Sheesha Media: Mrs. Bakhtari, welcome to this exclusive conversation with Sheesha Media. As for the first question, please tell your audience who Manizha Bakhtari is. When, where, and in what family were you born? What was your major in education, and where do you live now?
Bakhtari: Hello, and thank you for providing me with the context for this talk. I was very much looking forward to speaking to you.
It is not easy for me to talk about myself. Still, Manizha Bakhtari is an ordinary girl from Kabul born into a typical urban family. She neither brought much happiness to her family nor added to their agonies. Like any other girl in this city, I have experienced the taste of peace, war, poverty, homelessness, and longing.
Regarding my education, I studied at Malalai High School, a school known for its beauty, dignity, and security at that time. Compared to today, the school was not very big and magnificent; but compared to the conditions of that day in Afghanistan, it was an outstanding and superb school for girls in the whole city of Kabul. In recent years, I have not been there again. Still, as far as I remember, it had a large garden, relatively large classrooms, stylish and competent teachers, and relatively well-equipped laboratories when I was a student. The school had a massive library with books, and I still, as always, remember my bond with that library.
Sheesha Media: Tell me more about Malalai High School, the students, the teachers, its lessons, and the families that belonged to the school.
Bakhtari: At that time, girls from famous and wealthy families were studying at Malalai High School. Most of our students were intelligent and beautiful, with dreams and goals. Many of my classmates got into medical school; twenty-five to twenty-seven students were only from our class.
We had beautiful days at the school. Especially when a teacher was absent, we would sit together, tell stories from each door, and had hadiths for each issue. We did not have access to many books and media then. At that time, there was only national radio and television, which was under the control of the government, and all our sources of information were the same government radio and television. Families were not very close with their children and did not share information. We got all the news and gossip through this circle of transmission we made between our colleagues. The same ring made the basis of our worldview and valuation. We shared every new point we learned. We had a thirst for understanding and discovering issues. Even though we didn’t have the resources, we still needed to get what we wanted to understand from the environment, the state media, and our family.
Politics-related issues were forbidden then. Still, our classmates had different political views. Everyone’s family belonged to a particular faction on had a semi-affection for certain political parties. For example, someone’s family belonged to the ruling People’s Democratic Party, or they were one of the high-ranking officials of the government. Also, we had classmates who had affection towards anti-government parties, were Jihad supporters, and so on. There were also those whose families were leftists or radical Islamists. However, we had learned from our families not to discuss these matters in class. Likewise, we did not reveal the families’ secrets or what happened in the families.
At that time, each of our classmates had a secret in their hearts and minds. Each had its unique wounds. I was very young when my father, Professor Wasif Bakhtari, was imprisoned. We knew our mother would go to prison with her brothers once every two weeks and bring clothes and food to the professor. Even though we knew that dad wasn’t home, even though we knew that there was talk about it every couple of weeks, it was still a mystery. No one told us directly, nor did we dare to talk about it outside the family circle. This fear existed in me and the hearts of every other classmate. Either it was the fear of the People’s Democratic Party, or it was the fear of the right-wing groups, either the Islamists or the Mujahideen. Everyone a panic for different reasons. The atmosphere of that day was not as open as it is today, but despite our intellectual differences, we were together and had a friendship.
If you allow me, I want to talk more about the school. I have a lot to say, and I want to share some secrets for the first time in this conversation. I have yet to tell them anywhere else. If I have said it, it has not been in the media. After years of work and experience, it is good to share our backgrounds. One of the benefits is that it enters into people’s collective memory. The other benefit is that by sharing our experiences, good or bad days, others might get a lesson and use them as a beacon of knowledge and cognizance. Anyway, apart from those happy days, sisterhood, children’s games, and teenage whispers, the fact is that I started having a challenging time in school after 7th grade.
I was the first position holder in my class until the seventh grade, but I fell drastically. I did a weak performance on scientific subjects. Perhaps ‘weak’ is a word that cannot reflect my feelings about my situation in those days. I was trying hard to get a passing score in these subjects. In the midterm exam, the passing score was 16 out of 40, and 24 out of 60 in the annual exam. The total would be 40, and it was challenging for me to get these forty marks. Even today, I have yet to be able to enter the mysterious world of algebra, chemistry, and physics.
Biology was the only subject I learned well in my school schedule. This situation would naturally lower my social status in the class and the family. It made me mentally paralyzed. I cried many times in solitude because of my bitterness and failures. A question was always haunting me: why can’t I?
I blamed myself for my playfulness and lack of attention. While I was studying, I needed to learn better. Today, according to my experience and life lessons, every human brain is designed so that it cannot be good at knowing everything. There is a time when our mind is blind and cannot comprehend. My mind was stagnant in scientific subjects, giving me a sense of guilt. When I remember those times, I feel sorry for why the teenage girl had put the burden of such blame on her shoulders.
Undoubtedly, another part of the bitterness of those days was related to my family’s financial situation. You know that in childhood and adolescence, not having a new shoe or a good pencil case in school can make one’s life muddy and make many people pain.
But the pleasures I mentioned earlier regarding my classmates, I also had them within my family. I grew up in a family with my uncles and their children, my cousins. The environment of the house was spotless and refined. The love of the family’s elders for each other was genuinely exemplary. I had three uncles, each of whom greatly influenced my upbringing. The respect and love between the family’s elders, my Baba, and mom – we call our father Baba – had a positive role in developing my personality.
Let me say some words about my mother. Her name was Nuria Bakhtari. She was from Kabul, born to a typical Kabuli woman. However, she was decisive, firm, and strong. She was a woman who stood on her words. To keep her words and promises, she fought and had a strong character. She provided us with shelter and protection as her children.
On the other hand, it is natural for someone with a strong personality in the family to impose strict control over the children. We were three sisters and had no brothers. That may be why we, as girls, faced a much harder education and training.
My mother’s family was not extremist and rigid-minded but highly religious. Although my elder uncle, Mohammad Kabir Sohrabi, had a formal education and a government job, he spent almost all his time in mosques and religious classes. I finished the Holy Quran with him for the first time. Virtually all the children in the family had to take religion, Quran, and prayer lessons. They should also practice memorizing and reciting the verses of the Quran. I finished the Quran with my uncle early in my life.
My other uncle, Mohammad Shafi Sohrabi, was sick and paralyzed since childhood, but he was competent and mentally healthy. He also played a significant role in our childhood education. I remember him as a storyteller. We used to listen to his stories when we returned from our childhood games in our big mansion. We usually played games such as climbing trees, running on the grass, skipping rope, etc. When we finished these games, we would come home, gather around our uncle, and he would tell us stories. His stories were mainly religious: tales about the life and miracles of the prophet and saints.
My uncle was a caligrapher. He wrote many of the poems that I liked at that time. Even before the Kabul civil wars, I had the booklets my uncle had calligraphed. My uncle died when I was a teenager and still in school. I can never forget his profound influence on my upbringing and character.
My third uncle, Mohammad Akram Sohrabi, was a very close colleague of my mother in domestic chores. I remember that on Fridays, both siblings would plan to cook lustfully. They used to make Ashak and Bolani. As far as I remember, my uncle was the only man who took part in the housework without saying a word or boasting about it. In Afghanistan, as you know, when a man works at home, it is customary to kindly or sarcastically imply to his wife, sisters, or other women in the family that he did their work. I don’t remember anything like that in my uncle’s gestures. He considered housework a responsibility and thought he was obliged to care for his children and nieces. Today I wanted to talk about these three uncles who played a significant role in my upbringing and childhood.
Sheesha Media: Please address the paradox you faced in your family environment. Your papa, or Babajan, belonged to the intellectual left movement of the time in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, your uncles, who also influenced the formation of your personality, had a religious exposure in its traditional form. How do you see the impact of these two different points of view in creating Ms. Bakhtari’s personality?
Bakhtari: You touched the point precisely. It was a contradiction and paradox in our house. Not only with the uncles, but there was a profound contradiction between the thoughts of my parents too. But an excellent upbringing atmosphere was dominant in the family. The education, love, and affection that ruled the family environment were exemplary. My very religious uncles respected Professor Wasif Bakhtari. I am not bragging. The atmosphere in our family was outstanding. Now that I see it as a comparison, such an atmosphere does not exist in our close and other families. This atmosphere of love and respect made everyone cope with each other’s intellectual differences. Professor Bakhtari also paid massive respect to all three uncles. They might have disagreed on some issues or were annoyed at each other but never made it public. They never raised it as a controversy.
