Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Afghan MP, Shukria Barakzai, Editor of Afghanistan’s first newspaper aimed at women, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that she had voted for democracy in the recent Afghan election. Barakzai revealed that she did not vote for a specific presidential candidate, but rather had written on her voting paper that she was voting to express her support of democratic elections in Afghanistan, as was her constitutional right.
Shukria Barakzai, who is known for her strong stance against the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, and the Afghan drug cartels, did not vote for any presidential candidate. Barakzai is a member of the Pashtun tribe to which Hamid Karzai is a member of, and she clarified that she had voted “for the democratic process which must be respected by all the people.” Barakzai added that “women and men voting at the polls is the best response to the Taliban threats.”
Barakzai cast her vote at the Malalai High School which is located outside the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior, and which she had previously attended for 12 years before joining university. Many famous Afghan women graduated from the Malalai High School. Barakzai said that she was disappointed at the low turnout of female voters which she attributed to the school’s distance from the residential areas, as well as the threat of Taliban attacks against voters. However the afternoon saw dozens of women come out to vote at the school, and Barakzai travelled to a number of other polling stations in order to gauge the response of women voters.
Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai is a good example of the remarkable commitment of Afghan government officials. Asharq Al-Awsat sent a text message to Barakzai requesting an interview, within minutes she had phoned back to set up a time and location for the meeting. This interview took place following Friday prayers at the luxurious Serena Hotel in Kabul, which is close to the presidential palace which was subject to a Taliban attack two years ago by militants disguised in police uniforms. The hotel – despite the tight security at its front entrance – is considered to be one of the preferred locations for accommodations for foreign governmental visitors and representatives of non-governmental organizations and the media.
Barakzai arrived early for the interview, and with a broad smile on her face began by saying “I am ready to answer questions from the International Arab newspaper.” Barakzai is a rare and uncommon figure in Kabul, in addition to being a well-known member of the Afghan parliament, she is the editor-in-chief of Aina-E-Zan [Women’s Mirror], which is the first newspaper aimed at women in Afghanistan, she also hosts a cultural salon which is attended by other politicians, media figures, and journalists. Barakzai is well known for her strong stance against the Taliban, the mujahedeen, and the Afghan drug cartels, she clarifies this position to Asharq Al-Awsat saying “We want to move forward to resolve the problems in Afghanistan, however there are jihadist candidates who do not accept being debated with by women, which is in the interests of millions of women who have been deprived of their rights for many years.”
Barakzai also admitted that she herself suffers from this problem, and that it is sometimes difficult for her to get her voice to be heard in parliament due to the former mujahedeen, who in her opinion “do not women to have a voice in opposition…and they begrudge them for this.” She added “I do not remain silent, they know this; they want women to take 50 steps backwards.”
Barakzai also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the former mujahedeen in Afghan politics have not gotten used to the idea of women being involved in public life, but she said that “times haves changed, and the voice of women which was marginalized under the Taliban must not reach the officials.” She added “Women did not signify anything to the Taliban, women received no support or care, they banned girls from education…and now the time has come for women to receive their full rights in education and employment.”
MP Shukria Barakzai also said that whoever becomes the next president of Afghanistan, his priorities should be “working towards building bridges between the government and the people, it is important to know the wishes of the marginalized man in the street.” She also said that the president should “evoke a kind of understanding between the government and those who disagree with it, whether they are Taliban or others, as well as invest in the government which suffers from bureaucracy and many imbalances.”
In her opinion, should President Karzai’s strongest opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, win the election that took place on Thursday, this would result in the jihadists having greater influence in Afghanistan. She also told Asharq Al-Awsat that many Afghan women are afraid of a return to the past however this is something that does not concern her.
Barakzai also said that she believes that there is something wrong in the political structure in the country as the powers granted to parliament are much greater than those granted to the presidency. Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai also revealed that she intends to stand as a presidential candidate at the next presidential elections in five years time, and this is a goal that she will work towards with the help of her supporters. She spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat of many pressing issues, such as internal security, as well as the recurring question that everybody is asking; what has happened to the promised foreign aid?
Barakzai said “the streets are as they were since the collapse of the Taliban regime seven years ago, problems of unemployment and the economy are worsening, and the people’s material wealth is deteriorating.”
Barakzai said that there is a lack of coordination between the coalition countries that have pledged to help Afghanistan get back on its feet, and she has called for more achievements on the ground in the areas of healthcare and education, as well as vital infrastructure such as building and reconstructing roads.
She also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that there are 107 female parliamentary representatives out of a total of 333 representatives of Afghanistan’s two parliamentary bodies, and that women have broken the “taboo” that was imposed upon them since before the Taliban came to power in 1996. Today women are active in public life and have a strong voice in parliament.
Barakzai also revealed that she is not the only female MP who refuses to remain silent over the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan. She said that many of the women MPs have university degrees, and that “the mujahedeen who control around 60 percent of the parliamentary seats want to silence us because they believe that a woman’s place is in the home or the kitchen, they want to turn back the clock.”
She asserted that her voice is raised against this, and whilst she acknowledged that in Afghan tradition a woman should not raise her voice in the presence of men, she affirmed “today we are in a different world, and all under the same roof of parliament. There are severe problems in the Afghan street including, an increase in drug cultivation, and an increase of domestic violence against women, and we must all stand as one…and say in a loud voice to the speaker of parliament and the MPs, this is a mistake.”
Barakzai said that what is happening today in Afghanistan, with regards to the presence of female MPs debating issues and fighting to curb domestic violence and prevent marginalization, is something her mother and grandmother never witnessed.
As for her daily life, Barakzai reveals to Asharq Al-Awsat that she does not travel to parliament every day, although she does meet with her constituents daily at her parliamentary office.
Barakzai has three daughters, Miska, 13-years old, Sara, 7-years old, and Fatima, 5-years old. Her daughters are all home-schooled after they were withdrawn from education as a precaution against abduction due to Barakzai’s criticism of the Taliban and drug cartels following which she received threatening telephone calls and messages. Barakzai first received death threats after she began to ask questions regarding the increase in poppy cultivation seen throughout Afghanistan, and the weakness of the government on the ground against the remnants of the Taliban.
Today, drugs are just one of the major problems facing the country. Afghanistan is considered to be the largest opium producer in the world, and heroin derived from Afghan opium can be found in major cities throughout the world. Opium production has increased in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime were removed from power in 2001 as the fundamentalist regime had outlawed opium production at the end of its rule. Drug cartels have exploited the lack of security seen in the country following the US invasion,
Barakzai says she is afraid for the safety of her daughters in the face of violent reprisals, but she stressed that she lives her life “for the sake of God, Afghanistan, and the Afghan people.” She also revealed that she has refused the security detail that Afghan members of parliament are entitled to, and that she visits parliament in the company of her driver. She told Asharq Al-Awsat that she has not changed the pattern of her life after being warned by the Afghan Interior Ministry that her life was in danger. She said that the government had received information that she was the target for suicide attacks, and this threat is believed to come from the Taliban, drug traffickers, or fundamentalists.