Gender, Social Justice, Interviews

Meet the activist telling the stories of Afghan women that usually never get heard

Noorjahan Akbar on #metoo and how she is working to empower survivors of harassment and abuse

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Outspoken Afghan human rights activist Noorjahan Akbar has recently published You Are Not Alone with Maryam Laly, a book which aims to help Afghan women facing gender-based violence. Based on years of field research and real accounts of Afghan women and girls whose names and locations have been changed to protect them, the book will be distributed throughout the country this March. Both women are part of the Free Women Writers group which edited the book, a collective of Afghan writers and student volunteers working for gender equality and social justice in Afghanistan that does not receive government funding. English copies are available online. Now based in Washington, D.C., Noorjahan has been featured in Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women of the World, the Daily Beast’s Women Who Shake the World and she was named Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year in 2013. She has worked with Afghan and global organizations focused on women’s empowerment and has led nationwide protests and campaigns in defense of human rights. She has been featured in outlets from the New York Times to Al Jazeera and The Tempest recently named her one of our 40 Women to Watch in 2018.

The Tempest: You described ”You Are Not Alone” as groundbreaking and unprecedented in Afghanistan. What has the journey been like working on it?

Noorjahan Akbar: Honestly, there isn’t anything like this in Afghanistan. My friend Maryam and I wrote it together in English and Persian almost simultaneously. It was an accumulation of our knowledge as activists and the women we met through Free Women Writers. It’s guided by Afghan women themselves and we talk about issues other people don’t talk about that often. We interviewed women who have faced violence in Afghanistan and two women who have gone through the justice system seeking justice for themselves as survivors of violence. It’s very hard for many Afghans to admit that we have a problem with sexual harassment of children but this book talks about that. It’s very different in that a lot of other organizations and a lot of activists haven’t really been able to talk about these issues.  There is a hotline in Afghanistan where people can call if they’re facing violence, some people have said it’s been helpful but it’s understaffed. There are also great organizations helping but there’s a gap in knowledge between women and these organizations. If women don’t know their rights, they are not likely to turn to one of these organizations and this guide fills that gap.

Noorjahan Akbar with the English edition of her book, You Are Not Alone ans the Persian edition of Daughters of Rabia, which will soon be out in English.
Noorjahan Akbar with the English edition of her book, You Are Not Alone and the Persian edition of Daughters of Rabia, which will soon be out in English.

Can you describe the distribution process of the book? Does this book pose any risk to you?

Women in Afghanistan desperately need books that empower them. The book is already being circulated on so many different platforms online that there’s a clear interest in it. We haven’t published the hard copies in Persian and Pashto yet. We want people who have access to the Internet to first read it online. We’ve had over 1,000 clicks so far. Organizations have also bought this book for their staff and attorneys. It should be available hopefully on March 8th in Afghanistan but the English book has been for sale and we’ve been using the money for that for the Persian book. Our first book was distributed in 2013 through six provinces. We have writers around the country and they traveled to Kabul and took it back to their provinces. The same thing will happen with this guide. Last time, we published 1,600 copies and we ran out in a month. I hope it doesn’t pose risk but you never know; it’s Afghanistan. One of the reasons we’ve been kind of quiet about the book and not really spoken about it through Afghan media is because some of the material is very sensitive. We are being as careful as we can be. But none of the material is against Islam. It’s all written with the aim of giving women more protection.

What can American women learn from Afghan women, 87% of whom have faced sexual and physical violence according to your book?

There’s a global brotherhood of misogynists. In the U.S. when feminists talk about harassment, they’re told, “Be quiet. At least your life is not as bad as those poor women in Afghanistan.” When women in Afghanistan talk about violence they face, they are told, “At least we are not objectifying you the way Western media objectifies women.” These are arguments used against American and Afghan women all the time. Our similarities outweigh our differences. A lot of the issues we face are the same even if there are different degrees of intensity. A lesson for U.S. and Afghan women is that we have a common problem to fight and that problem is patriarchy. I also think there’s such a long history of women fighting against oppression in Afghanistan. Sometimes American feminists don’t know about our rich history of women fighters and they portray Afghan women as victims only. People also assume we face the most horrendous violence like stoning and maiming but a lot of women face those extremely scary cases of violence but we also deal with the more everyday normalized kind of sexual harassment. I think that’s something we need to change and that’s something Free Women Writers has been addressing ever since we started publishing in English.  We’re portraying Afghan women as advocates and change-makers and not only victims of violence.

We’re portraying Afghan women as advocates and change-makers and not only victims of violence. -Noorjahan Akbar #40WomentoWatch2018 Click To Tweet
Noorjahan at a protest, she is standing in a group of women holding Persian protest signs some of which show the bloody image of a deceased woman.
Note: This image was edited: a photo of a dead woman has been blurred to protect those who may be triggered.

Are Afghan women talking about the “Me Too” movement on social media? 

The “Me Too” movement on social media hasn’t been discussed to the degree that I have wanted. I haven’t seen many personal stories because of how prevalent it is to blame women. I was continually harassed by a driver at a radio station I used to work for at age 13; I started working when I was really young. I come from an economically humble family and each family member contributed.  I left my job because I was so scared and I was a child. I didn’t know what happened to me wasn’t right and it wasn’t my fault and that I could go to someone and complain. It was something that gave me a sense of pride because I was bringing money home. I’m not alone, most women have faced harassment and it’s a double-edged sword to talk about the harassment you face. Afghan women can’t win. When activists share their stories they’re seen as playing the victim card.  This is where men can come in because they won’t face consequences or violent consequences for coming forward. Whether in Afghanistan or the U.S., women sharing their experiences are incredibly brave.

Did you ever get any kind of justice for what happened to you as a teen? Where do you get your strength today?

I didn’t get justice. I get a lot of my strength from other women, I have an incredible group of female friends who have literally and figuratively saved my life. When in their company, I feel like I am growing. Feminists everywhere all over the world have inspired me and I feel energized when I hang out with intelligent, brave women.

If everyone else is suffering and you are not, you can't feel it.- Noorjahan Akbar #40womentowatch2018 Click To Tweet

What’s your favorite Afghan saying?

There’s so many and I use them all the time. One is, “The whole world can flood but for a duck, the water will only reach his ankles.” It means if someone is rich and the whole world is on fire, they won’t care. If everyone else is suffering and you are not, you can’t feel it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Natalie Ornell

Natalie Ornell

From age six on when she left Germany, Natalie Ornell grew up on the South Shore of Boston where her hardworking Irish American single mom raised her. Her Afghan born father, a German citizen, died before she left for America so she appreciates rare opportunities to connect with Afghans. Natalie earned her Master's in Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and completed her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College where she developed a passion for China Studies. Her favorite quality in a person is courage.

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