“People are just in survival mode [in Afghanistan]. Everybody is looking for a piece of bread to continue to survive.”
Jamila Afghani still has nightmares about regaining consciousness, then pushing the car door open to see that one step out and she’d be plunging over the edge of a mountain cliff.
She felt something warm pouring down her head. Warm water? No, blood. She’d been hit by gunfire from a Soviet tank. She was holding her almost dead uncle on her lap.
“I still have the nightmares,” Jamila said in an interview. “I’m still afraid of the sound of bullets and other noises bother me.”
That vivid memory from her girlhood in Afghanistan is part of Jamila’s eventful life as an education champion, peace activist and advocate for women’s human rights.
“I call myself the war generation or conflict generation,” she said. “My country has been in difficulty since I remember.”
Her experiences span the 1979-1989 Afghan-Soviet war to the abrupt withdrawal of US military forces last year after two decades. The Taliban took over the capital, Kabul, within hours, plunging the country into economic disaster within weeks. Jamila and her family got out with the help of the Norwegian ambassador. “We lost everything.”
Jamila now leads Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Afghanistan section remotely from the small Canadian city of Kitchener, Ontario, where she is settling with her husband and children. She is founder and president.
She also leads NEDCO, the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization, which she founded to provide literary classes and empower girls and women to understand their rights and get access to resources and opportunities in peace processes.
Despite a much-reduced capacity now, currently NEDCO provides community-level food and cash assistance to women, youth and children in Afghanistan with World Food Program emergency food support.
WILPF Afghanistan helps with catch-up programs in math and other subjects for students, as well as humanitarian aid and social support for women in despair amid denial of education to girls, and widespread unemployment of women in teaching and other occupations. And rising violence. Domestic violence has increased as destitution deepened, she said.
“When women make an economic contribution, they have some role in decision making in the family,” she said. “Unfortunately, now most women have lost their jobs, their economic contribution to the family, and most men have also has lost their jobs.
“When there is poverty, no financial support, clashes increase. And women are the very first victims. We have lots of cases of domestic violence.”
In a recent disturbing case, a teacher sent Jamila a photo of herself after she was badly beaten by her husband because she has no income for the household. It’s difficult for a woman in Afghanistan to get a PhD, she said. Instead of reaping the rewards of education, “now she's confined at home, just like a jail, and is getting abuse from her husband and other family members.”
The psychosocial wellness program for girls and women is one of the key activities that WILPF Afghanistan is providing for those women who have lost their social status and economic power.
Child marriages are on the rise, too. “Families are selling their daughters in the name of marriage to receive some money,” she said. “Taliban leaders are getting married for the second, third or fourth time. It’s really disturbing.”
The WILPF Afghanistan web page says the organization is “focused on ensuring the rights of Afghan women and girls, advocating for refugees and those seeking to evacuate, and securing peace and humanitarian aid for a country in turmoil.”
Jamila said WILPF Afghanistan is struggling to unite girls and women and empower them to raise their voices on the issues which affect their life and to mobilize men to promote and protect women's rights using a feminist approach for sustainable peace.
She has lived as a refugee off and on in five countries -- Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Norway and now Canada. In between, in Afghanistan, she established NEDCO and WILPF. Having studied the Koran herself, she taught thousands of imams in Afghanistan about equality based on Islamic principles.
The Ulama network of clerics and scholars of Islam is still active, Jamila said, but the Taliban has refused to meet with female members.
In a pre-Taliban government, 2015-2017, she served as a deputy minister of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled. She was disabled herself by polio as a toddler and continues to depend on leg braces and crutches to get around. In July 2019, she was part of an 11-woman delegation to the intra-Afghan peace dialogue in Doha sponsored by Qatar and Germany.
Now she says she will never forgive the US and NATO for enabling a corrupt government to survive as a “fake democracy.” She considers the Taliban incapable of governing. “They are uneducated.”
“And with this type of patriarchal and militarized masculinity mindset they have, life has become more challenging, more difficult,” she added. That is compounded by economic sanctions on Afghanistan and lack of confidence by investors and banks.
“People are just in survival mode,” she said. “Everybody is looking for a piece of bread to continue to survive.”
She expressed frustration. “The world community is watching, and reports are published everyday about the highest level of humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan but still no solid action.”
Jamila is a woman who vows to return to Afghanistan one day and will campaign for her causes “until my last breath.”
She wears her heart on her sleeve, stirring an audience with powerful off-the-cuff remarks of gratitude when recently accepting the Aurora prize: “Humanity is alive. Humanity is alive.”
She thrives on solidarity from women. “We should extend hands of support to each other. We should give a shoulder to each other to lean on, to put our head on it and cry together, laugh together, extend the hand of help and support to each other.”
Jamila Afghani is an education champion, peace activist and advocate for women’s human rights in Afghanistan. She founded the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization to provide community-level support and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Afghanistan section.
ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.