Looking at young women in Afghanistan today, we can find two extremes. On one hand is Saeeda Sadat, 18, with two published books, and, on the other hand, we find Farkhunda, 18, raped by her brother and a resident of a women’s shelter in Kabul.
The life stories of Afghan women have been made up of torture, abuse, rape, and many other forms of violence. But young women have like Sadat have a different story to tell about lives in Afghanistan, while Farkhunda still reminds us about the harsh situation for girls.
The harsh situation, which has been the focus of feminists and international community to change, has become better for considerable number of girls as proof that efforts to bring change to the lives of women have had an impact on young women. “I’m very optimistic about the situation for women,” said Zahra Yagana, a women rights activist. “The young generation is the reason why I’m optimistic; they are the result of our efforts.”
Sadat, one of the successful young women in Afghanistan today, is a poet with two published books. In 2012, when she was in 7th grade she published her first poetry book titled, Fault was in Time. She printed 1000 copies with her father’s financial support. “Two years later, I published my second book titled, ‘Hear me’ which is a collection of quotes in 1000 copies” said Sadat. The country has improved enough that girls like Sadat can grow up and chase their dreams.
But feminist Aziza Karimi believes the situation for Afghan women is fragile and at any time the country can get worse for women. “Violence against women is rooted in culture, social structures and the long history of the country. Violence against women still speaks out,” said Karimi.
Farkhunda, which is not her real name, was in 7th grade, when she stopped attending school. She is like many other girls who are not in school, but are confined to their homes. “Three to five times, my brother raped me and eventually I escaped,” said Farkhunda as reported in an official document from authorities who investigated her case. Instead of attending school, she had become a sexual slave of her brother.
According to UNICEF, there are approximately 14,000 schools, of which only 15 per cent are for girls. More than 8.3 million children attend school in Afghanistan today and nearly 40 per cent of them are girls. The progress of education for children and girls like Farkhunda is viewed as, “fragile, limited in reach, depth and uncertainty of sustainability” according to UNICEF .Sadat is a 12th grader at Soria High School in Kabul and has always been encouraged to continue her education. “My father bought a bike for me. Every school day, I use my bike to travel back and forth to school,” said Sadat. In contrast, Farkhunda has been seeking shelter and protection, usually from the Department of Women Affairs in Mazar e Sharif. Each time, her family promised the officials to take care of her and she was released, said officials.
“I returned home and, after one night, my brother came to me, gagged me and started to touch my legs. Then he raped me,” said the official document. “In the morning, I told my mother and my father, but they didn’t trust me and said I falsely accused him again.”
In Afghanistan today, many families support, trust and allow their daughters to live in the public, not confined to their homes. “My father helped me by allowing me to go anywhere and do anything I want. He has given me ‘freedom’,” said Sadat. She started Taekwondo in 2011 and has achieved 1st Dan Black Belt from Korea Headquarters of Taekwondo, among the first Afghan girls to achieve it. She has also won Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in different competitions. Sadat was among the first team of Afghan women mountain climbers who conquered the summit of the Baba and Panjsher Mountains in Afghanistan in 2014.
While many families have changed, families like Farkhunda’s still torture their daughters. “When I told my father that my brother raped me, he beat me and said, ‘One day you will accuse me too.’” In the nights before her brother raped her, her father never listened to her. “He used to say, ‘Go away, turn off the light and sleep’,” said the official document.
Cases like Farkhunda’s, support Karimi’s attitude toward the situation for girls in the country. According to her and reports, violence against women has increased. “Increasing violence shows that men are afraid of losing their role in the society,” said Karimi. According to socio-culture theory, violence against women is a reminder that they are violating female gender roles in the society. Men harm women because they fear that women would take their role and do work beyond their homes, says Karimi.
“Society gives car-toys to boys, but dolls to girls,” Sadat said. Men may harm women, but young women like Sadat do not believe that braveness and other stereotypical attributes of men are limited to men. Young women can also have those attributes and can fill the same roles as men in society.
In Afghanistan today, brave young women are standing up for women and are the hope for many people to bring change. “I have a strong belief in young girls to bring changes to Afghan women’s lives,” said Ms. Yagana. “They won’t allow the country to get worse for women again. I believe in them. They have become indigenous changers in the country.”
Sadat, one of the changemakers, is also a painter and women rights activist who has traveled Mazar, Herat and Jalalabad for promoting women rights. “I paint for women. I paint to change.” She said. She has held more than ten exhibitions of her works with one subject: women’s rights.
The other significant impact of efforts to bring change for women who were not allowed to dream big is that women’s dreams have now become big enough larger than life. “I want to be the second Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi,” said Sadat, adding a smile. But not to forget, Farkhunda has sleepless nights in a women’s shelter reminding us that we must continue efforts to make Afghanistan a better place for all women and girls.
Note: A version of this article appears in print on March 2, 2017, on Page 02 of Afghanistan Times edition with the headline: “Young Afghan Women: Visions of hope and fear”.