Kabul Diary : Beacon of hope

Heleena Kakar’s weekly newspaper helps stir hope for women in embattled Afghanistan, while Toba Ahmad Yar runs the all-women internet cafe. Sanjay Kumar takes a look at how women yearn for change in embattled Afghanistan

Heleena Kakar does not look different from other colleagues sitting in a round table in a small office discussing the next issue of her newspaper. It’s a scene far different from the boardroom atmosphere in other parts of the world.

In her yellow Afghani attire, she looks a typical Afghani girl. She is not typical though. She is unique. She is not like other girls of her age. This 22-year old pretty girl is different – different in her determination, different in her fight for the rights of woman and in her desire to carve out a niche for herself and the women of the hapless country.

She is conducting the meeting with five young girls to discuss the next edition of her weekly newspaper, Ruidiyad Weekly. If one goes by the number of circulation, a mere 1000 copies per week. You could dismiss it as ‘not an influential newspaper’. It, however, is a landmark weekly in the history of Afghanistan. It is the first feminist newspaper in the country, where women’s rights have always been at the receiving end.

It was started in July 2011 by Heleena Kakar, who sees herself as a liberator and voice of women in the war-torn nation. She thinks that Afghanistan is now ready for a feminist movement to shake up the male dominated bastion.

“Movements are created in societies when injustice, unfairness and discrimination replace justice, equal rights and social prosperity. The injustice against the Afghan women, which is deep rooted in cultural values and dates back to the pre-Taliban era, has reached its zenith and it is time a feminist movement is launched to address the problem facing the women in the society”, argues Kakar.

Her small office in the Karte Char district of west Kabul belies her larger gameplan. Still the determination and enthusiasm among young activists shows that 10 years after the Taliban rule, the country has undergone some significant psychological change.

Representing this change is Heleena Kakar and women like her who have joined hands to carve a niche for themselves where women have been pushed to the extreme margin of the society.

Suffering either crushes you or make you rebel. In the case of Kakar and her family, the long period of exile from the country from mid-1990s to the early decade of the 21st century made them rebellious. They had to live like refugee to avoid the Taliban regime and the uncertainties in the homeland. But they don’t want to escape now. They want to confront the entrenched system. That is why the young activist gets full support from her engineer father and doctor mother.

But Kakar has been rebellious right from her early years. She was the first under-15 Table Tennis player from Afghanistan who represented the country, but left that passion for studies. Now she wants to become a Table Tennis coach for young girls.

Her NGO, Third Thought Organization, is an attempt to give a larger platform to women who want to live by their ambition and aspiration.

“What we need is to empower women which women politicians have failed to do. Our country claims to be a democratic country but it is not. Women cannot say openly what they think and want to say. My feminist weekly paper is a voice for women. We want to enlighten them about their rights, we want to tell them how to defend themselves and say freely what they want to say”, asserts 22 year old Computer science gradualte, whose family comes from Kandhar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban.

The French Existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir, started second wave of feminist movement through her landmark book, The Second Sex, which confronts human history from a feminist perspective. Heleena Kakar wants to confront the anti-women cultural, religious and behavioral traditions of the Afghan society through her work and newspaper.

Can Ruidiyad Weekly be the feminist manifesto of Afghanistan? It is difficult to answer this question considering the recent history of the country which pushed women at the edge of the society.

Kakar is also part of an NGO called Young Women for Change, which consists of young men and women who are committed to empowering Afghan women and improving their lives through social and economic participation, political empowerment, awareness and advocacy.

One initiative in that direction is the opening up of an internet cafe exclusively for women, named, Sahar Gul Net Cafe, the first of its kind in Afghanistan.

Sahar Gul was a 15 years old Afghan girl from the Baglan province of the country who was forcefully married and tortured by her in -laws. When she refused to work as prostitute, her husband and his families imprisoned her and put her through all kinds of brutality for six months till she escaped in January this year. Gul was in a battered state when she was discovered by police. It created outrage among women. Gul is healing. And the internet café is named after her.

Toba Ahmad Yar, 20, and student of the Kabul University runs this all women internet cafe. Her dedication for the cause of women is so much that she does not miss to open the cafe every morning despite the ongoing exams in the university.

She and Kakar are good friends and help each other in mobilizing young girls in their movement.

The Cafe looks like a liberated zone for women. Once you enter it you see young girls in a relaxed busy surfing net and interacting with other girls. Away from the prying eyes of male and away from the attention of their male relatives, these women are free to do what they want. Some are on Twitter, some are updating the latest status and some are reading some materials on the net.

“The girls who study in universities have no access to the latest books. The books in the library are old. In Afghanistan, the reading habit is less, we have plans to establish library here. Information is important to change them. It empowers them and they can change their behaviour with better information. They can advocate about themselves through better information and independently select their path in life”, explains Yar about the motive behind opening internet cafe for women.

The assertion of these young women reflects a new Afghanistan that is emerging from Taliban’s ashes. Not long ago, women were at the receiving end of the Taliban’s medievalism. They were debarred from school and any other activities outside home. In the last decade though, the country has made great stride in giving voice to women.

Heleena Kakar and Toba Ahmad Yar are the by-products of the country’s urge to change.

“The change we want for women is, for them to be independent in the social affairs of our society. We want them to work independently, educate themselves and choose their own destiny”, says Yar.

These women are not worried about the withdrawal of the international troops by 2014 which acted as a strong bulwark against Taliban. They feel that the Strategic Partnership Agreement will ensure the safety of the country from the Taliban.

In our urge to see the country from the prism of Taliban, we miss the undercurrents of change sweeping this war torn nation. Heleena Kakar and Toba Ahmad Yar represent a new stirring in the society.

It’s not too often you feel optimistic about Afghanistan. Voicing out by these young women makes you feel sanguine about the country where author Sheeba Shakib says, “God only comes to Weep”. Time to wipe those tears after all.

(Sanjay Kumar is Roving Editor, The Thumb Print)