Now I would like to explain how much their intellectual contradiction affected my character and the other children in the family. I grew up with my uncles’ and aunt’s children. I remember we were about sixteen or eighteen kids. The family circumstances affected the children’s personalities, especially me and my two sisters. Because of our father, we had different tendencies that the rest of the family members did not.
My father’s library was a big part of who I am today. Compared to today, that library was not a big mansion. But it was enormous for me as a child of five, six, or seven. There was no vast space in the library. So, the books would pile up on a shelf. It looked like a warehouse. My father’s clothes closet was next to it. This cupboard and bookcase were in my father’s room. It was an office, bedroom, and guest room altogether. When his friends came, they would go to the same room and talk to him. We had a reception hall, but my father rarely used it. He received most of his friends in the same room, where his books and bedroom were. We also learned to keep the books, pens, and paper untouched and keep their places the same. Everyone in the family understood and obeyed these rules. As the books were one on top of the other, they quickly became disordered when touched by the children. On the other hand, finding a book took a lot of work when it was outside its original place.
I remember I was six or seven years old and helped my father find the books. I was good at reading because my mom and uncles helped us read the books. Religious teachings were also helpful in our literacy skills. We could read the texts at an early age. At the same time, my papa brought books of stories. In addition, there was a magazine printed for the children. I don’t remember if it was published monthly or quarterly. But whenever my papa would bring it home, I was the first person to read it. Then I would give it to other children to read as well. The magazine had exciting stories. Some short story books were translated and printed in Farsi by Progress Publishing House in Moscow. We would get and read them too.
When my papa needed a book and couldn’t find it, I would go into the books like a little worm and find it. I could read the title. The story of my affection for reading begins here, from the titles of the books and finding them. I would find a book among books stacked on top of each other. Of course, there was nothing appropriate for my age on the bookshelf of my papa, Professor Wasif Bakhti. I didn’t even understand what I was reading. Still, I was reading. For example, Professor Wasif Bakhtari had all the series of Yaghma magazines published by Habib Yaghmaei. He had almost all issues of the Sokhan magazine, which reached hundreds. Parviz Natal Khanleri was its editor-in-chief. I have remembered this name since my childhood. I used to flip through these magazines and read them. Sometimes I flipped through Divan Hafez and Shahnameh. I loved the stories of Golestan and read them many times. Naturally, I did not know what I was reading; but I kept reading.
Gradually I shifted to reading popular books, which became my reading habit. They were available everywhere, including in the school library. My friends and family members also had some copies of these books. We would exchange and read them. Thus, reading became my full-time occupation.
At that time, it was not like there was TV, movies, Internet, or radio, and I left all this entertainment and started reading books. No, the case was different. There was no other entertainment. If there were other hobbies, I would definitely engage in other pursuits. At that time, reading was my only occupation. I loved reading so much as it had become a joke in the family. If they didn’t find me, they would know I must be busy with a book in a corner. They thought that I was running away from housework. Reading gave me the privilege of doing fewer chores. When my mother asked my other sisters to work, they would say, “Why don’t you say Manizhah?” And my mother would reply that “she is reading a book.” This word had turned into a joke and mockery with its positive meaning.
I want to say one point on the opposing side of the issue: my readings were not only positive and good. I was reading books that I shouldn’t have read at that age. They had contents whose interpretation and analysis exceeded my mind’s capacity and harmed my morals and psyche. For example, when I read Madame Camille by Alexandre Dumas, I wished I would catch tuberculosis and die like Madame Camille. I thought tuberculosis was glorious, and I sincerely wanted to get tuberculosis. The book The Blind Owl of Sadiq Hedayat created a terrifying atmosphere for me. Books like this made suicidal thoughts come to my mind. Now I remember that I often thought about suicide. You would think that a ten-fifteen-year-old would constantly think about suicide and consider it glorious. You know how dangerous it is. However, this issue was only in my mind, and I never discussed it with anyone. If you ask the truth, this is the first time in my life that I am raising it here.
Sheesha Media: Did your father ever know what mental conflicts you were facing?
Bakhtari: No, not at all. No one knew about it. My father, Professor Wasif Bakhtari, was very busy with outside commitments. People visited him, and they would read poetry, make corrections, and go out. There were invitations, conferences, seminars, and trips. We were with our mother most of the time. My mother knew what books I read but did not think Madame Camilia, his daughter’s reading text, was terrible. I occasionally wrote in my diaries. I remember writing a short story about a girl who starved to death during World War II. Ostad Bakhtari saw the piece and encouraged me to continue writing.
Professor Wasif Bakhtiri’s habit was that he did not directly tell his children which faction to support in politics, which style to adopt and like in literature, or what to do and what not to do in their lives. He looked at our writings very patiently. Sometimes he indicated some points but did not actively intervene in the content. He was happy to see me reading a book but didn’t understand what book I was reading. Maybe he thought that I was reading my school books. We also had a trick where we would take the school book, put a novel inside, and read it. Someone who saw from a distance thought we were studying physics, for example. We had put the story inside the physics book. You know that children are usually able to deceive their parents. Today, our children use the Internet efficiently and skillfully, and we don’t even have a little sense of it. We think we are in control, but to be honest, it is out of our control. At that time, our parents did not know.
Sheesha Media: Did these mental stresses appear in your behavior in a way that your father or uncles noticed?
Bakhtari: I was prone to emotions, grief, sorrow, and sadness. I was affected by these issues but didn’t show the symptoms in my appearance. However, at one point, they understood. They even found out about my desire to commit suicide. I don’t want to talk in detail now, but they understood at length.
Meanwhile, I also changed over time. It did not mean that I remained the same. The older I got, the more I thought about the bright side of life. I read better books and found my way.
The book-reading journey in Afghanistan usually starts with popular books. I used to read police and romance stories by Iranian writers like Amir Ashiri. Then I slowly upgraded and went to famous world writers. I started reading the classic literature available to us at the time. For example, I read a lot of Russian classical literature. Some of it has been in my mind since I was a teenager. I love classic Russian literature. Nothing can fascinate me like Russian classical literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This love remains strong today as it was four decades ago. For example, I read books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Gorky, and Sholokhov. I have read almost all of these authors’ works and still remember parts of them. For example, I read the four-volume of Mikhail Sholokhov’s most popular book Quiet Flows the Don. Its stories are still in my mind. I feel identified with the heroes of that book. Like they are part of my family and live in another place.
Similarly, I slowly read Latin American literature. I got a solemn impression from García Márquez. Later I read Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie’s thoughts and writing style have significantly impacted my writing style. Likewise, I gradually read serious books such as Will Durant’s history of philosophy and others. Well, all these stories are related to my school days. For this reason, I do not know physics, chemistry, mathematics, and algebra, and I suffer. Still, I continued my readings in literature, history, philosophy and even psychology.
Sheesha Media: Do you remember a specific time or incident that helped you get through that turbulent state of mind, especially when you thought about suicide, and the change helped you see the world more meaningfully? Do you remember a specific incident, development, or book that was effective in this change?
Bakhtari: I had the idea of suicide in elementary school, middle and high school. But slowly, this desire evaded. I learned to ask questions while studying. I knew that when I heard something or read something in a book or a novel, I should not take it for granted. Many questions came to my mind; questions about religious and political issues. I started to think about them. Later you will ask questions about political issues. I want to say that our family was not political, but there were political tendencies in it. For example, my uncles’ affection for Mujahideen was powerful. They listened to BBC radio at eight or 9:PM every night. Then, it was a crime to listen to BBC radio. They drew the curtains and closed the shutters while listening to the radio. This situation significantly impacted the children and caused us to grow sympathy towards Mujahideen, who shelled rockets into the city. We saw the impact of the rockets’ destruction, but still, we tended to side with them. When I graduated from Malalai High School and entered university, another phase of my life began that changed everything.
Sheesha Media: What year did you graduate from Malalai High School? Which university and which faculty did you attend?
Bakhtari: I am not very good at memorizing dates, but during Dr. Najib’s term, I entered the journalism faculty of Kabul University. Then, like today, we had the entrance examination in which my first and last choice was the Faculty of Journalism. At that time, it was a fledgling and newly established faculty. Previously, there was a journalism department as a sub-institute of the literature faculty. In recent years it became a faculty. I dreamed of studying journalism and wanted to be a journalist. This idea gave me a good feeling. For this reason, it was my first and last choice for the entrance exam.
