in my office building. It is a three-story building. The office is located on the first two floors and I live on the third floor with my family. For the past three years, I have not been able to travel to the other provinces to monitor the work of my organization. Unless there is an important meeting, I don’t go outside.

2. U.S. troops are preparing to withdraw by the end of Barack Obama’s term. Is this what you want to see happening?

In Afghanistan, we all agree that the U.S. decision to leave the country right now is a very premature decision, which will ruin whatever has been invested. And for us, women’s and human rights activists, we cannot accept to go back. We need proper support and attention. It cannot be done through consultations or advice given to armies. Otherwise, Afghanistan will be a second Iraq . . . The decision to come and bomb Afghanistan was a very bad strategy. Today, after 13 years of war and killings, the U.S. is now telling us that the Taliban should be at the table of negotiations. So I am asking, "Why are you bombing them? Why have you made them stronger in their animosity and thirst for revenge?" Now on the other hand, you start to see the influence of Daesh [also known ISIS or IS], which is trying to reach out to the youth. It will just get worse with the U.S. deciding to leave Afghanistan. They have laid the foundations, but now these foundations need to be built up properly.

3. What challenges have you faced in launching a training program for imams to increase their awareness on women’s rights and issues?

The first challenge was when I contacted the Ministry of Religious Affairs to ask them to connect us to 25 imams from important mosques. They asked us for bribes to be introduced to the imams. I had a very small amount of money to start that project and on principle I have zero tolerance when it comes to bribery. Then, I met with a prominent imam to ask him to help us. He also asked us for money in exchange for the introduction to other imams. So I decided to try through my personal relationships. I promised myself that I will show them that I will not just gather 25 imams but a bigger number.

4. How did you start the training?

Initially we didn’t tell the imams that we wanted to train them. We showed them the training material we had developed on women’s rights — which was conceived from an Islamic perspective — and asked for their feedback. We approached them in that manner so they can feel ownership via their contribution. Some of the points were contested so we asked them to meet for one or two days to discuss these points further. That is how the workshops were conducted. Imams who at first were reluctant thinking it was a Western or an imported initiative eventually found their own voices into this program.

5. What has been the impact of the imam training on Afghan women?

As soon as we started, the imams who have worked with us started to preach whatever they have learned. They started to talk about women and human rights during their Friday sermons. At first, men in attendance would question the imams on behalf of their female relatives. Eventually, after discussion with the imams, we established women’s sections within the mosques. When these opened, we had about seven women and now the sections welcome up to 500 women. In one mosque–where women formerly attended only very occasionally, for major holidays–the women’s section hosts about 1,200 women for the Friday sermons. We are seeing that when women have a chance to question imams directly, it becomes educative to both, men and women, who are in attendance.

6. You also distribute a booklet about women’s rights that denounces domestic violence. Has it helped raise awareness in the communities you are working with?

Yes. The booklet is written in very simple words so that even a child in the fourth or fifth grade can read it to illiterate mothers. We also distribute it in universities and public spaces. I have this example of a young woman who, one day, came to the office, crying and reaching to kiss my hand. I had to calm her down. She told me that her father and brother had refused to let her attend university. The men in her family claimed that universities were not good environments for a woman. This young woman had picked up our booklet at a mosque and left it on display at her house so her father and brother could find it. Eventually her father read the booklet and found out about the importance of education in Islam. The father admitted to his daughter that he was wrong. He came to our office to find out about us and our work to realize that we have no "Western agenda." Now, he is allowing his daughter to go to university.

7. What was your reaction to the in March? And to an imam’s comment justifying the killing?

Eleven policemen were around her while she was getting beaten up and killed. They got sentenced to only one year of jail. What is the message being sent to the rest of the community? It is true that a very famous imam said that anybody who would burn the Quran should deserve such a killing. Yet, he didn’t have all the information when he made such a comment. He eventually met with the family and apologized for his remarks. His comments, nevertheless, irritated women’s activists. The incident widened the gap between women’s activists and the religious community. Within my organization, we were alarmed and worried of a setback after all we had achieved. We started to mobilize the imams and asked them to speak up. I also met with the minister of religious affairs. Imams gathered in large numbers where Farkundha was killed and read a statement denouncing the killing. That was a first. They also announced that they were part of the civil society. That was another first. At the mosques where we are working with imams, special prayers were said for Farkhunda.

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