By Zia Ur Rehman
Shukria Barakzai is an Afghan politician and a member of parliament. She is a prominent women rights activist and also the founder of Aina-e Zan, a weekly publication that focuses on women’s issues. During the rule of the hard-line Taliban, Barakzai helped run underground schools for girls and women in Afghanistan. In 2003, she was appointed a member of Loya Jirga, a body of representatives from across Afghanistan that was nominated to discuss and pass the country’s new constitution after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In 2004, she was elected a member of parliament or Wolesi Jirga. She also headed the parliamentary defence committee for two years. At her office in parliament building in Kabul, The News on Sunday got an opportunity to talk to her on issues relating to security situation, parliamentary development and women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pak-Afghan relations.
The News on Sunday: What brought you into politics?
Shukria Barakzai: For the last three decades, Afghans have suffered from civil war, terrorism, and bloodshed. From the intervention of the Soviet Union to civil war between the warring mujahideen groups and atrocities of Taliban, every single Afghan has been affected badly. I am also one among them. I grew up in a totally different society: a society of peace, respect, human dignity and love. But, unfortunately, three decades of war culture have divided the Afghan community in ethnic, sectarian and fractions. Sixty five thousand civilians were killed only in Kabul in civil war between mujahideen groups while the Taliban were the worst forces.
Violence against women was very high in those days. Taliban forbade women from working outside the home, forced women to wear burqas, punished them with public whipping for “immodest” appearance and forbade girls from attending school. I still remember the incident of Kabul during Taliban rule when ‘Punjabi Taliban’ were beating a young Afghan severely just because of listening music.
We were astonished at that time seeing how clerics and students of religious seminaries were driving tanks and using sophisticated guns. The atrocities of warring mujahideen groups and Taliban politically and socially motivated me much. When Taliban imposed ban on girls’ education, I secretly headed a network of underground schools for girls and women and this network also helped me to form a group of social activists. Because of support of activists of my group, I was elected first as representative of Loya Jirga in 2003 and then a member of parliament in 2004. Street campaigning was key reason of my success in the election whereas my husband, despite spending millions of dollars, lost the elections.
TNS: What do you think is the solution for a peaceful Afghanistan and what role Pakistan, as neighbouring country, should play in this regard?
SB: This issue is very complicated. In the past, we, the Afghans, have defeated powerful forces like Britain and USSR but presently, we are very confused to curb terrorism in our country. We have solid proofs of involvement of Pakistan in supporting groups that are involved in spreading unrest in Afghanistan but we can’t do anything. Today, Pakistan is also suffering from the same terrorism and unrest. People in mosques and public places are not safe from suicide attackers who have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians. We, the Afghans, want to see our neighbours prosperous and democratic. But Pakistan also needs to stop anti-peace elements to use their land against Afghanistan.
TNS: What challenges women MPs are facing in Afghanistan’s parliament?
BS: Afghanistan’s parliament features a percentage of female representation at 27.3 percent which is constitutionally secured. MPs have played a great role in legislation and raising national issues, especially women issues. Some women think that the parliament is not their house but I think totally differently. A woman MP in parliament can easily and courageously ask, shout, demand and complain about rights of people, especially women and children. All women MPs have their own views and different viewpoints but they become united in pursuit of a common cause. We did it very recently on the issue of gender budget. I think parliament is an appropriate forum to fight against violence against women and child marriages. There are many issues, not just two or three. We, the women MPs, are not working for ourselves but for the future generation who will hold responsibilities of ruling the country.
TNS: There is a view that the current parliament is full of former mujahideen and warlords who were involved in killing thousands of Afghans during the civil war. What is your opinion on this?
BS: It is a different judgment. The parliament is a democratic institution of the community where people from different background and with different political ideologies present their opinion. But it doesn’t mean that the parliament is full of former warlords and mujahideen. I am also against these people but think it is also a great success that today women MPs are sitting in parliament with former mujahideen.
TNS: How do you see the ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban?
BS: Our doors are always open for ‘good Afghans’ for peace negotiations, but not for the foreigners. We have closed doors for those who don’t belong to us, who don’t approve democracy and constitution of the country and don’t pay respect to Afghan people. Peace negotiation is a process and shouldn’t be a deal and this process will come from the grassroots.
TNS: Are Afghan security forces capable of overseeing the law and order situation in the country after the withdrawal of NATO forces from the country? What is your view?
BS: The Afghan National Army was one among the world’s top armies without any help of foreign countries before it broke up into regional militias during the fierce civil war in the 1990s. Now, it is again set to secure and stabilise its country by itself. For two years, I headed the parliamentary defence committee and I believe that today Afghan security forces are well-equipped, well-trained and capable of launching special operations against anti-peace elements in the country.
TNS: Do you think the international forces should leave Afghanistan?
BS: We don’t want our neighbours should dictate us in this regard. If there is a joint effort on both sides (the international community and Afghanistan), we will welcome it. We are part of the international community and we are struggling together against terrorism and extremism for the last three decades. We don’t want a country to stay forever in Afghanistan. The International community should rebuild the country and stay until they finish. This is payback time for the international community. We have learned much from our neighbours.
Selected for a Pak-Afghan Media Exchange Program, the writer contributed this interview from Kabul.