The journalism faculty was where I regained my social dignity and academic reputation. I said earlier that I had a bitter feeling because my ranking was very low compared to my classmates. But I got into the journalism faculty without any further annoyance. I was first in college. I regained my privileged image, and all the books I read helped me to write and reason well and improve my practical work. My position in the class boosted my sense of confidence. My view of life and work changed from a bitter perspective full of deprivation to more hope and dreams.
I enjoyed the lessons at the Faculty of Journalism. At that time, the journalism lessons were easy for me. Although I knew it was not as easy for many of my classmates. But I could not understand their feeling and said it was not difficult. Your confidence increases when the teacher explains the lessons and you recall what he says. Not to be arrogant, but I understood more than the teacher every time he spoke in the class. I had a feeling of self-confidence that I knew more than my counterparts in class discussions and related issues. My graduation from journalism school coincided with the civil War’s outset.
Sheesha Media: With hindsight and your youth and remembering your belonging to a land called Afghanistan, what special memory connects you to this land that represents your identity?
Bakhtari: It is difficult for me to explain a specific memory or scene. I have a little problem with reminiscing. Many times memories give me an emotional burden that makes it difficult for me to reminisce. I push many memories to the back of my mind that connects me to Afghanistan. Is it the soil and geography, the people, the culture and customs, or the patriotic sentiments that are propagated? Patriotic feelings are usually bred and slowly institutionalized. Honestly, I do not know any precise answer to this question. I have a strange relationship with Afghanistan. On the one hand, the facts about Afghanistan disgust me. On the other hand, these same facts connect me to the wounded people, and this bond is like a flesh-and-nail that I cannot obliterate.
When a group of Afghan people, especially the extremists, came to the streets because of the slaying of Ayman al-Zawahiri, I faced a strange feeling. Why did they not protest against the closing of girls’ schools? It was a big question, and I asked whether I was one of those people. Does living in political geography connect you to its people too? Are these people my compatriots? What is the essence of my relationship with my country? These are the questions I have asked myself in recent days.
However, on the contrary, my heart fills with love and affection when I think of Afghan girls and women. In general, I like all the enlightened and open-minded people of my country. We may have differences in thoughts, tastes, and attitudes. Still, I appreciate the kindness and simplicity of our people, and this is my bond with the people of Afghanistan.
Institutionalized ignorance and structural oppression in Afghanistan is a big catastrophe. I wish knowledge and education would become universal, and that all Afghan citizens believe in and live equally. The critical question is whether we believe in equality and justice or not. Equality, freedom, and social justice are three essential values.
To repeat, I have always said that I am proud of being a citizen of Afghanistan, and I have never questioned the territorial integrity of my country. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but to this day, I like the same geography.
Ustad Wasif Bakhatari
Sheesha Media: Back to your personal life. I want to review the image of Wasif Bakhtari in your mind and hear your description of him. As his daughter and a person who looks at her father’s personality and intellectual influences, what is your definition and image of Wasif Bakhtari?
Bakhtari: I can express my views about Ustad Wasif Bakhtari from two perspectives: on the one hand, the family aspect and the blood relation that I have with him, which I will talk about later; On the other hand, he is one of the most influential and significant figures of contemporary literature in Afghanistan. So, there are several areas to study his character.
Let’s look at the history of Afghan literature: Since the third decade of the last century, the style of speaking, writing, and literary works in Afghanistan have embraced a significant change, which is extreme and noticeable. Ustad Bakhtari and a group of writers in his company worked in this direction. As a citizen, not as his daughter, I can say that Ustad Bakhtari was the leader of the group that revolutionized the literature of Afghanistan.
Although most poets wrote their poems in classical form, they had new and fresh content. In those years, the Afghan literary community was newly acquainted with Nimai’s poetry and his suggestions. Ustad Bakhtari is one of the first people who used Nima’s tips in writing poetry for the first time in Afghanistan and presented the best examples. Of course, Ustad Bakhtari was one of many people who studied Nimai’s poetry. Undoubtedly, many descanted in this style. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Youssef Ayane, Mr. Farani, Ustad Rahim Elham, and Ustad Khalili were among those who had seminal or similar poems. In the meantime, Ustad Bakhtari’s works were expressive, different, powerful, and amazingly beautiful.
There is a consensus in the literary community of Afghanistan that Professor Wasif Bakhtari has introduced new measures to Afghan poetry. This fact is not disputed. In philosophy, he knew the master philosophers of that time very well. He had profound studies in philosophy, sociology, and psychology. In these cases, he also wrote articles, and although the number of these articles is not many, the few pieces show his deep understanding of politics, sociology, and philosophy. A number of those articles were published serially in a radio program. Professor Bakhtari did not allow us to publish those writings. He argued that he considered those writings a source of income and earned a fee that he needed. Because of this, he didn’t pay for the structure he wanted and arranged the form in a way the radio manager requested, for example.
Another point about Ustad Bakhtari is that those close to him know that he had a unique and incomparable memory. He had most of the Persian literary classics in his memory. Once, someone asked him about Nasser Khosrow having said such and such in his works. Ostad Bakhtari would start giving information explaining the subject in detail and read the whole poem without being prepared in advance. Of course, now that he is sick, he would not use his memory as sharply.
Ustad Bakhtari’s deep knowledge of philosophical, political, psychological, and literary issues, in addition to his unique memory, turned him into an encyclopedia. In those years when technology was not advanced, there was no internet, and these issues, Ostad Bakhtari acted like Google, which is still the case today.
I don’t have any exact information about Ustad’s political activities. I haven’t talked to him about the issue and prefer not to speak. On the other hand, his political activities were before my birth, and he did not like to talk about them. He doesn’t want to talk about it even today. He had abandoned politics before my birth. I also respect his wish and say that Professor Bakhtari was too honorable and sensitive to continue his camaraderie with politics in Afghanistan. Some political decisions and views of that time still bother him.
Sheesha Media: When you were talking with Wasif Bakhtari, did it ever happen that he mentioned his memories, especially his political struggle, as an experience that he would like to pass on to you or the next generation as a matter of awareness?
Bakhtari: Well, I and some other friends tried to talk to him about the issue many times. However, as soon as he understood what we wanted, he preferred not to continue the topic. Some friends who were his comrades in those days will have more information. The fact is that I have no knowledge of the issue, and if I speak, it is not valid. However, I know that Ostad Bakhtari was a political figure in his time. Due to his charisma, many friends gathered around him, and his passionate political writings were published in the “Eternal Flame” magazine. You know that Shohaleh (Flame) journal was so famous that it finally overshadowed the name of Progressive Youth Organization and had a lot of fame and prestige.
Professor Wasif Bakhtari knew the opinions and intellectual foundations of the left very well and understood where they were politically and what they wanted. However, he didn’t discuss politics when he decided to sidestep it. If he chose to speak, he would talk.
Also, as I said, all the political struggles of Professor Bakhtari were before my birth. But in many groups, some people consider me a member of the Flame Circle. With the same label, they reject me from some places or express something unpleasant. In the company of my family members, I used to have interactions with those known as Shola. I saw the most honorable people in the company of those known as Sholayi. I saw the best and most knowledgeable people in their company. The struggles they started, their dreams, and their ideals for Afghanistan were noble. They sincerely wanted to do good things for the sake of spreading awareness and spreading enlightenment in Afghanistan. But like other unfinished stories and ruptures in Afghanistan, they did not succeed. Both right-wing and left-wing activists have used the label of Sholaye as a means of attack on specific intellectuals.
Sheesha: Were there any Sholayies in your circle of friends at school or university who would be Sholayie or had a tendency towards them and influenced your thinking?
Bakhtari: I didn’t have anyone in my circle of friends. As I said earlier, we did not talk about politics in our circle of friends. Even if we spoke about politics and became friends with someone, we let them know to which faction we belong. At that time, all people were typically in two categories: Either a supporter of the government or anti-government groups. You had only hints about this, and that’s it. I had never met a Sholaye among the people I used to hang out with. But I understood that others looked at me with those eyes. Some people even thought that I was an active member of that group.
This group did not exist as an organization in my youth. Besides, from an intellectual point of view, I did not agree with those divisional thoughts among the Shoalye camp. I was unaware of the exact number of branches that had taken place. Still, I was more or less aware of their controversies. I have never had an active political affiliation or worked with any political organization.
Sheesha Media: Has your father ever talked to you, personally or as a friend, about his comrades during his political campaigns? Has he ever told their stories or memories?
Bakhtari: He has not talked about his memories of political issues, but there were some respected names in our family that my father talked about. In short, when he told us to respect our uncle or this one as a friend, we appreciated them without any questions. Of course, we didn’t talk or know anything about what they discussed with my father. I don’t want to mention it in detail, but some names were very noble and great characters from the very first days and have remained so until today. For example, I remember that Ali Ahmad Zahma, Abdulla Rastakhiz, and Haider Lahib were great names in our family.
