Afghan Women Have A Say About U.S. Strategy The U.S. is reexamining its strategy in Afghanistan. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Mary Akrami, of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, and Orzala Ashraf, an independent human rights activist, about how the role of women in Afghanistan has changed over the past eight years and what potential shifts in U.S. policy could mean for Afghan women.
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Afghan Women Have A Say About U.S. Strategy

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Afghan Women Have A Say About U.S. Strategy

Afghan Women Have A Say About U.S. Strategy

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The U.S. is reexamining its strategy in Afghanistan. The head of U.S. and NATO troops says the insurgency is growing while the situation is deteriorating. President Obama is holding a series of meetings as experts and analysts look at new approaches to the conflict.

Today, we turn to two Afghan women for a view from the ground and their thoughts about where U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should go from here. Mary Akrami is the director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center; Orzala Ashraf is an independent civil rights and human rights activist. And we want to thank you both very much for taking the time on your U.S. tour to stop in here in the studio and talk to us.

Ms. ORZALA ASHRAF (Independent Civil Rights and Human Rights Activist): Thank you…

Ms. MARY AKRAMI (Director, Afghan Women Skills Development Center): Yeah.

Ms. ASHRAF: …for bringing us here.

LYDEN: I'd like to ask first - take a quick step back - and ask how your lives have changed since 2001.

Ms. ASHRAF: I think we see lots of changes. For example, I was running home-based literacy classes during the Taliban in Afghanistan and different provinces. And those classes were underground home-based. The change in that term in my life of someone who was leading these home-based classes was to take a gradual step in terms of changing all these literacy, small home-based classes into official or formal literacy centers.

In other terms, the change was that at least you didn't have a fear that you would be caught by the government or by the ruling regime. Of course we haven't reached any real ideal(ph). Of course, there are still, for me, as not only as an Afghan but also as a woman, it's not still any way better or safe to leave the house.

LYDEN: I can remember in 2001 girls eagerly returning to school - I was there -resuming their education. What about now? You've mentioned security. Are girls dropping out after having returned, Mary?

Ms. AKRAMI: Yes. As we generally see the situation in Afghanistan, understand that there is, as before, even the Taliban tend - people get so much interest to go to join to schools, to all this, but there was no opportunity. I was just two, three months before in Falliab(ph). I saw in Falliab how talented people are there, how - they were so keen, they were so, but there was no such opportunity for people, even the family. They are not confident to send their daughters to their school because it doesn't seem safe.

LYDEN: You're saying there's a direct correlation between - and I suppose this shouldn't be surprising - safety and staying in school or working or the things women have increasingly been doing. But what I'm asking is are you seeing as, in some places, security deteriorates, women returning home, be it from jobs or school?

Ms. ASHRAF: I think in some areas that's the case. Because it's not only for the schools but also generally for the jobs and for the women's visibility in the community. Women are not scared of insecurity and they don't want to just give up and say we're going home and we're sitting home.

For example, women who were attacked by acid. It's unbelievable that the day they were attacked and they were in the hospital, some journalists went and visited this girl whose faced was totally burned by acid.

LYDEN: When did this happen?

Ms. ASHRAF: This happened in March 2009, I think. Just on the eve of the celebration of International Women's Day it happened. And this girl was asked by the journalists: do you want to go to school? And the answer was, yes, I would like to go to school tomorrow. As soon as my injuries are treated I am going to return back to school. And by the way, they are going to school, some of those girls who were attacked.

So the security or insecurity is a challenge but it's not in a way that women will give up and say, oh, we have to go back home because there is no security.

LYDEN: That is incredibly brave and I think would hearten most of our listeners to hear. But you're also here in Washington at a time when there's been discussion that the Obama administration is going to perhaps move away from what we call nation building, which certainly would include such things as providing jobs and schooling for women.

If that were the case, if that were a part of the new American strategy, how would less emphasis on building civil society affect either of you or affect people you know, women you know?

Ms. ASHRAF: That's clearly a fear for us because - and I don't know on what basis such a possibility would exist while we have forgotten Afghanistan for some years after the Cold War and we have seen the results and the consequences by the incidents or tragic incidents as 9/11 and the following attacks in other countries.

So why on earth, again, we are leaving that country on its own and saying let's move away because this is an unwinnable war? So I think definitely getting away or staying away from Afghanistan will not only affect our lives and the progress that we have made so far but it will also affect the lives of everyone beyond that country in specific.

LYDEN: Leave us with an example of some of the things that you've been able to achieve.

Ms. AKRAMI: I just have an example of (unintelligible) had just last year and one of the mountain area of Parwan(ph), small village…

LYDEN: In a mountain area of Parwan.

Ms. AKRAMI: Yes. We are running advocacy on women's human rights in Islamic perspective. And we had both men and women together. We don't want to only emphasize on women's rights to have(ph) educate and advocate women. So we are going to educate and advocate men.

The first day, we had a man that he was around 60, 65 years old. First, he say (unintelligible) woman to come to teach me. (Unintelligible) give an example. He said that, look, that he was, he had most degree of education; he was a teacher before civil war in Afghanistan.

During whole his life experience, it was the first time that he was hearing that what is human rights. This was the first time he was hearing. And he said that I never ever heard before in my school, at university, talk about human rights.

LYDEN: He's hearing it from you and you women.

Ms. AKRAMI: We were women and we discuss and we raised that point. And he (unintelligible) said that could you extend this workshop for more three days. You couldn't believe that this - there is a lot of potential, there is a lot of flexibility. But unfortunately all these people in Afghanistan was keep in darkness.

LYDEN: Mary Akrami is the director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, and Orzala Ashraf is an independent human rights and civil rights activist. They both work at promoting civil society in Afghanistan. We really thank you for joining us today.

Ms. ASHRAF: Thank you so much.

Ms. AKRAMI: Thank you.

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