Jamila Afghani: Afghan campaigner for women’s rights

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Jamila Afghani: Afghan campaigner for women’s rights

Beena Nadeem talks to Jamila Afghani, who is an Afghan campaigner for women’s education and rights. She started by talking to the imams.

‘Every day, me and my family get death threats. It’s been worse in the past five years,’ says Jamila Afghani and she smiles. ‘I am afraid I will not live to finish my work.’

For many years, Jamila Afghani fought for women’s rights in one of the most difficult countries in the world: Afghanistan. She’s brought changes in women’s literacy. Literacy is the answer, she says, to real education.

Since 2001 she has started a group of schools under her foundation, Noor, which means ‘light’. 60,000 women have learned to read and write along with other skills.

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Jamila Afghani. Photo courtesy of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative

It is more surprising because she started by talking to the imams who were continuing with the ideas of controlling women. She now works with a group of more than 6,000 imams in 22 provinces. They all tell the men it’s a good idea to bring their wives and daughters to the centres.

Educating women in Afghanistan is full of difficulties. With the Taliban, they beat women for leaving the house and they banned girls from schools. But 16 years after the fall of the Taliban, the old ideas are still very strong.

‘Women in Afghanistan face domestic violence every day,’ she says. ‘They are not allowed to do any social activities and so they are prisoners. After the past 40 years, as this country passed through wars, those problems are worse.’

The big change for Afghani came in the 1990s during the Afghan-Soviet war, when she escaped to Peshawar in Pakistan and later studied at university. Here she saw a woman ask for one rupee (less than a single US cent) for a kiss. Then she understood the problems in the refugee camps. She understood that teaching these women skills such as sewing and tailoring, and then literacy, could give them a better life. She also taught herself Arabic and then she understood what the Qur’an really says about learning.

‘I found out that Islam is completely different from what my family and other people were saying… It tells people to go and learn,’ she says.

Back in Afghanistan, she started a centre in Ghazni. ‘Even my own cousins, neighbours, and the imam, who all knew me, were against me and my work. I was working for change and I had to fight,’ she says. ‘I decided to talk to the imam rather than talking to each person individually.’

She invited the imam to the centre, though he was too embarrassed to meet a woman. ‘I told him, “If you can find one verse from the Qur’an that says education is bad, then I’ll stop now and give you the key of this centre”.’

He was surprised by how much Afghani knew about Islam. He began to ask men to let their wives and daughters come to the centre.

‘The imam said good things about us. My cousins were no longer against me and they sent their daughters to my centre. Today we have 36 women’s centres in Ghazni,’ she says. And 20 per cent of mosques in Kabul now have a prayer room for women.

With the help of other female Muslims, Afghani started what she calls ‘gender sensitivity training’ for imams.

But her work is still dangerous. Recently, two of the imams who helped her were murdered. But she continues. ‘When you educate a woman, you educate their family. They share what they learn. That’s the way to an enlightened society.’

Beena Nadeem is a London-based journalist and writer, who writes about social policy, travel, and women’s issues, and other things. beenanadeem.com

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/columns/makingwaves/2017/10/01/jamila-afghani

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).