What does it take to stand out from the crowd, to speak one's mind? A lot of courage and hope and the fiery-eyed Zakia Wardak has these and more.
A businesswoman and advocate for gender inclusion in Afghanistan Wardak has been zealously advocating women leading talks with the Taliban. After nearly two decades of failed policies and false starts toward peace, she says, there has never been a better time to think outside the box, to let Afghan women write the next chapter of reconciliation.
"It's time for a change-one spearheaded by Afghan women", she says emphatically, the fire in her tone, searing through.
According to the United Nations, an "unprecedented" number of civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan from July to September this year. The 1,174 deaths and 3,139 wounded, represent a 42 per cent increase from the same time last year. Four in 10 of those killed were women and children.
But women are leading from the front even in these times. Be it becoming breadwinners or a leading militia group against the Taliban. They have been hit hard but are also hitting back harder.
Zakia Wardak, who is an architect, Engineer, Entrepreneur, from Kabul and supports women-led talks with Taliban shares her thoughts with Huma Siddiqui. Following are excerpts.
The women under the Taliban have suffered the most in Afghanistan. Why are you supporting talks with the Taliban?
During the Taliban period, there were clear instructions of the rule. If you violated those rules, you were punished. In the current state we, women, have freedom, opportunities and access only in policy and law, but the cultural practices have not changed. A woman named Farkhunda was killed by a mob of a 100 while 10,000 watched just because she questioned a religious man's practice. The public outrage/anger towards women was very clear. We have women getting shot in broad daylight by 'unknown' gunmen. We have issues of harassment. Does the risk out way the benefits? I believe this time when the Taliban come, we can ask for the same safety they provided women and negotiate what we can. You have to keep in mind that it's only the Kabul province that has advanced; the rural areas are still as conservative.
Tell more about yourself and what are you planning for women empowerment in your country?
I was an architect by education and engineer by profession. I entered the business industry of Afghanistan to provide economic opportunities to women in Afghanistan. I'm also an advocate for gender inclusion. Through my work, I've created several civil societies, have a large network of women and created two schools, one clinic and two orphanages. I've also become a motivational speaker as I've lost my father, husband and brother due to war, security and lack of development in Afghanistan. I hit rock bottom, but came back. I try to provide the same inspiration to other Afghan women.
As a woman do you feel confident that talks will help in improving the lives of women in Afghanistan?
I believe an all-female delegation of religious scholars, women in sciences, maths and education should negotiate with the Taliban, not males or any female politicians. They cannot ask for the rights of the average woman in the provinces. But when you debate in their language 'Islam' to use Hadiths verses from the Quran to support woman advances, then we, the women of Afghanistan, will have manageable circumstances.
Today, we have a high number of schools, but the quality of education still struggles. Women's health is a major concern- mental, physical and emotional. Women of Afghanistan do not place themselves first. That is a major concern I have. I try my best to hold motivating dialogues with Afghan women on self-care and advancement, but it's very difficult for them to accept.
What happens to the women in rural areas if the talks fail with Taliban fail?
This is exactly why I am advocating for female religious scholars and women in sciences, maths and other relevant fields. They will discuss the technical aspect of what basic rights should be and how. Those who are silent in this dialogue will have what's rightfully theirs to reach. We need those who have experienced in the field fight the battles for those who are not experienced but only in specialized fields.
How can India help in improving the condition of women in Afghanistan?
India has continued to play as a silent observer in the talks, but I think India can apply many religious dialogue platforms that can support the argument we women of Afghanistan will hold.
In the area of education, training and medicine have provided many avenues. I have noticed the accessibility to India is more; the Afghan people are familiar with the language and appreciate the Indian culture.