Sheesha Media: Although you don’t want to mention it, some of these names, apart from their political tendencies, were prominent figures that you consider honorable. Also, as you stated, your father respected them morally and psychologically. Please tell us some of these names that might be necessary as our generation today would not know many of them.
Bakhtari: Again, let me not talk about it today. I can complete this later if we have another conversation. Indeed, there were respected names among the people with a background in political struggles, literature, and social issues. I want to mention another point about Professor Bakhtari: he deeply respects people and humans. He has immense respect for his opponents and supporters, children, old, and youth, regardless of their social status. He asked us to have the same respect for his friends too.
When I started social and civic work and entered society, not as the daughter of professor Bakhtari, but in my name as Manizha, I realized that my image and perception of some of these figures needed modification. I thought these people were honorable and noble like Ostad Bakhtari, but unexpectedly I realized that this view was incorrect in some cases. We still reserve respect for people from a traditional point of view and as an honor to our father’s relationship. However, I respect many of these people from the bottom of my heart.
Let me say a little more about respecting people. Ostad Bakhari’s personality skills and charisma played a significant role in bringing people around him. It was unlikely that anyone who spoke with the Ostad Bakhtary would not be impressed by his character. Another point is that most people in Kabul, northern Afghanistan, and northeasterners knew Ostad Bakhtari by his family lineage. As I mentioned, his skill, personality, and knowledge caused a large group of people to gather around him. Unlike his family, he treated his friends patiently. In some matters, when they needed help, Ostad helped them patiently, corrected their poems and stories, and explained literary ideas to them.
In short, Ostad Bakhtari is a companion who arouses the taste of speech in everyone. Another part of his personality goes back to the teachings of Sufism and his studies in mysticism and literature. He is a pious and selfless man who doesn’t care about money and official titles. He is humble, far from earthly and worldly affections, and has lived with the same poverty and contentment. When I say poverty, I don’t mean that he doesn’t have money and must be content. Let me say again that contentment is a separate word. Contentment is vital for Ustad Bakhtari, which is part of his personality. It was not an issue for him to think about money and material haves. During Hamid Karzai’s government, he got a proposal to work in the Ministry of Education as a consultant with a salary of several thousand dollars. He rejected the proposal, and apart from some political reasons, he said that consultation with the Ministry of Education should not cost so much. He said that compared to the income of the ordinary people in Afghanistan, it is not logical nor humane that a consultant in the Ministry of Education has such a salary. Ostad Bakhtari could be rich and have facilities and positions, but he didn’t want it that way.
Let me touch on another point: Bakhtari as a professor in literature, politics, and social engagements, is one person, and Wasif Bakhtari as a father, is another. Recalling my childhood, I was a friend of Ustad Bakhtari; I found his books in his library; I attended his cultural circles, poetry readings, seminars, conferences, and even his friends’ parties. Ustad Bakhtari was kind and friendly at home. His life and morals are exemplary. His characteristics are humility, respect, guarding, politeness and kindness, forgiveness, and love. I have never heard him gossip, even about his ill-wishers. I saw someone was telling him about another person that he has said or written about you. Ustad said if he thinks that way, so be it, it is fine, and there is no problem.
Maybe he was offended or sad in his heart, but the resentment never caused a bad word to come out of his mouth. He always speaks politely and respectfully. Of course, his modesty is sometimes annoying because it causes some misunderstandings, but he doesn’t take it as offensive to his personality.
As I said, Ustad Bakhtari did not talk to us about politics during our childhood and adolescence. He did not tell us anything about religion. The structure and texture of life in those days were different. Ustad had his private room, and we could only go there with his permission. As I said, we were almost in the same place as the children of our aunts. We used to see their children joking with their fathers and climbing on their father’s shoulders. But that was not the case with us. Ustad was different. This difference was partly related to his personality, and the way of life and education promoted in those years. For example, being too close to children was considered harmful to the dignity and prestige of the father. But we understood since childhood that Ustad Bakhtari loved us very much. Although he was swamped and obsessed with his work and could not take care of us, and the mother had the most responsibility, we could feel his heartful love in all his behaviors and gazes.
Our life and family affairs, given our economic resources, were miserable. We could not fulfill most of our wishes and everyday needs, but Ustad Bakhtari’s love for his children was so strong and deep that none of these shortcomings could annoy us. Naturally, our mother, aunts, and other family members understood Ustad’s position. We had learned not to disturb him when he was reading a book, writing something, being alone, or his friends came to visit him. Our mom took care of all our lessons, upbringing, and living responsibilities.
Sheesha Media: How many children were you in the family?
Bakhtari: I was the family’s eldest daughter. After me, Narun was my second sister, and Shahrazad was the third. We were three sisters. You know that in Afghanistan’s patriarchal society, when a family does not have a son, it faces lots of ironies and problems. We heard jokes from different people. In Afghanistan, a family without a son experiences specific real issues. If a family has a 13-year-old, 15-year-old, or older boy, he does the errands and, for example, takes the dough to the bakery or does the grocery. But when you have a daughter, especially in those years of Afghanistan society, you cannot easily send her to the market to shop or buy onions and potatoes or bread. Naturally, most of the pressure remains on the mother’s shoulder. However, despite these problems, our parents granted us immense love and protection. They never gave us the feeling that, for example, a son is missing from the house.
When I turned eighteen, my father gave me a Shahnameh he had in his library. I also liked that Shahnameh very much. It had a red cover. It is still in my library in Kabul. In addition to the red cloak, it had beautiful paintings and pictures inside. I liked it, indeed. On my 18th birthday, Ustad Bakhtari wrote a few words on its first page and offered them to me as a gift. Of course, we did not celebrate birthdays at those times. Ustad Bakhtari wrote that a girl is better than a son. That writing is very dear to me, which is why I have kept it.
Let me reiterate that I had a special relationship with Ustad Wasif Bakhtari. Because I was the first, the family’s eldest daughter, you know that the family’s first child has a relatively better position that they may not deserve. On the other hand, because I showed more interest in literature, he paid more attention to me. As I see it today, my parents’ approach was somehow discriminatory towards my sisters and deprived them of the attention they deserved. I still feel guilty about it. Because I got the most attention from my parents, and my sisters didn’t get the share they deserved. My sisters are adorable and honorable, and right here, I want to bow down in front of them and admit that I used to use their rights.
Sheesha Media: How many memories from your family have you passed on to your children? How much do you think your motherhood is affected by your family’s upbringing?
Bakhtari: Well, I did not pass on what I had and saw in my father’s family to my children. The reason, as I told you, is that I grew up in a rigorous religious family. We had to pray, fast, and apply particular practices on a stringent schedule. For example, we had fixed times to eat, sleep or go to school, what clothes to wear, what to do, and what not to do. Everything was under control, and we had no right to object or say anything.
Naturally, I was not too fond of these things as it was a kind of dictatorship in the family. Sometimes, I wanted to criticize Ustad Bakhtari about it. Once I told him why didn’t he intervene. We suffered oppression. The fact is that he did not intervene. I did not transfer such a strict atmosphere into my family and children.
Mother loved us, was selfless, and devoted all her life to her three daughters. She had nothing but these children. She was an educated woman and a classmate of Ustad Bakhtari. Several years after their graduation, they got married. They did not get married during university or immediately after their studies, perhaps five, six, or seven years after graduation. They graduated from college in 1966 and got married in 1970. Thus, there was a long distance between their graduation and marriage.
My mother was a book reader and knew my father’s situation well. She paid a lot of respect to Ustad. However, there were problems in the family I didn’t want to deny them. I didn’t want to make them public, either. Undoubtedly, there were severe problems in the family that were not appropriate to reveal in public. But the strict atmosphere, where children did not have the right to choose and make their own decisions, was unreasonable. I was in the same space until I got married. Even on my wedding day, I had no right to wear my favorite clothes. Everything was under the control of others. Everything, including the marriage itself, was under control.
As a mother, I have acted against this whole environment. I have four children, and I am very friendly with all of them. My children feel free to come and talk to me and chat about their problems, happiness, or ideals. I have saved my children from that traditional atmosphere and allowed them to choose since childhood without coercion. I have told them to go out of Afghanistan, travel, discover the world independently and stand alone against all inequalities. In short, I have tried to make my children have the right to choose, not how we were.
