A Haven For Women by Ayesha Hasan

Originally published here 

 Two little girls were sitting on a crochet table cloth spread under a tree in the garden. A woman was sitting on a green wooden bench nearby, multitasking as she talked on a cell phone and kept an eye on the girls simultaneously. Sitting some 50 meters away from them, I could hear the woman titter. The person on the other end of the phone was probably cracking jokes. The sound of her laughter put an inadvertent smile on my face.

During my two-week stay in Kabul, she was the first woman I had seen laugh openly in a public place. She spoke fluent Dari and threw her head back in the air every time she laughed. She ran her fingers through her hair once in a while. She was wearing a white shirt, a navy blue skirt and black boots and looked gorgeous. Her blue shuttle-cock burqa lay next to her on the bench. It was imprecisely folded causing air to trap inside the georgette apparel making it look like big blue polythene bag floating in water.

Not all women in Afghanistan wear burqas anymore unless it is demanded of them by their families. This applies specifically to Pashtuns, but covering the head is mandatory in all circumstances by women from all ethnicities. This woman hadn’t done either, and why not? Because she was inside the Bagh-e-Zanana (women’s garden) in the centre of the Afghan capital.

Bagh-e-Zanana, officially known as the Shaharara Garden, is one place in Kabul, where women can be themselves without abiding by the socio-cultural requirements of the ‘man’s world’ outside. Designated exclusively for women, men are not allowed to enter this garden. I am certain a lot of men do, but only in their dreams. After all, it’s the only place in the city that accommodates a large number of women and girls seven days a week.

The garden houses a computer and English language training institute, run by the American Embassy, a shopping area for women and children and numerous tailoring houses – all run by women. Even the security guards are women and so are the shopkeepers and sales staff. The garden also has a day care centre for the children of women who work at the garden or somewhere else. And of course, there is a beautiful lush green garden spread over several thousands square feet.

The garden is open throughout the week, but Fridays are particularly fun days. Women arrange picnics, music and dance. They dress in colourful clothes and bring their children, too. It’s the day they wait for six days a week and do all their shopping on this day.

Women in Afghanistan do not usually wear bright colours. Excessive use of browns, blacks, whites and navy blue speak volume of a life they had been forced into. I noticed the first thing women did as they stepped onto the garden premises was to take off their burqas or overcoats and reveal themselves as shinning pearls that just emerged from their shells.

For Afghan women, there is nothing as pleasing as the freedom to dress and roam around without the fear or insecurity that they might be watched by men. One thing that caught my attention was a big poster with colourful images and legible instructions in Dari educating women about reporting domestic violence to the police. The four illustrations told a story of a woman who reported abuse by her husband to the police. He was put behind the bars after a court trial.

I was still looking at the poster, when I over heard some women talking about the “Friday’s party” at the garden. I followed them to a tailoring shop, where I was instantly recognised as a Pakistani woman. Was it because of the red shirt I was wearing?

The shop was run by three friendly Pashtun women. One of them could speak Urdu for she had spent 11 years in Pakistan as a refugee when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. To make them more comfortable, I replied in Pashto. I hadn’t even finished my first sentence and there was a comfortable chair for me followed by a cup of tea with assorted biscuits from a shop a block away.

More women poured in – they had heard about a Pakistani-Pashtun woman visiting the garden. Some shared their experiences in Pakistan, others answered my questions about business in the garden. Each shop was about 100 square feet and rented for 3,000 Afghanis (some 50 Euros) a month, so they often preferred sharing shops.

One of the shopkeepers was Shpogmai Rana, whose name meant moonlight. She said she was in her 50s. Her wrinkled face, which made her look 20 years older, told stories of the desolation, violence and torment it had seen. She was happy to see a woman travel independently to work. She wanted a Pakistani bride for her son, and asked me to help her find one – a responsibility I accepted wholeheartedly.  

Pashtu music was played and we danced as if we had never done before. No one cared where her shawl went or how loud the music was. They ensured that I finished the biscuits before I left. The last one was stuffed into my mouth with an amiable smile as I moved my shoulders back and forth to the music and my dancing partners. Women carried on with their routine duties in other parts of the garden, oblivious of the little ‘Friday party’ going on in one shop on a Thursday.       

I was offered lunch but it was time to go. As I stepped out, Shpogmai Rana called my name. I turned my head towards her and found her eyes full of tears. She asked me to pray for her and Afghan women. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she said, “Last night, I saw myself running bare-footed on a dark potholed road under a moonless sky. A talib was chasing me with a baton in his hand. He was shouting my name and calling me a sinner for stepping outside my house. My burqa was lost somewhere.”

Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Grahame Lucas



The Buddhas of Aynak: The Afghan Cultural Site That the World Does Not Care About

by Malik Achakzai

Originally published at policymic.com

One of Afghanistan’s biggest archaeological treasures may soon be turned to dust as a Chinese mining company which has bought the site turns it into a sprawling, billion-dollar copper mine.

The Buddhas of Aynak, situated in a desert region 20 minutes southwest of Kabul, is an archaeological site containing ancient Buddhist artifacts dated over 2,500 years old. It also holds rich mineral deposits, especially copper. Formerly an ancient Buddhist monastery complex, the historical center has more than 150 Buddha statues. It is of immense worldwide importance and is one of Afghanistan’s richest historical sites.

The site also has a violent and troubled history. A common rumor is that Al-Qaeda planned the 2001 September 11 attack from a camp in Aynak. The area is also a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Archaeologists have found a number of artifacts dating backing over a millennium on the site, even unearthing manuscripts that may provide evidence regarding the presence of Alexander the Great’s troops in the area.

The Buddhist ruins are scheduled to be destroyed at the end of December 2012. In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history.

The Afghan Mining Ministry estimates that the mine holds some six million tons of copper. The mine is expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars, and to generate jobs and economic activity for the country but all of this critically threatens the site’s archaeological remains, which are now being hurriedly excavated by private organizations.

Brent Huffman, a volunteer working to preserve this archaeological site, has produced a documentary about the Buddhas of Aynak, and is busy collecting donations to boost the excavation work. In an interview with Huffman, I asked about the history and the status of the excavation of the Aynak.


Malik Achakzai: Could you discuss the historical importance of the Buddhas of Aynak?

Brent Huffman: Mes Aynak, or “little copper well” is a vast ancient Buddhist city 400,000 square meters in size. There are over 400 hundred life-size or larger Buddha statues, a circular monastic complex and dozens of temple (stupa) structures. 

More is being discovered daily, including hundreds of ancient manuscripts hidden inside many of the stupas. 

Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level including an ancient copper smelter.

M.A: How important is this site for Afghanistan and the world?

B.H: This site is extremely important to not only Afghanistan but to the entire world. The incredible discoveries at Mes Aynak will redefine the history of Buddhism and Asia. Mes Aynak represents a major hub on the Silk Road where pilgrims and traders would exchange ideas and influence each other. People at Mes Aynak also mined for copper themselves using ancient mining techniques.

M.A: How long will this process of excavation go on, and how many organizations are taking part in it?

B.H: Excavation is set to end Dec. 25th, and the site is set to be destroyed by the Chinese mining company unless we do something to stop it. This should be a 30-year excavation job, but it has been a sporadic three-year rushed rescue archaeology job so far. DAFA, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Mines are all involved.

M.A: What’s the stance of Afghan Government and the Chinese Company to preserve this important Buddha’s heritage?

B.H: The Ministry of Culture is attempting to save all small artifacts and move them to the National Museum in Kabul. All the bigger relics, statues, structures, temples, etc. are too fragile to be moved and will be destroyed after Dec. 25th.

M.A: UNESCO and other international organizations for culture and heritage — have they played any role pressuring the Chinese company and Afghan government to extend the period of excavation?

B.H: No, UNESCO has not played any role so far. There have been several international groups (ARCH, Global Witness, the Smithsonian, the Thai embassy, and my own campaign) putting pressure on MCC and the Afghan government.

M.A: Is the security of The Buddhas of Aynak satisfactory, have you or other organization felt any threat, because Taliban and other militant organizations view them as un-Islamic?

B.H: The security at Mes Aynak is very poor. Rockets have been fired at both the MCC mine and the archaeology site and anti-personnel land mines have been placed on the road at night. These attacks are all over money, not Buddhism.  

Six villages in Logar province have to be leveled to make way for this enormous open-pit style copper mine. These villagers are angry about the way this process played out – either they were never compensated for their loss or the compensation was very low. They have been partnering with the Taliban to attack the MCC mine and the archaeology site.  

The copper mine will also cause terrible environmental devastation, poisoning the land and water permanently.

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Afghans embarking on homeward journey amid uncertainty

by Delawar Jan

 PESHAWAR: Haji Khan is worried about his brother who ended his refugee status in Pakistan to begin another journey as a homeless person in Afghanistan. His brother’s native Gardez being in grip of insurgency, the choice is to settle in Khost in tents.

