Meeting Dr Massouda Jalal

Dr Jalal served as the Minister of Women's Affairs from October 2004 to July 2006. She was also the first and only female candidate in the Afghan presidential elections in 2004. After her term in office, she became a vocal critic of the Karzai government for not significantly advancing the social position and rights of women. She has a background as a paediatrician, teacher at Kabul University, and has worked as a UN World Food Programme worker. Amidst all the deprivation and injustice, the bleak prospects of a better life and amidst the constant fear of succumbing to terror, crime, and fundamentalism, there are a few of us that have the commitment and will to push and fight for the improvement of their respective societies, friends and loved ones. To depict such individuals as inhuman or superhuman, or maybe even supernatural is understandable, but also distorts reality. It’s human and always has been human to sacrifice, to devote one’s life to something larger than life – against all possible odds and even against reason. Dr Massouda Jalal is this person. I sat down with her to discuss her personal struggle for creating an Afghanistan in which women and girls can prosper, enjoy a safe upbringing, become educated, fulfil their dreams, and fly their kites unconcerned in the cloudless, beautiful skies of Afghanistan.

How was your childhood and adolescence growing up in Afghanistan?

I was born in Gulbahar, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. My father, now deceased, used to be a textile factory manager. My mother is a devoted wife and housekeeper. Both of my parents valued education as a way of ensuring a good future for us and for the country.

The suffering began when the war broke out. We lost our economic base, became displaced, pulled out of school, and wept over the deaths of our friends and relatives. Our community was destroyed, and like many Afghan children, I dreamed of becoming a national leader someday to bring back peace and normalcy.  Where resources were scarce, my family and I had to endure extreme poverty and all the discrimination that came with gender and inferior economic status. 

What garnered your interest to lead and become an active promoter of the people around you?

I also learned how to positively deal with people who are opposed to my ideas and to optimize the power of collective action to bring about desired change. 

It was the general hardships of the Afghan people during the war that made me truly want to have a good leader for my country. When war erupted, I was only in my primary grade and the horrors of death, destruction, violence and deprivation engulfed me to a point that I asked who was responsible for that war. I heard from older people that national leaders were vested with the power to end the war and do something with the miserable situation of the people. 

It was during my high school days that I realized my gifts as a leader – I could convince others to commit to a vision, I could make others think of ways to plan and implement actions to attain the vision and by the time I finished high school, leadership has been more of a second nature to me.  But as I left my school, I also realized the importance of building successor generations of leaders and recognized that leadership is a shared business for everybody.

Then came the Taliban with all its repressive edicts on women – where females were treated as less than human beings, where their capacities were repressed, where the exercise of their rights was totally denied, and where being born a female was like being a crime. It was during this era when I realized that men have ruled our country since time immemorial. I thought that maybe, women should be given a chance to lead so that they could demonstrate an alternative way of moving the country forward.

Dr Massouda Jalal

Dr Massouda Jalal

After the US operation Enduring Freedom you decided to enter politics. Was this an easy step for you? When we met for the first time you mentioned serious repercussions. 

The negative attitudes toward women as inferior human beings continued to prevail. I decided to run for Presidency in 2002 and again in 2004. Everybody thought I was exhibiting a symptom of insanity – I was almost disowned by my family. My parents and siblings hated politics because it’s dirty. They abhorred my candidacy even more because it made all the members of our family vulnerable to assassination. We had no money, no political party, and no resources. And the society wasn’t ready for a female presidential candidate. But I wasn’t only aspiring for the presidential seat – I was aspiring for women and the Afghan society, in general. It was my goal to demonstrate that politics are not a domain for men alone. I lost the election but I won my transformative agenda. It was a milestone that I bought at the cost of ridicule, shame, and belligerence from my family and the menfolk of my country. It was tough, but very much worth it.

I was given a tough time in the Cabinet. I was insulted, shouted at, marginalized, and denied support because the president and his cabinet thought that society was not ready for women’s empowerment and gender equality. The fact was, they will never be ready for it unless women do something to prepare them. As soon as I left government, I consulted my friends on how to move on with the agenda of promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality and they advised me to set up my own organization. Now, this organization is my main vehicle for promoting women’s leadership and participation in politics and public life in Afghanistan.

Do you think the public awareness created after the death of Farkhunda – the Afghan woman brutally killed by a mob last month – can bring substantial positive change?

The angry reaction of many people to the killing of Farkhunda is a reflection of the changing perspectives of people about fundamentalist attitudes against women. These opportunities for change need to be harnessed to catalyze the transformation that we want. And the women's movement is prepared to lead it with the support of other sectors such as the youth and the educated people who are trying to shake up society toward meaningful change, especially in terms of respect for rule of law, peace and non-violence, and the proper interpretation of Islam which is a religion of peace and not a religion of terrorism, aggression and violence.

Change won’t happen naturally, even if they kill ten Farkhundas. We need to work for it by using it as a platform to call for meaningful change. Democracy is still an infant concept in the country. But as a nation, we had always fought for freedom and the people embrace freedom as a value that is worth fighting for and even worth dying for.  

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You had a very busy set of meetings and conferences in Europe by the South Asia Democratic Forum in April. Do you think Europeans grasp the realities on the ground in Afghanistan? Can citizens outside of Afghanistan help to promote equality in Afghanistan or is this just a naive thought? 

I believe that somehow, I have given a picture of the realities on the ground in Afghanistan, especially in relation to the lives of women. Whether the Europeans grasped it or not is another story. I think that we should continue the process of communication, even through media alone. They need to listen to other women. The European media have to write and talk about it. On whether or not ''normal" citizens outside of Afghanistan can help to promote equality in Afghanistan, I think that the answer is, they can. Social media is powerful. As long as they take a position to resist the oppression of women in my country, positive results could be expected. You will be surprised that there are people from other countries who wrote a petition in Avast calling authorities to take action on Afghan women's issues and thousands of people we don’t even know sign the petition. So, the answer is yes.

The Pakistani-produced animated TV series Burka Avenger has aroused the interest of many interested in the topics of women's rights and empowerment. In this series Jiya, a school teacher whose alter ego is super heroine ‘Burka Avenger’, fights for justice, peace and education for all. While many celebrate the role she plays, some – especially from the West ­– have come forward and highlighted the fact that she still wears a Burka, thus is still trapped in patriarchal power patterns. Where do you stand?

Burka Avenger is great initiative in the topics of women's rights and female empowerment. I hope it’s translated in Dari and Pushto (Afghanistan’s national languages) and is displayed on Afghanistan TV channels too.

As far as the Burka issue goes, the Burka Avenger initiative tries to motivate and mobilize the women with Burka who are the majority in Pakistan and Afghanistan for activism and fight on the front of women’s right, which will have great impact. I view the Burka as a symbol of oppression, inequality, female subordination and insecurity. Or, in other words, a symbol for fear and imprisonment. Liberation from the Burka will need empowerment that we need to invest in and work towards. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s something worth fighting for.

Words by Djan Sauerborn