The return of the Taliban
Sheesha Media: We are in the second year of the Taliban regaining power. How do you feel as a woman, and what image do you have of the Taliban rule? You are an intellectual who aspired to a humane and equal life free of discrimination for all citizens, especially for women. Now, what is your impression of the circumstances in Afghanistan?
Bakhtari: Well, in the first round of Taliban rule, I was a young woman living in Kabul. My first child was just born. Although I had graduated from the Faculty of Journalism with an excellent degree and planned to enter the university’s academic staff and have good jobs, I had to stay at home. After graduating from the university, I became a teacher at the Ferdowsi school next to our house in Makrorian. I also worked with Mirman magazine for a short time, but due to Kabul civil wars, I couldn’t pursue my professional career in journalism.
It is good to mention Naser Hotaki, my husband, who has always cared for me, stood by my side, and supported me like a close friend. After a while, we migrated to Pakistan. At that time, even though I was directly affected by the Taliban, their rule did not have the same impact on me as today. At that time, I had a weaker mode and mental capacity. I was younger. Perhaps, nothing was in my hands then, and I had no additional choices.
However, let me confess that the second rule of the Taliban obliterated me. For the past twenty years, I have worked either in or outside the government. I have toiled like hundreds of thousands of others and consider myself a partner in all the institution-building in Afghanistan. I took part in all the progress and achievements that the country received. I did not imagine that we would lose all those achievements that were the product of the hard work and sacrifices of our people and the international community so quickly and experience a terrible fall again.
Until August 15th, 2021, I believed that the government, security forces, civil society, political forces, youth, and media would prevent the Taliban from winning. I have been in Vienna since January 2021. I had left the Afghan government, and after five years, I received the call to start working as an ambassador in Vienna. I was in my office thinking, well, things can’t just go away. I looked at the young people we trained, our women and girls, all the educated people, the civil society, the media, several hundreds of thousands of security forces, police, soldiers, and urban forces. I thought they would finally prevent the victory of the Taliban. But I was wrong and saw that Afghanistan fell due to various reasons and factors, and the ideals and aspirations of Afghan women, including myself, were wiped away.
The Taliban is a terrorist group related to the criminal economy, tied to international terrorist organizations, drugs, and arms trafficking. They killed thousands of innocent Afghan soldiers and citizens in the last twenty years, and their rule is a disgrace to Afghanistan, the region, and the world.
Apart from the Taliban’s victory and assumption of power, the issue needs a little more consideration. The problem is not only that an extremist terrorist group has taken control of Afghanistan and wants to impose strict Islamic rules and regulations on Afghan society. The word is much bigger and broader. It traces back to the history of Afghanistan and the intellectual and practical actions of those in positions of authority and leadership. All of them have tried to impose a particular identity in Afghanistan. From this point of view, the Taliban are the executors of a more significant trend with historical and cultural roots in the country.
The extremist ideology and policies of the Taliban derive from their understanding and interpretation of the Islamic religion and Sharia. Still, another critical issue that constitutes the problem of today’s discourse in Afghanistan is the issue of culture, cultural beliefs, and power relations in Afghan society. Let’s pay more attention to the point, especially regarding women’s issues. Seeing Afghan girls and women deprived of work, political and social participation, and going to school burns me from head to toe. One reason I am still in my office and want to continue my work, do interviews, and brainstorm is to call for international attention to the misery of Afghan girls and women. It is a crucial point in my resistance today. What I am doing, what you are doing, or what others are doing is resistance; resistance to false identification, extremist interpretation of Islam, anti-women laws, and policies of this extremist group.
In our country’s contemporary history, except for some structural cases in government policy and laws, women were never considered the second sex or pets in the community. Perhaps, sometimes, the law was not enforced, or we had structural problems. At least in terms of government policies in different periods, we had the privilege that Afghan citizens, regardless of gender, had equal dignity and legal status. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the Taliban have returned everything to zero.
Sheesha Media: Since the Taliban takeover, some of us have experienced a kind of shame for more than a year. You also mentioned a word like shame or said about a feeling that burns you from head to toe. I was hoping you could open up more about this feeling. What is the essence of this feeling? As a woman, how do you feel that the Taliban have confronted you? What specific question is humiliating for you and makes you suffer and feel pain? What is your definition of this feeling in the context of Afghan society?
Bakhtari: Well, I mentioned earlier that the Taliban are a disgrace to Afghanistan and the world. It is unbelievable that in the 21st century, such creatures live with such a way of thinking and have such primitive views on social issues. This group has no social and political knowledge at all. But when it comes to feeling ashamed, I honestly don’t feel embarrassed or humiliated. I have a feeling of pain and anger, and this anger is much more robust in me than the feeling of shame. I spent weeks trying to manage this anger within myself. This anger was present in the speeches and announcements I made at my address or from the embassy. Later, I slowly tried to manage this anger. I was trying to talk more with reasoning and logic on the issue.
Look, we were humiliated, indeed. Our women and girls were offended, and they disgraced our culture. Nevertheless, I do not feel ashamed. I consider our cultural society, struggles, and enlightenment so great that I don’t feel ashamed of failure. Furthermore, I view the Taliban as a short-term disruption. Just as others came and went, the Taliban will also disappear. I am angry that several generations, especially the women of Afghanistan, are victims, which breaks my heart.
The intense anger in me is the reason why I have not been silent and confronted the Taliban. In the past year, I have spoken against the policies of the Taliban in major international platforms and organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. A number of my speeches are available on the Internet. In some conferences and meetings, I spoke so far that the organizers did not like my speech and stand. This is because it seems easy for the international community to deal with the Taliban. Dealing with the Taliban is their current policy as they say that the Taliban is Afghanistan’s reality having no alternative.
However, I believe that this situation is temporary and will pass. The Taliban will disappear either as a result of struggle and resistance or as a result of their internal failures and conflicts. Besides this, there are regional developments and more comprehensive global policies that will finally end the Taliban’s era. Through the struggles and resistance we have done so far, if we have not been able to ultimately defeat the Taliban’s narrative, we have undoubtedly made it weak. I know that the Taliban, especially in the last ten years, has become very strong. They established extensive connections with the world. When the Afghan government’s officials were busy dividing seats and facilities and fighting each other for positions, the Taliban convinced the world that they were an excellent alternative to a corrupt and weak government. I agree that there have been many problems in the governments of the last 20 years in Afghanistan, especially in the government of Dr. Ashraf Ghani. It was during his presidency when parallel institutions were created, the governance system in Afghanistan was severely damaged, a tiny group of people monopolized the state, and there was no coherence and solidarity in the security forces. And lack of Political will caused Afghanistan to collapse into the hands of the Taliban.
However, despite all these facts, I think that the government of Afghanistan did not belong to any president. This government was the product of the joint work of the Afghan people. During the last twenty years, the constitution and the institutions that were important to us were created. During this time, we fought against the narrative that claimed that the Taliban had changed. This comes as now we are still fighting against this false narrative, and we want to show that they have not changed but have become even worse in their extremism and violence.
Sheesha Media: Certainly, what has happened is not a pleasant circumstance. It is possible that each Afghan can show individual examples saying that we contributed and performed our responsibility in this part, and we are still working; however, when we talk about identity for a nation or a specific geography as a country, we see that the Taliban represents a portion of our nation to the world, which in any case, targets us as well. That will raise the questions of who we are and what kind of society we live in that can produce and nourish the kinds of Taliban. How have we dealt with ourselves that our nation has become the birthplace of the Taliban? We feel ashamed while facing these questions. Of course, shame is a good feeling that great people fall into. Shameless people are neutral and indifferent toward everything. Now, when we see that the Taliban have distorted and tarnished our image in the world, this situation has an audience. You, the intellectual class of the society, and I are the audience. The question is, what was wrong with us, and where did we have carelessness in our work which has opened the ground for such an unpleasant and painful phenomenon [The Taliban] to appear in our society? I want to hear from you as a woman and as an enlightened individual who spent a lifetime fighting for tremendous and just causes about the sense of humiliation that we are witnessing collectively and the shame that has fallen on all of us.
Bakhtari: Firstly, I would like to explain that by shame, I meant the negative feeling of shame and embarrassment we may experience due to committing a conscious and voluntary act. But in the sense that you define, it is natural that each of us feels ashamed and considers ourselves responsible for everything that happened in Afghanistan. Everything has happened in different capacities – whether in the government, whether in the non-government capacities, whether in the community, and other works. What has happened is the collective responsibility of all the people of Afghanistan.