“This is an unwise and irrational decision. He failed to tell us what led him to leave Pakistan,” Haji Khan said while fidgeting in anger standing beside the trucks being loaded with returning families and their belongings at voluntary repatriation centre in Chamkani near here. “I am not going to leave Pakistan until I am thrown out,” he declared as he explained how happy he had been in this country for the last 33 years.

 As his brother was busy in the process of his de-registration, Haji Khan who lives in Khaki area in Mansehra district said he was concerned for his brother’s life. “Gardez is still a troubled region. He cannot go there. He has no house in Khost where he is going,” he said.

 Pressure mounted on Afghan refugees to return by December 31, 2012 as an agreement among United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan and Afghanistan is expiring on December 31, 2012. According to UNHCR, 1.64 million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan while 3.8 million have been repatriated since 2002.

 Sultan Muhammad’s last few hours of his 25 years’ stay in Pakistan were consumed in the process of de-registration. Though he was uncertain as to what he would do for a living in Afghanistan, he said his economic condition in Pakistan was no better. It was evident from his appearance. Wearing plastic slippers, he was in rags.

 Sultan Muhammad, who came to Pakistan unmarried, is now returning with a wife and nine children. He knows security, economic and weather conditions in Afghanistan were unfriendly. He knows he has no house in Afghanistan. He is clear that nobody is forcing him to leave Pakistan. “But we have to go back anyway, so it’s better now,” he said without showing any emotion.

 At a distance from him were two cousins sitting on a bench. They were waiting for the completion of their documents with a bittersweet feeling. “I was born and raised here. I have all my friends in Pakistan and am now going to leave them. I will miss them,” said 16-year old Ayub Khan, who lived in Haripur. “I will even not recognise our neighbours in Afghanistan,” he added. The teenager, however, said he was happy to return to his own country.

 His cousin Wali Khan said they wouldn’t be able to go to his native Kunduz because of violence. His family will settle in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital considered to be relatively peaceful.

 “I will be missing cricket, but will try to resume it there,” said 7th grader, Abidullah, who was going to Afghanistan for the first time.

 Haji Alladad may be the only Afghan refugee who had spent 40 years in Pakistan. The man who now wears a small grey beard claimed his family came much before the refugees streamed into Pakistan. “I was born here,” he said.

 Hundreds of thousands of Afghans spent decades in Pakistan in the hope that their country would finally return to peace. Even today, Afghans are unsure what will happen post-2014, the year of foreign forces’ withdrawal. Officials say hundreds of thousands of Afghans have come again to Pakistan with no legal documents.

 Around one million illegal Afghan immigrants, according to Imran Zeb, joint secretary Safron ministry, were living in Pakistan. The government, he said, would decide on December 7 how to handle the illegal immigrants.

 The UNHCR which is facilitating voluntary repatriation at Chamkani, Timergara and Quetta says repatriation is picking up. Around 70,000 have returned home this year showing a surge in repatriation. 

 “The repatriation has increased by 38 per cent if we compare it to the same period last year,” Qaiser Afridi, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Pakistan, said. The number of families returning on weekly basis has witnessed a surge, he added.

 He said returning refugees were offered $150 per head, limited transport and non-food items that include jerry cans, buckets, soap, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blankets, cooking set, plastic tarpaulins, quilts, sanitary kit and winter clothes. He added the offer would be valid till December 31.

 Raidi Gul revved up engine of his loaded truck before leaving for a long journey. He said he was preparing to embark on a 7-8 hours journey from Peshawar to Jalalabad. “We charge Rs31,500 as fare,” he said, sitting behind the steering of the decorated truck. As the truck rumbled on the pebble-covered ground, the returning refugees waved to bid farewell to Pakistan.

A promising future, conditions apply By Ayesha Hasan

The first time I met her, I noticed her branded handbag, her golden wrist watch, her light pink wrinkle-free coat and a black chiffon scarf carefully wrapped around her head. I wondered if that was what she was all about. In my next talk with her, I realised there was more to her than her impressive carriage and subtle, yet strong arguments.

This is Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan’s first woman deputy speaker and now a presidential candidate for 2014 elections. A woman competing for the presidential post in Afghanistan is not easy to digest, but it certainly means that women in Afghanistan are getting ready to take over important positions. Having lost her husband to extremists and having survived two murder attempts by the Taliban herself, Koofi continues her fight for women and a sovereign Afghanistan.

Three burqa-clad Afghan women on a road in Kabul. Photo: Rawa.org

During my days in Kabul, my visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Institute of Diplomacy, a few picnic spots in the city including the Bagh-e-Zanana (the women’s garden) and  the market place on Shara-e-Naw (the New Road) broke more stereotypes about the situation of women in the country.

