A Conversation with Noorjahan Akbar

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Noorjahan Akbar.

Akbar is a writer and human rights activist who has shared her story with the world in order to raise awareness for women’s rights issues in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Free Women Writers, a group that amplifies the voices of Afghan women seeking equality and justice in their societies.

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Popular Discourse: What inspired you to found Free Women Writers?

Noorjahan Akbar: I started Free Women Writers in 2013. It was originally just a small anthology of Afghan women’s writings in Persian named Daughters of Rabia, after the Afghan poetess Rabia Balkhi. My friend Batul Moradi and I published the book because we were fed up with the fact that most of the books available for free or for a cheap price in Kabul and other large cities in Afghanistan were radicalizing and misogynistic. We wanted there to be an alternative. People loved the book. In fact, within a month, we ran out of all our 1500 copies. It was distributed by volunteers around the country.

The warm welcome made me think of creating a bigger platform that continued the work of the book in highlight women’s stories and voices. That is how Free Women Writers was created. For most of the past three years it has been a social media blog, largely in Persian with some Pashtu articles here and there. Last year, I started translating some of the articles to English, and this year I formed a collective and recruited a few volunteers to help out with editing, translation and content creation.

I started a blog for Afghan women because I have always loved writing. I started blogging when I was a teenager and I still remember the way I felt when my first article was published in an Afghan newspaper. Afterwards, the newspaper’s editors invited me to attend the weekly meeting scheduled to discuss the publication along with my sister. I was probably fourteen and sitting in a room with more than a dozen adults who critically analyzed each other’s pieces. When it came to my piece, someone who didn’t know I had written it began shredding it to pieces. It made me feel so proud because it was a sign that my piece was being taken seriously- not dismissed as child’s play. In some way, it legitimized my writing. I’ve always found writing to be incredibly empowering, so I wanted to create the possibility for other Afghan women to read their pieces published on a platform.

PD: In Western media, Afghan women can be mischaracterized as lacking in agency- in fact, women in developing countries as a whole are often mischaracterized in this way. Why do you think this happens? What should be done to change this perception?

NA: The reintroduction of Afghan women to the West happened during the American-led intervention in 2001. From the first days of the plan to attack Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women was used as a narrative to justify the war. In order to paint a strong picture, leaders-and even some feminist organizations- leaned heavily on narrating the victimization of Afghan women by the Taliban, from images of women getting beat on the street to public execution. The famous Laura Bush speech in November 2001, focused on the oppression of “Afghan women and children,” which equated women to children and implied that both lack agency and are mere victims. This is how in the contemporary narratives of Afghanistan (because lack of historical memory is a reality of our world today) the phrase “Afghan women” became synonymous with violence, maimed bodies, stoning, and cut noses.

The reality, of course, is a little bit more complicated. Violence is a reality for most Afghan women. I would argue, and statistics also show, that most Afghan women face some sort of violence at home or on the streets. However, that is one side of the coin- an important side without a doubt. On the other hand, Afghan women also have a long history of struggling for equality and human rights. Our history did not start in 2001 and it does not depend on Western interventions or efforts. For me as an activist, it is important to have various narratives of Afghan women- instead of a single story- because I know you cannot “empower” women by telling them over and over again that they are “victims.” Stories of Afghan women’s success, introduction of role model women, and studying and understanding the history of Afghan women can help empower us even more than yet another dehumanizing image and story of maimed female bodies. We need a more balanced approach to telling Afghan women’s stories. I think the most important tool we have in changing the current one-dimensional narrative is the voices of Afghan women themselves and that is one of the reasons Free Women Writers now publishes in English as well as Persian: to challenge the dominant victimizing narrative around our lives by telling our own stories in our own authentic voices.

PD: What do you consider to be the goals of the women’s movement in Afghanistan? What progress have you seen, and what steps do you think should still be taken?

NA: I think it is up for debate whether or not we have a coherent women’s movement in Afghanistan, but there are a lot of efforts that are laudable. These efforts have different goals. For me the ultimate goal for any women’s movement is to create an equal society where we won’t need a women’s movement. We are far from that in Afghanistan and around the world.

Afghanistan is trying to find itself after nearly five decades of war and conflict. In many ways, we are going back- instead of forward- to a time when women had more rights. In the recent years, despite the Taliban and insecurity, we have made huge progress. Just the fact that 8 million children, 40% of them girls, go to school is something that makes me hopeful. We have more female teachers and university students right now than any time in the history of our country. Women are gaining more political power and more women have jobs than before. Women are now part of the army and the police. They are parliamentarians and musicians and athletes. But of course we have a long way to go. First of all, for any sustainable progress we need a safer Afghanistan for everyone. With the current instability and terror attacks, we fear that we will lose what we have gained. In some parts of the country, women have already made setbacks due to Taliban gaining power. The Taliban are an existentialist threat to Afghan women and the future of Afghanistan and all sustainable change and progress depends on dealing with this threat. For as long as they continue attacking women and communities, more activists, educated elites and professional will risk their lives to leave the country and change in Afghanistan will remain fragile.


Meghan Bodette contributed reporting. 

Meghan is a staff writer at Popular Discourse and a first-year student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. 

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