However, the question is, why did this happen? If we claim in a large group that we did our work correctly, the question arises, what was the result? In the context of Afghanistan, in this chain, a sequence link was broken. For example, while trying to arrange the pearls in a ring, if we miss one point, it does not matter how well we place the rest of the pearls, they will all fall once. In Afghanistan, something like this happened. I think that there are various factors in this regard.
Looking at the structure of Afghan society, we realize that it has had many problems since its formation as a buffer zone between empires throughout history. This comes as Afghanistan’s identity issues and ethnic issues are essential factors in this matter. At the same time, we see that the persistent poverty in Afghanistan is almost unprecedented in most countries. Such poverty, deprivation, and marginalization and the difference that existed in the urban and rural life of Afghanistan are rare compared to the world community. Naturally, poverty causes illiteracy in society. When a region is plagued by poverty, there is no school or teacher, and children spend most of their time solving their financial issues. Instead of studying, they look for bread.
In the same way, customs and habits, stereotypes, and traditions are also severe factors. Afghanistan is a very traditional, conservative, and religious country. The study of religion is also tied to tribal customs and traditions of the people, and as a result, a concoction has been created that does not exist anywhere else in the world. Well, we are all products of this society.
To develop and provide equal status for citizens, it is necessary to establish social infrastructure. These infrastructures must be connected with other societal areas in a normative sequence. With the fundamental structures and infrastructure that play a vital role in the resistance and continuity of the society’s development, social infrastructure can provide the ground for the growth and development of all people without discrimination and privilege; Unfortunately, this did not happen. From the political and economic point of view, there was no solid foundation on which the society could circulate.
If we carefully review the history of Afghanistan over the last hundred years, we will see how much of a gap there is. From one king to another, one president to another, one government to another, there is no sequence or connection. How many constitutions have been made in this country, how many different flags have been proposed, and how many changes have been made in the system and government and the educational and cultural structures of the society? Well, what do these facts mean? These facts do not only show political change and the transition of power from one person to another. It offers profound and fundamental gaps in Afghan society. It means that we have differences of opinion on significant issues, which are so fundamental and profound that every time a government or a system is built in Afghanistan, it falls apart. Another group comes to take over everything and changes from the foundation.
I think that in Afghan society, the majority suffers from self-deception, and this self-deception and avoiding the truth has become a part of the collective wisdom of the country. We avoid everything. Regarding national unity, nation, national oppression, national interests, and national values, we have differences in all of these matters. We disagree about women’s issues. In our talks and mottos, we always say that women in Afghanistan have significant value, that there are mothers, sisters, and so on. Still, in practical terms, there are severe problems and contradictions. This is because there is no honesty, and we are deceiving ourselves.
I always say that we have many problems in Afghan society. Instead of pushing these problems under the table, let’s put them on the table so that they can be officially discussed, examined, and identified so that after knowing and understanding the issues correctly, we can think about their solutions.
When we claim that Afghanistan is a proud country with national unity, why do we have so many problems? Why are there gaps in the history of this country? If our society respects women, why have the most basic rights of women been violated in the past year, and the men of the community, who are inside Afghanistan, did not react to it? I agree that there is tyranny, imprisonment, and murder. Still, I can see that some of the youth and men who were democrats yesterday [in the times before the Taliban took over Afghanistan] and worked in the government now put on long beards, talk about the Taliban and support them. Why? This is a big question.
We must accept the fact that the religious and autocratic society of Afghanistan has a strong background for the emergence, development, and authority of the Taliban. We cannot always blame Pakistan and say that the Taliban are from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. This is a fact, and you can’t argue with facts. It is true that Pakistan also has Taliban, but the Taliban in Afghanistan are from Afghanistan. Regional and international factors and the role of Pakistan are also critical. But let’s not look at everything from the same perspective. Internal and environmental factors are equally important.
We have many historical examples. From the era of Amanullah Khan until today, the riots against public schools, the riots against removing hijab, and the riots against political and social participation all had internal roots, factors, and internal contexts. Let me give an example here. We remember that Farkhunda was burned. She was set on fire in the heart of Kabul city, a few kilometers from the presidential palace, by the educated youth of Kabul. Therefore, these backgrounds exist in the society of Afghanistan. It is true that there are groups of people who believe in civil society and political and social participation and are in favor of freedom and equality. But let’s not forget the role of the other few million. Those few million have rigid understandings of religion. They want to adapt their policies based on their reading of religion and force other Afghan people to accept their dictatorship and discriminatory thoughts.
The return of the Taliban and the women’s issue
Sheesha Media: One of the prominent historical examples you mentioned is the incident of killing and burning Farkhunda, which happened during the republic time, very close to the presidential palace and the heart of Kabul province. The incident was not temporary and short, as it lasted about three hours. They tortured Farkhunda for three hours. At the same time, we saw thousands of people who attended and took pictures and videos of the incident; But among them, while they were torturing Farkhunda, not one person stood up in front of the crowd to defend this girl and say that she should not be tortured. Not a single person risked himself to prevent this violence. The same problem, in its larger form, happened with the arrival of the Taliban. Here, let me speak a little more in detail to present my question from another perspective.
Regardless of how much we blame ourselves for Afghanistan’s past or search for the national and international contexts of the Taliban’s arrival, it is good to look at it as a cultural phenomenon of Afghanistan.
The Taliban issued orders in different fields without any severe and significant reaction at the community level. At the same time, the biggest challenge that the Taliban posed to Afghan society was the issue of women. The Taliban issued misogynistic orders and removed women from political and social circles. They imposed stringent restrictions on women in the media. They even banned girls from 7th to 12th grade from going to school, besides many other regulations. You did not see any reaction in the Afghan society against all these destructive acts, which could be in support of a value called women’s rights, women’s existence, and women’s participation.
A value is indigenous when it is threatened, and society reacts and defends it. If a value is not indigenous and has just entered society, people adapt it to their lives superficially. However, they are unwilling to bear the pressure and costs of defending it. For example, institutions like schools, universities, health clinics, police, etc. We always gain benefits from them and do not suffer from them.
But when these values are threatened, how much are we willing to risk our lives to defend them? If we do not accept this risk, the values we talked about were not native and indigenous.
When “Hezbe Democratic-e Khalq” or the People’s Democratic Party came to Afghanistan and destroyed Dawood Khan’s government, no one showed a social reaction to defend Dawood Khan. But, when the People’s Democratic Party stood up against people’s religion, religious beliefs, and social traditions, everybody stood against it. For example, when the regime took the fight against illiteracy into people’s homes and forcibly brought women to literacy courses, society reacted seriously against it and rebelled against the government. It shows that religion and sacred issues were native and indigenous values of Afghans. They resisted defending these values [not education].
Now, when we see that the Taliban treat women in a way that divides families and makes family members suspicious of each other, no one stands up to it. Inside a family, the same right [education] is given to some members [boys] and deprived of others [girls], and we see no reaction and resistance from the rest of the family asking the question, how can I send my boys to school when my girl is banned from schools? As a man, when I see that a woman has been removed from the office where I worked, I have no answer to my wife and children, who ask how I obeyed the Taliban’s discriminatory orders. No family and no man in the family stand against this oppression, humiliation, and hypocrisy in the families.
Note that we did not see any kind of reaction, even in Facebook posts. As a simple protest, no one raised their voice in society or on a social page that I will not send my son to school when my daughter does not go to school or that I will not go to work when women are excluded from social and political life. We have not seen such a reaction from anyone. On the contrary, we noticed that the society shows alignment with the Taliban and their patrimonial view that represents a dominant mass of humanity [men] and marginalizes the other 50% mass [women].
This is where we can evaluate society’s reaction. Now, in your opinion, as a human being and as a woman who claimed to fight for justice, gender, social and legal equality and wanted every person in society to have their value and respect, what does this indifference and neutrality of society mean? Did you feel that you, as a woman, were left alone in this context? Did you think that the women and girls of Afghanistan were left abandoned in their resilience against the Taliban and this explicit oppression? Did you feel that no one sympathized with women?
Bakhtari: You explained this topic very well. I said earlier that we are deceiving ourselves on many issues. Instead of analyzing the problems in a very fundamental and profound manner that points out the factors that exist in the context of Afghan society, we raise the issue in a superficial and shallow way. Instead of discussing the general approach of Afghan society to the issue of women, we refer to marginal and unrelated cases, which is a kind of evasion.