While Kabul alone cannot represent the situation across the country, it still symbolises the waves of change affecting women in Afghanistan. At the ministry, I met some young diplomats, few of them very impressive young women. Their poignant stories about the road to higher education, their exposure and people’s response in foreign trips relating work, family support and future goals were enthralling.

But amidst these stories, I could sense their fear of the return of Taliban after the pullout of the American forces in 2014. While America keeps reminding the people of their support and assistance for at least the next 10 years after 2014, it doesn’t seem to help the Afghans. For them, the Taliban are nothing less than a nightmare.

But one question kept nagging me, why are the Afghan women portrayed as weak? I found the answer a few days later. Kabul is full of foreign aides and non government organisations working for the cause of women. You meet their representatives at almost every meeting, every party, at every restaurant you visit. But you find fewer people working for women and more working about women.

Why I could not see as many projects for women compared to, say, the number of articles I read in foreign magazines about the plight of Afghan women was because most journalists tend to find stories in misery than in achievements. Most of the women I met were not quite happy about the image of a common Afghan woman in foreign media.

While one cannot entirely deny foreign-funded development projects in the country, the few NGOs that I came across were mostly run by local women who stood up against all odds to make their country a safer place for their daughters even if it meant putting their own lives in danger. And that is what is required for the time being. A little courage, a little support in words for the women who have a long way to go after America pulls out.

This blog first appeared on the DW’s women’s blog: WomenTalkOnline

Read more on: http://blogs.dw.de/womentalkonline/

The dangerous road to truth By Ayesha Hasan

On October 31, the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) Pakistan was awarded a human rights award by a German organisation in a ceremony held in Berlin. The union president, Safdar Dawar, a native of Miramshah, North Waziristan, accepted the award on behalf of the union, his fellow journalists in Fata and all his colleagues who were killed while on duty.

When I first met him, he shared with me the story of his abduction by the intelligence agencies in Khost, Afghanistan in early 2000. He was released nine hours later following intervention by some influential people, and after he was found ‘clean’. The last time I met him in Kabul, he broke the news of the award to me. But the journey towards this award has not been easy. A lot of effort has been made and sacrifices rendered, with little or no appreciation and recognition.

Journalists in the tribal areas make daily attempts at survival in the rugged mountains that are witness to gunshots, cross-border shelling, militant attacks and targeted killings. In 2012 alone, five journalists lost their lives in the area. Being a native of the region myself, I realise how difficult it is to pursue a career in journalism. While I have seen journalists in my contact-chain being killed, I have also seen several quit and move to relatively ‘safe’ careers.

The pursuit of truth has never been free of risk but the peril level that journalists in Fata now face is something they have never encountered before. The journalist fraternity mourned for Abdul Haq Baloch, an ARY News correspondent who was shot on September 29 in Khuzdar and it condemned the October 7 killing of Mushtaq Khand in Khairpur, who worked for Dharti TV Network and Mehran, but what steps has the government taken to make this job safer?

Media organisations do not provide their war and militancy reporters life insurance or a job to a family member in case of loss of life on duty. Eighty per cent of journalists are underpaid and do not have health insurance.

What drives them on is the quest for truth and the hope to be recognised one day, as the TUJ has been, 20 years after it was formed.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 5th, 2012.

Understanding our neighbor!

Islamabad/Kabul: Why do we feel the need to understand our neighbor? We can’t choose our neighbors, can we? No, I don’t think so. What we can do is, to have good relationship with our next-door neighbors and live happily ever after. *Fairytale style

Can you tell, who is a Pakistani and who is an Afghan? Ayesha and Farkhonda.

Who wants to live in a place where one is always suspicious about the role of his/her neighbor. Oh, my neighbor blocks my water pipe. My neighbor is planning to bomb my house. My neighbor is stinky. Who wants to live a life like that? Stop ranting about your neighbor Pakistan and Afghanistan! Stop it! Life is not a Hollywood film and we are not James Bond. You can’t air lift your country and take it somewhere else and choose your neighbors.

Let’s have the courage and give voice to your complaints and tell your neighbors, how you feel about them. You don’t have to hide it from them that you don’t like them. You never know, how pissed they are at you. It is possible that you are annoying them more than they annoy you. Come to think of it, everything is possible.

Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist said that to understand ‘others’ we have to understand them with ‘others’ point of view not our own point of view. We have to leave our pre-conceived notions, myth, stereotypes and biases and understand others with an open heart and mind, without judging them for what they are and most importantly, what they are not.


