She also alleges that the Taliban are not the only ones who threaten her, and that there is a prominent “mafia culture” among businessmen, former mujahideen leaders and members of the National Assembly, who think women should stay at home. She explained: “They hate me. I knew that going into this. But I pay no attention to the criticism.”
Asharq Al-Awsat previously met with Barakzai during the 2009 election in a wing of the Assembly building. She said then that if the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, she would leave the country with her five children and never return, because they wanted women to be second-class citizens. But now she is more defiant and more determined, declaring: “Even if the Taliban returned to power, we would not leave our country.”
Q: Have Afghans grown accustomed to the pattern of violent Taliban attacks that have disrupted life across the country?
The people are disgusted by the killing of innocents and foreign journalists. Even children are not safe. [AFP reporter] Sardar Ahmad’s entire family was wiped out by one of these attacks. His wife, his two children . . . for what crime? They had gone to the Serena Hotel to celebrate Nowruz, like everyone else. We saw that the streets were deserted on the eve of the election. But I say to all Afghans: do not be afraid of them. Afghanistan does not suffer from the Taliban alone, but also from the corruption that plagues everyday life. And that is why we need a new president who is able to establish security and peace in our country, and at the same time extend a hand to the poor and the marginalized and tackle the Taliban’s corruption.
Q: What do you think of the future of Afghanistan after foreign forces pull out?
They will leave our country by the end of the year, and we will have nothing before us but our army and our police. But the security situation is not that bad. You can see how secure the polling stations have been. All 34 provinces have been secured against Taliban attacks. The Taliban merely wants to generate media buzz that says they disrupted the election. But that will not happen.
Going forward, we will rely on our national forces not only to provide security during the election, but in everyday life as well. Yes, we must be vigilant against evil and corruption in the armed forces, but I do not think that the Taliban will return to power. I am confident of that. They had their chance in the 1990s. Even after foreign troops withdraw, we hope they will provide assistance and expertise to Afghan forces until they can take over entirely.
Q: You are a human rights activist and MP who has openly challenged the Taliban and mujahideen chieftains. Aren’t you afraid of them?
I was in Afghanistan when the Taliban assumed power and took control of Kabul. I saw the suffering of the Afghan people when girls were denied education and radio and television were banned. Before that we lived in the crucible of civil war between the mujahideen in which leaders of the jihad exchanged artillery fire over control of the capital. Afghans welcomed the Taliban as a respite from the bloody ethnic wars of the mujahideen. Today, however, Afghans enjoy democracy, freedom of the press, television, [there are] girls’ schools across the nation, and health clinics and government hospitals. The Taliban banned all of these things and now they are thinking of returning to power. They want another chance, but they are out of time.
I usually raise my voice in protest at parliamentary bills. If I see something I don’t like regarding girls or sexuality, I yell and I do not stop, even if they yell back or demand silence. I must acknowledge that part of Afghan tradition is that women must not raise their voices in the presence of men, a custom that pleases the mujahideen; but today we are in a changing world. There are problems: deteriorating security, rampant drug cultivation and domestic violence against women, among others. We must shout with one voice to the National Assembly. We must be given the opportunity to express the suffering inflicted upon the women of Afghanistan.
There are currently 68 female MPs out of 249 in the National Assembly of Afghanistan, a break from traditional taboos that were forced upon us during the years of jihad. Women today have a powerful voice in the Assembly, one which the mujahideen want to silence because they believe women belong at home.
Even if the Taliban relinquishes violence, puts down their weapons and takes power through political participation, they would reinstate the same laws that made women second-class citizens.
Q: With so many restrictions on women, how do you go about your everyday life? Have you received threats from the Taliban before?
I came today with my private driver, and I go with him to the markets to buy the necessities. My driver takes me to the Assembly headquarters without a guard. As to the threats, they are incessant, be they from the Taliban or the drug mafia. The threats became more substantial, often threatening death, when I pushed for more investigations into the reasons for the rampant opium cultivation on Afghan soil and the government’s weakness in confronting the remnants of the Taliban. The drug problems Afghanistan suffers in the Helmand river valley are a real issue for the country.
Q: What role have women been playing in the 2014 election cycle?
There have been larger and larger rallies of Afghan women across the country, demanding women’s rights and improved living conditions. They focus particularly on violent crimes against women in Afghanistan, which hit record levels and increased in brutality in 2013. Even the presidential candidates that did not talk about women’s issues still made promises to improve the quality of life for women in Afghanistan. We want to move forward and solve Afghanistan’s problems. There are many mujahideen elite who do not accept that we are working in the interests of the millions of women who have been denied their rights for many years. The former mujahideen do not want women to have a voice in opposition. They don’t want us to ask questions. The leaders of jihad have not grown to accept women’s right to play a part in public life, but times have changed. We must carry the voices of the women who were marginalized under the Taliban. They [the Taliban] hate me, and they want to see me fall, but they will fail as they always have.
There are many pressing issues, such as deteriorating security on Afghanistan’s streets, how to allocate foreign aid and economic issues such as unemployment and decreasing standards of living. We want to see results on the ground in security, health, education, infrastructure, and so on.