In many families, women are respected as sisters and mothers. But the discussion of women’s equal rights and women working side by side with men in economic, political, and social life is not accepted in most provinces and villages of Afghanistan. Most of the people of Afghanistan have this same view. Of course, there is a particular group of Afghan people who believe in the equal rights of men and women and think differently. Still, most Afghan people do not believe in the participation of women in the cultural, social, and economic life of society. This type of view does not exist in our community.
When women’s right to work and education is attacked by religious extremism, and this extremism mixes with the traditions and customs of various tribes and communities in Afghanistan, it creates a situation that leaves no room for women to grow. The right to education and work for women is destroyed by the forces of violence, extremism, and discrimination, and it does not face any serious opposition or reaction in society.
Let me say that banning women’s work and education in the Taliban’s intellectual structure is one of the most critical issues that we should pay attention to. In the Taliban’s thinking, and according to the customs and traditions of the society, women are creatures that were created for the comfort of men and breeding and had no other function or value. This hostile and irreconcilable view towards women and the female body is one of the severe problems of human societies, which is reflected in different ways, such as control, ownership, rape, torture, and harassment. Women are considered objects and property, and a woman’s body is considered a source of evil, seduction, and danger. As a result, the presence of this person [women] in society causes evil and danger. This is why they [the society] say that women should stay at home, provide services for the family, raise their children, and be busy and limited in the work known as housekeeping. In the world, most nations have surpassed this thinking. This has been a general and global issue. But in some countries, including in Afghanistan, especially in the Taliban stratum of society, women are still looked at as objects which belong to houses. This way of thinking has now been reflected in banning women from work and education, and women are expected to adapt themselves and not protest and stand against these values. They are expected to accept all the traditional values, and if they don’t, they will lose the traditional stereotype value of a “decent woman”.
This traditional perception of society, instead of creating a kind of respect and equality in the field of communication, marriage, and family, creates possession, force, and captivity and boosts restricting and controlling women.
It is good to consider the issue from another point of view. An educated girl does not consider an illiterate mullah, religious student, or any illiterate person as her equal in a mutual social and family relationship. It is natural for her to stand against the wrong orders of her family as well. There should be laws and other institutions here to support the decision and rights of that girl. Whether it is a girl’s education or her other choices. Instead of dealing with this issue, the traditional class of society ignorantly deprives women of education and work and all means of social, political, and economic empowerment. It is in such a situation that uneducated Mullahs and students, etc. find an upper hand to control women and dominate them.
You can see that many narratives are created here so that this oppression and injustice in the belief system of the society find belief and religious roots and support. Many narratives, clichés, and sayings have been created in Afghan society, which are sometimes produced and reproduced with the help of religion and sometimes with the help of tradition. For example, to institutionalize the way of thinking that women’s place is in the home, they have created narratives. Such that a chaste woman is a woman who stays at home, takes care of her children, and does not participate in any public gathering and circle. Instead, women who go to school is an employee or an activist and is presented as rebellious and bad-tempered woman. Terms such as evil and bad-tempered woman and sound and obedient woman, in contrast, are examples in the general belief of the society for which many narrations, hadiths, and interpretations have been created.
As a result, the situation has reached a point where the general anti-women narrative in Afghan society spreads, and women who had the opportunity to go to school and university, become empowered and earn money are not recognized as competent women in the public perspective.
Of course, I should also add that thousands of families believed in the participation of women and sent their daughters to school and university with great interest. Still, I do not ignore the fact that the dominant atmosphere of society was under the control of anti-women elements and forces.
The traditional class and even the Taliban want their girls to be educated. Still, within the same limits and framework, they talk about the limitations and framework of Sharia.
They want their daughters to study as much as they can read and find a way to raise their children. That’s the limit. Afghan society does not want women to have an excellent social and economic position. They feel that if women achieve an excellent social and financial position, the hand of traditional elites and traditional men will be shortened from controlling women, pure domination, and such. When women and girls are not economically stable, it is clear that early marriages, forced marriages, and polygamy is imposed on them.
When a girl is deprived of education, does not have income, does not enjoy a privileged position in society, and is not supported by the law and supporting institutions, it is clear that she becomes a commodity that men decide about and manage her life. I consider this a kind of domestic slavery. I see it as excessive use of men from the opposite sex.
While fathers and mothers, as two equal human beings, should take the standard duty of raising children and doing housework equally, all the duties are thrown on the shoulders of mothers and wives. The creation of this situation naturally takes the time of self-awareness and development of women’s talents and deprives them of the opportunity to achieve material benefits.
We see all over the world that when women take on the responsibilities in the home, regardless of their educational level, in return, they have an equal share in all the decisions and financial resources of the family. But this is not the case in Afghanistan. Women inside and outside the home are slaves who must work to provide happiness, peace, and satisfaction to others but do not have any decision-making rights. Unfortunately, this mentality is not specific to the Taliban but has become the general culture of Afghan society. We must overcome this culture and create a humane and decent culture instead. It is clear that we have failed at the current stage, but we have hope, and we will work and fight to have a society in Afghanistan different from what it is today, and the women and girls of our society will get the same rights that they deserve.
Sheesha Media: When we discuss participation, four layers of participation come to mind. The first is participation in person, which is represented by physical presence. The second is participation in raising your voice and having a space and platform for the voice to be heard. It means that when someone is physically present, a context must be created for his/her speech to be heard. The third is participation in decision-making. It means that in addition to being listened to, he/she should also participate in decision-making. The fourth is participation in activities, which is the last stage and comes after participation in decision-making.
Considering these four stages, we have faced many problems in each of them in the historical past of Afghanistan. Not only women but all the deprived and marginalized classes of society were prevented from participating in the first and second steps. For example, we had systems concerning women that did not object to the presence of women due to the influence of the prevailing atmosphere in the world. When they mentioned the presence of women, they meant that women could be in society, in the office, in school, or in some cultural fields. This means physical presence. But beyond physical participation, did anyone pay attention to women’s voices and listen to the words of women?
When women’s voices are discussed, it means that women should not only be seen but also should be heard. The discussion of being listened to is the discussion of thoughts and ideas, and views. In this regard, we see that the matter becomes more serious. Many people do not oppose the presence of women, but they oppose and do not value the voice of women. According to them, this voice should not be heard.
Maybe some people don’t have a problem with women’s voices and pay attention to them. But paying attention to someone’s voice is different from involving them in the decision-making stage. They allow you to write poems, and books, protest, and be anywhere. Still, decisions are particular stages in which certain groups have the right to participate, and others are not allowed to enter.
Sometimes, in small circles, women may be included in decision-making but not on major issues. Even if they allow you to make decisions, in the practical field, they impose restrictions that stop you [women]. We have this problem in all human societies. In all communities, you do not have equal participation in these fields. The more participation in all these four layers increases, the more democratic and civil the society we have. If we face restrictions or pressures in these stages, the community will be less democratic or less civilized.
In today’s Afghanistan, the Taliban have created a situation that has eliminated the presence of women in the first very layer of participation, which violates the most basic rights of women. We realize that the society boasting of freedom and women’s rights has become silent and speechless in front of the challenge created by the Taliban. Even the intellectual class that you talked about includes several million people who are in favor of women’s participation. Did anyone from this group of millions oppose the cruel order of the Taliban [regarding women’s education and work] that can be counted on?
From another point of view, it is good to ask what institutions we built in the republic system that could support the active and effective participation of women. These questions put us in front of the dominant culture in society, which is challenging to deal with.
Let me talk about the women themselves. In the last twenty years, women somehow had an excellent opportunity. The public atmosphere in Afghanistan was such that no one openly opposed the presence and all manifestations of women’s rights. The laws we created were, in a way, defending women’s rights. The participation of women in parliament can be named as one of the examples. The law specifically stated that this number of women must be present in parliament. There must be a woman in the cabinet. There should be women in all areas of society. Women were facing widespread acceptance and support at the international level. People, including you, came forward as representatives of Afghan women. I want to ask if you used this space to create institutional guarantees for women’s participation. For example, was the question ever raised among women how can we nurture the individual capabilities of women in a coherent collective organization? Have you thought of setting goals for women that can connect all women?
Indeed, the men of the society did not do anything in these areas. The patrimonial culture of the society did not allow them to form organizations defending women’s rights. But do you think that enlightened and educated women who had a lot of opportunities did anything in these areas? How much do you think these women tried to deal with the great danger they faced culturally and psychologically in society? How much do you think they thought of answering women’s cultural and social problems by building women’s supporting organizations? Don’t you think that the women of Afghanistan, especially the knowledgeable and enlightened ones, wasted a lot of opportunities in these twenty years?