We are very happy that we achieved this goal. The 22 journalists from both side of the Durand Line are the living example of what we achieved in two-phase project, FES-Af-Pak Journalists Exchange Program: Understanding the Neighbor.  They will make the world understand the Af-Pak relation with their new understanding. They are ready to challenge the decades old established narratives about their neighbors- the narratives that are missing in the public sphere. I am very happy while writing this that these journos are no more neighbors, they happily call each other friends now. Mission accomplished!

Kabul Rocks! We will come again:)

Author: Annie Zaman

Afghanistan emerges as new job market for Pakistanis by Delawar Jan

KABUL: Afghanistan is emerging an unlikely new job market for Pakistanis as the number of the youth who are employed in the war-torn country crossed 100,000, officials here say.
“Around 100,000 Pakistanis are working in Afghanistan as chartered accountants, bankers, teachers, engineers, doctors and labourers,” said Muhammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan. He said the Pakistani workers were preferred for hiring because of their skills and experience. He revealed that $2.6 billion official exports to the country, which makes it the biggest exporter to Afghanistan, had created 3.5 million jobs in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis who work in Kabul suggested that the number of the workers in Afghanistan was well over 100,000. “The ambassador might be talking of the workers having official record. I think a good number of unregistered Pakistanis have also been working in Afghanistan which is in addition to the 100,000,” said Afzal Ahmad, manager at a food company.
The Pakistanis said they had taken up jobs in the war-struck country due to the saturated job market in Pakistan. Many of those interviewed said handsome salaries in Afghanistan had enticed them to seek job in the country that has been a theatre of a long war.
However, the number of Afghans who have been getting economic benefits from Pakistan dwarfs the total of Pakistani workers in Afghanistan. Muhammad Sadiq said 56,000 Afghans crossed into Pakistan every day for different needs including jobs. Around three million refugees who have jobs or businesses aren’t part of this count.
Daud Badshah, a resident of Shergarh in Mardan district, said he was underpaid in Pakistan. “A measly Rs4,000 salary was offered to me by NHA which was insufficient for the needs of my family,” said Sher Badshah, whose father is a watchman at a factory in Shergarh.
The 26-year-old man, who could study only up to 9th class, works for 14 hours daily (7am-9pm) at a restaurant in Kabul where he supervises a staff of 35 people and is able to make good money. “I am getting Rs16,380 (Af.9,000), plus the tip,” he said. “My family tried to stop me from taking up the job in Afghanistan but my poor economic conditions forced me to come here. Four years later, the pressure continues,” he added.
Sher Badshah’s job encouraged his brother Sardar Badshah to come to Afghanistan in search of a job. Now, he gets a salary of 500 US dollars as a cook.“Afghan police harass us despite the fact that we have visas. They demand bribe and misbehave with us. But people here are nice and respectful,” he said.
At the same restaurant, Muhammad Ayaz from Peshawar and Muhammad Ali from Skardu receive salary of Rs23,660 (Af.13,000) and Rs30,940 (Af.17,000), respectively.
Waqar Ahmad came from Peshawar to Kabul in 2007 to find a job. Now he is holding an executive position in a company for the last almost six years and gets an undisclosed ‘handsome’ salary. “The road that winds through the troubled areas into Pakistan is very dangerous,” he said. “I have seen bombs exploding in front of me. I have seen Taliban blocking the road and checking. I have been caught up in crossfire. But thanks God, I have remained unscathed each time,” he said of the threats.

Originally published in The News International on 19th October 2012

In a man’s world: The women politicians of Afghanistan by Ayesha Hasan

It was a sight rarely seen in traditional Afghan society. Last month, Fawzia Koofi, a presidential candidate for the 2014 elections and one of the 69 female Afghan parliamentarians, arrived to meet a delegation of Pakistani journalists. In the times of the Taliban, this face-to-face encounter between a woman and a group mostly comprising men, would have been inconceivable.

Watching her interact so freely and with such obvious confidence, one can see why she’s been named among the world’s “150 Fearless Women” by The Daily Beast news website for her bold account of the hardships that women face in Afghanistan in her book The Favoured Daughter. Wearing a solitaire ring and a chunky gold wristwatch on one hand, and carrying a designer bag on her arm, she reminded me a bit of Pakistan’s own foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

There’s a great deal of substance to go with the style as well, and Koofi talks eloquently and with passion. She talks openly about women’s empowerment through education and access to better healthcare, saying that great strides have been made in the 11 years after the fall of the Taliban regime. She may not quite be the modern Malalai of Maiwand, the celebrated 19th century folk hero who rallied the Pashtun army against the British in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, but her struggle is equally heroic.

In a deeply patriarchal society that is yet to fully accept women’s rights and participation in public life, Koofi and her fellow women parliamentarians have refused to bow down to rigid ideals and often suffocating customs.

Talking to us, a group of journalists who were part of an Af-Pak fellowship, she describes how women had to physically grab the microphone to make a speech in parliament because the male MPs would ignore their turn and would oppose resolutions put forward by them, just because they were women.

Being a shrinking violet in Afghanistan’s often rowdy parliament just isn’t an option. In June this year, women MPs caused an uproar when Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb suggested, during a conference organised by the Women’s Affairs Committee, that more than 250 women living in 12 foreign-funded shelters were prostitutes. He had said the shelters were encouraging girls to disobey their parents if they were stopped from going outside their homes.

While the women MPs were unable to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sack Ghaleb, it was nevertheless an achievement to be able to challenge the opinions of a man on the floor of the parliament.

Likewise, the dismissal of former politician Malala Joya from parliament in May 2007 for publicly denouncing the presence of those she called warlords and criminals in parliament was followed by condemnation from female politicians and local women. Three years later, Joya’s name appeared in the list of 100 Most Influential Women prepared annually by Time Magazine.

For Koofi, these are signs of hope. As her achievements would suggest, female parliamentarians have not settled for just being able to lambast society and state over the treatment of women. They have managed to wriggle out substantial — though still few — policy changes from the government.

After years of activism by Koofi and her fellow women parliamentarians, the government has fixed a quota for women in higher education institutions without which, she says, there is no point in allotting quotas for women in parliament. Egged on by this development, Koofi, who is also the chairperson of women rights in parliament — the only woman to have the post of a chairperson — has now proposed to President Karzai that at least one woman member be appointed in the Supreme Court.

“We need to increase women’s capacity for them to be able to effectively function on the political front,” she says. “This is the first time such a programme [like the new higher education policy] has been introduced for women. Trust me, this was not easy as months of work and campaigning are involved before a policy is approved.”

No matter how difficult it may be to overcome age-old Afghan traditions, women seem to be slowly making their presence felt in the political domain.

One indication of this is the Taliban’s absence of dissent to the presence of women in the High Peace Council’s governing body that is assigned with carrying out peace negotiations with them. Najia Zewari is one of two women who serve on the 15-member body, and it seems the Taliban have accepted her presence.

“The governing body directly negotiates with the Taliban, and that is not an easy thing to do,” she says. “But I am glad that us women have not once been criticised for being a part of the council.”

Overall, the HPC has 70 members, nine of which are women.

As Afghan women prepare themselves for a post-US withdrawal scenario, many of them are eager to take on new-found opportunities in Afghan politics. There has been a surge in admissions of female students in the Institute of Diplomacy (ID) in Kabul, and 21-year-old Hadeia Amiry, head of NGOs at the economics department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, is one of them.

She hopes to become a politician one day, and says that she “would be more of a people’s representative than a conventional politician”. She is happy that the present government is supporting female political participation which, she says, cannot be increased until women receive higher education.

The ID’s one-year mandatory course for future diplomats includes subjects like politics, global political economy, conflict resolution, policy making, international relations, foreign languages, culture, ethics, organisational behaviour and entrepreneurship.

Other than the course, Amiry is also in the process of self-training: she wears suits and light makeup, and walks with obvious confidence. She crosses her hands at her back and broadens her shoulders while she stands to talk to her colleagues and guests at the office.

Yet at the same office, her colleague Samira (not her real name) is worried about getting permission from her husband for a one-week business-related foreign trip. She is a new bride and is not allowed to attend conferences abroad, even though her husband knew her from before and was aware that she worked at the foreign office.

This is what critics point to when they downplay the importance of Koofi and other likeminded women politicians and activists. To think that allowing women a few displays of opposition and giving them token political representation amounts to any substantial change in the way people think and act around them is naive at best, these critics contend.

“It will take another three decades before Afghanistan is ready for a female president,” says Faheem Dashti, editor-in-chief of Kabul Weekly. “I doubt even five men can handle the country after all that it has been through.”

Women parliamentarians are, in fact, aware of their limitations. A prominent feminist, journalist-turned-politician Shukriya Barakzai, agrees that even if an Afghan woman is successful, she still remains a victim of tradition.

For traditions to change in a patriarchal society, men need to change their mindset. But the country director of the Open Society Foundation, Najla Ayubi, a judge-turned-human rights activist, says there is still a long way to go before education starts changing the minds of men in Afghanistan. She believes that the government is trying to appease the Taliban, and hence would not want women in decision-making political offices.

But no matter how painstakingly slow the progress on women’s political representation is, for a country like Afghanistan, where war has ravaged lives for decades and the patriarchal mindset has reigned supreme, it is at least a starting point. It may take many years, even generations, before Afghan women can measure up to their counterparts in other countries, but the first steps on the road to emancipation have been taken by women like Koofi and Barakzai.

(This report was written during the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Af-Pak fellowship 2012 in collaboration with The Express Tribune).

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 4th, 2012.


FES Af-Pak Fellow Receives Human Rights Award in Berlin

Congratulations to FES Af-Pak Journalism Fellow Safdar Dawar for receiving the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin on 31st October 2012. He received the award on behalf of the Tribal Union of Journalists. This is the first time a Pakistani organization has received the award.

Detailed press release below:

German foundation gives its highest award to Pakistani Tribal Union of Journalists

Press Release

Berlin: The German Foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftungor FES gives its highest human rights award to the tribal union of journalist or TUJ, FATA. This award is recognition of the work done by the journalists in FATA. TUJ has worked for 20 years to consolidate media freedom and freedom of expression in the region. It represents around 250 journalists in the FATA, working for local, national and international print and electronic media. It was founded in 1987 by a group of local journalists.

The award ceremony started with the public panel discussion on the topic of “reporters within borders: Pakistani journalists for truth in conflict”. The speakers were renowned Pakistani journalist RahimullahYousafzai, andthe investigative journalists Ulrich Tilgner. Ulrich covered the Gulf war 1 and Gulf war 2. These journalists talked about the difficulties faced by the local reporters on the ground. Ulrich said, ‘German TV channels are not interested in sending its reporters to Afghanistan or Pakistan to do reports. What they do is, work with the local journalists. ”Yousafzaisaid, the work done by the local reporters is neither recognized not well paid. ‘The local reporters on the ground in FATA risk their lives and get the report for the foreign journalists’ working from their comfortable offices in London, New York or Paris. ‘ He further said the journalists sitting abroad have very pointed questions that at times risks the lives of the local reporters.

After the podium discussion, a short documentary ‘Theater of conflict: reporting from FATA was shown. The documentary highlighted the problems faced by the families of the journalists who were killed in the line of duty. There were interviews of the killed journalists families and colleagues.  The documentary also highlighted and explained the FCR or Frontier Crimes Regulations to the German audience.

The laudatory speech was given by Johannes Pflug, member of the German parliament, deputy chair of the task force Afghanistan-Pakistan of the SPD parliamentary group. He applauded the efforts of TUJ, ‘I appreciate the efforts of the tribal journalists who live in constant fear and many of them had to leave their homes in FATA due to threats but they are brave and still continue to work about FATA.’ He congratulated SafdarDawar for receiving the award.  Johannes Pflug said, ‘Safdar and his colleagues face many problems due to the FCR that restricts the rights to freedom of expressions and abuse human rights in FATA. It makes FATA the black box of information in the world. There is not a single local newspapers or TV channel in FATA because the FCR restrict the locals to have it. ‘

The President of the FES, Peter Struck, presented the award to the President of TUJ SafdarDawar. SafdarDawar received the award and remembered the 12 journalists colleagues they have lost their lives the line of duty. He pointed out that no political reforms are possible without the media reforms in FATA.  “The lack of a strong Press in FATA leads to the lack of communication, misunderstanding and the wild spread of rumors. For the reconstruction of the social fabric of the otherwise egalitarian society in the tribal areas, the development of media is very important.” He thanked the organization like internews, intermedia, FES, Mediothek, RFL who gives the tribal journalists regular trainings.

TUJ has lost 12 journalists until today. The last tribal journalist assassinated was Mukharram Khan Atif. He was killed in a mosque in January this year. The journalists killed so far don’t get any compensation from the organisations they work for.

The Human Rights Award, presented for the first time in 1994, dates back to the legacy of Karl and Ida Feist from Hamburg. The couple stipulated in their will that their fortune be administered by the fund, which is to present a Human Rights Award once a year. Karl and Ida Feist actively supported the labour movement for many years. Their own bitter experiences with war and destruction led them to advocate peace and non-violence.According to the donators, the Human Rights Award should be awarded to individuals or organisations that rendered outstanding services for human rights in the different parts of the world.




For more info: www.tuj.com.pk





CityScapes: Kabul

Originally published at PakTeaHouse

The experience of any city is created by the ‘user.’ You can make any city our own. Even in a city as close as Karachi, Kabul is deemed ‘exotic’ and adventurous.  As a Pakistani, it is closer to home than most of us would imagine. However, Kabul is not for tourists, it is for travelers. But there is a romance in the air that is unmistakable. If you are in Kabul, explore something besides the ruins and war relics.



Food Trail

Kabul, like Karachi, has only one kind of nightlife – a foodie kind of nightlife. But it can be a little bit more risqué/fun that Karachi. While Karachi asks you to bring your own, Kabul serves its own.  Kabul has a decent variety of cuisines being served across the city. Thai, Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Middle Eastern and many more.


Kebabs are everywhere in Kabul!For traditional Afghan food head to Sufi . The restaurant is frequented by expats and visiting delegations as an introduction to Afghan food and will cost you about $10-12.  For a flavor of the aid-worker/foreign journalist watering hole try L’Atmosphere – a French restaurant serving crepes, pizzas, pastas, salads and soups. The bar area is rather popular  for obvoious reasons. The food is a bit pricey but the music is nice – starting with classics in the early evening and ending with Lady Gaga and Pitbull at night. A meal and drinks will set you back by $20.  To eat where the locals eat, try Barg Restaurant in the Khair Khana bazaar.  Barg serves Western fast food and local fare. The ground floor is for men and the upper floors are for families. Meal and drinks will cost you no more than $7.


Golden pakoras and fries at Mandavi


Kabul also has fantastic street food – pakoras, fries, deep fried ‘aloo paratha’ and spicy corn on the cob – from 5 to 10 Afghani.

It is not uncommon for most ‘meetings’ to take place at lunch. It seems most offices, organizations and even ministries have their own mini-catering units, manned mostly by women. These lunches will be the best food you find anywhere in Kabul.


Home made mantu at the FES Kabul office




There are plenty of bazaars all over Kabul. The cool weather makes it easy to spend hours in a bazaar but the dust doesn’t help. Mandavi, is a whole sale market selling almost everything you can imagine – vegetables, fruits, clothes, shoes, motorcycles, mattresses, biscuits – from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Iran and China. Of course, the one thing you must buy from here are the dry fruits – go for the local produce instead of those imported from Iran.



Dried fruits and seeds at Mandavi



The legendary Kandhari Anar

If you’re looking for more contemporary’ shopping then head to the Laisa Marium bazaar in the Khair Khana locality – you can find traditional Afghan outfits here, colorful, embroidered kurtas for men and women. It’s also a great place for people watching. The Shar Nau area is great for loitering around and get posters of Afghan heroes and local handicrafts. Most of the malls including Kabul Mall and City Center are also located in the area.



By far, the most interesting thing about Kabul is it’s people. The city is rich with stories. Nearly every Afghan I have spoken to in Kabul has lived in Pakistan and speaks Urdu fluently. The people on the streets are friendly and love telling their stories – even if they are a bit exaggerated. Striking a conversation is not difficult. Kabul is a microcosm of Afghan society – Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and the foreigners from all over the world. Take the time to visit sporting events, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons and markets and talk to people to get the real flavor of Kabul.


Semi-final game of the first ever Afghan Premier League football tournament


Kabul has a thriving music scene – both local and foreign. There are some plenty of venues that host and groom young musicians. The French Cultural Center in Kabul, recently hosted the Sound Central Festival – an alternate music festival featuring bands from Central and South Asia and beyond.

The Venue is a space for young musicians to get together and jam. The Venue is run by Humayun Zadran, an avid music supporter working on several music related projects including ‘The Bridge’ – which currently brings Pakistani musicians to Afghanistan. If you are a rock music fan, look out for performances by Kabul Dreams. Kabul Dreams consists of young Afghan men, who are average musicians at best but rock and roll needs all the encouragement and support it can get. White City is another Kabul based rock band consisting of an Australian, a Brit and a Swede, who describe themselves as ‘rock therapy.’


The dust never settles in Kabul. There is a permanent slow moving haze. In October, the air is chilly and dry – dry enough to cut skin. Kabul is not an easy city – moving around the city is difficult and slow; the weather can be harsh; a woman’s laughter might offend someone on the street.   – but it is a city that will embrace you only when you begin to embrace it. I would love to return to Kabul and get to know it even better, because this was one of the hardest goodbyes I have had to say….


Reluctant good bye


For more pictures from Kabul, check out my tumblr