Bakhtari: As you explained, this is a global and historical issue. Historical experiences show that some societies were able to overcome this issue. Some are just passing through. But other countries like Afghanistan are still struggling with it. When we study the history of women’s struggles and resistance worldwide, we see that women have come a long way to get the rights they have today. From obtaining the right to vote to obtain the right to political participation, work, and education, specifically in some fields that were previously considered masculine. These rights also include women’s participation in the layers of power such as government, judiciary, and parliament and all-important decision-making and operational institutions. To conclude, this has been a long-term fight all over the world.
When we pay attention to women’s struggles and resistance in Afghanistan, unfortunately, I have to say that whenever women started a movement in Afghanistan, a terrible break and breakdown immediately happened, and all progress and efforts were stopped. It has been the same since the time of Amanullah Khan. Whenever women have been able to take a few steps forward, they have faced a situation where they have not only completely lost their achievements but have also fallen far behind what they had before.
Now, if we specifically talk about the last 20 years, it would be unfair to say that women did not achieve anything or that women in power did not do anything or committed corruption. I think we have achieved a lot, especially regarding women in Afghanistan. The achievements and participation of Afghan women in the last twenty years are unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan. It is a fact that in the past 20 years, millions of girls have been able to go to school, go to universities, study abroad, get a job, and have an impact on various government and non-government levels.
During this period, role models, patterns, and symbols of women were also discussed, which were sometimes appropriate and sometimes inappropriate. This is a fact that happens worldwide and is a more sociological issue. Societies need role models for their movement and growth. Role models are created in every society in which one or more people are presented as role models for everyone. This matter is also factual concerning women. Maybe some women are much more capable, know much more, and have fought much more than the characters who are raised as role models, but they haven’t become famous.
Let me mention Ms. Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan as an example. She and her colleagues worked together and campaigned for girls’ education, and even one or two other girls were injured together with her. Among them, we only know Malala because she became a role model for girls’ education. In Afghanistan, several women came forward, became role models, and won awards. I have no problem with any of these stage plays that are happening as long as the rights of other fellow Afghan women are not lost because of it.
But if we look at the bigger picture, we see that these twenty years are a concise time compared to the history of human societies and Afghanistan. Twenty years may seem long, but it is not enough to build foundations and institutions to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. In the last twenty years, applicable law provisions have been passed in the field of legislation. The Afghan constitution, with all the loopholes and criticisms it has, is a modern and valuable law that recognizes women’s rights as entirely equal to men’s.
There were problems in the family law and other subcategory laws, and more time was needed to harmonize these laws with the constitution. There was also the need to build structures to support the implementation of laws, and forming these structures requires several generations of time.
In addition to these issues, I would like to point out that, unfortunately, most of the women who were responsible and had positions did not have the necessary understanding of politics and communications. Some of them, due to inexperience and lack of sufficient study, did not pay attention to the main issues and focused on shallow and superficial issues while talking and raising their voices. Not focusing on the central issues of these women was like attacking ourselves, that only complicated the situation, not in favor of women.
For example, most women do not raise the issue that Afghanistan is a patriarchal and misogynistic country and that women’s rights in this country have structural problems and obstacles. On the contrary, their main concern is not to be introduced or viewed as anti-religious or to be accused of ignoring the traditions and culture of society. I understand that women are under pressure from their families and community. Despite all their intellectual qualities and other issues, they try to obey the eyes of the men of the family and his considerations so that no problems arise in their family life.
Sheesha Media: We have our problems in society. But in these twenty years, we had an excellent environment for women who became prominent [role models for others]. The law officially defended women, the constitution provided a special place for women, and we had a powerful presence of the international community who came to Afghanistan with values that protected women’s rights and supported and empowered them, and launched grand plans and projects in women’s support.
Women who were representing Afghan women were not few. But as far as it can be seen, most of these women used the opportunities they got to strengthen their interests and individual status and took care of some trifle part of their responsibilities. Let me ask if you have ever seen any movement to build institutions from these representatives for women. Has it ever happened that a few women sat together, discussed significant issues of women in society, and concluded that we could not deal with these issues without building institutions or creating powerful institutions? Women went to the parliament, were present in the cabinet, and took positions in various other national and international organizations. Still, did anyone ask that all these are shallow values that may be taken away with a bit of change? Did anyone say now that we have power and opportunity, we should do something to strengthen the roots of our values and achievements in the state and within society? Have you ever witnessed women who claim to represent women spend time on these issues? You were present in women’s circles. Did such discussions ever come up in these gatherings? Has anyone ever said what we should do if the Taliban return and the harshness on women increases? If the religious forces grow in power, how should we respond? Did anyone raise the question of what to do if one day we don’t have the support of the international community and face pressure as a woman? I would like to ask you whether such discussions were raised at all in women’s circles and did you witness such a discussion.
Bakhtari: Look, there are a few issues that I would like to say more clearly. First, women are not a separate body of the Afghan community. Women are the product of this society, and they face the ruptures, polarizations, and developments that hurt the overall development of Afghanistan. It was not as if women were safe from these damages and could act carefree. On the other hand, in Afghanistan, an elite class of women was created, which included a particular group of women. By the way, I was not part of this group. Maybe others consider me a member of that group, but I don’t consider myself one of them. Because, as you mentioned, and we often witnessed it in public circles and gatherings, I was not prominent enough in any of them, neither in the international community nor in Afghan society. It is a fact. Maybe they were a little familiar with my name in literary and intellectual circles. Still, I do not consider myself to belong to that elite group of women, and it is not true that my name is sometimes included in that group.
This elite political group of women that arose, like other elite groups in male gatherings, were almost all of the same type and did not differ from each other. They were created in a specific context due to interactions, demands, interests, and special programs and were promoted and supported. In the end, the impact and result of their work were not remarkably different from other male political elites in the society. I was never present in the circles you mentioned, nor did I witness their discussions. I don’t have any judgment about them whether the big questions you mentioned were raised in their process or not. I don’t know exactly what their answer will be.
Regarding the issue of the Taliban, I think there was a general ignorance in society. There was a denial, an oversight, and an ignorance that took us all down to the same degree. Even though the Taliban were always everywhere, we denied the reality of their presence and ignored it. We witnessed the suicide attacks of the Taliban. We saw that the Taliban had grown organically in the universities of Afghanistan, and we had professors who supported the Taliban during their lectures. We had students who were from the Taliban and studied at Kabul University and other universities carrying the message, flag, and words of the Taliban.
All of these existed in Afghanistan, but in reality, no one took them seriously. Neither the statesmen, the politicians, the factions against the government, nor the opposition, none of them looked at these significant facts as a warning and a threat. They all had the impression that the international community would be here forever and the international community would forever support modern values. Mostly fake values, with a small amount being practical. No one thought that such a day was coming, and when it came, the Talib would rule with a whip and a ‘fatwa’.
The fact is that a real all-around women’s movement in Afghanistan never came, despite the opportunities you mentioned. There was no relationship between elite women and women who lived in villages and cities. Unfortunately, there was a deep gap between these two groups. Women’s rights were often discussed in a political and project form. There was no organic connection between women’s institutions and the general women.
On the other hand, we should also consider that society is a set of interconnected phenomena. If the legislative institutions, executive institutions, security institutions, and the whole society do not work in a coordinated manner, one group alone cannot advance in anything. In the last twenty years, there has been a conflict of ideas, even among politicians, regarding women’s rights. This contradiction was seen among high-rated officials. For example, we had most of the achievements regarding women’s rights during the rule of Hamid Karzai. Still, Mr. Karzai himself never involved his wife in any political or social matters in a symbolic way.
Let’s not forget that at that time, Mr. Karzai was a symbol of the will and desire of the Afghan people for change and reform. Not only Hamid Karzai but also other Afghan politicians acted in the same way, and their wives did not get involved in the political issues, even as a symbolic gesture. Despite the many advances we made during that period, this was the case. According to Oriana Fallaci, a famous Italian journalist, when politics requires government institutions to show themselves in favor of women’s rights, all cultural institutions and government organizations also position themselves as supporters of equality, and even politicians declare it as their red line. But when this situation breaks, we see that, in reality, they do not have such a way of thinking.
This contradiction caused the failure of our struggles, movements and the unsuccessful journey of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Of course, I don’t mean to criticize only women, and it is unfair to blame women for these failures. You see that most of the media and most of the institutions that worked for women were still somehow managed by men. A media called “Zan” [woman] was created, but the Managing director, deputy, and its reporters were all men.
Sheesha Media: Anyway, we had very influential and famous women who were not constrained by the role of men in places where they were responsible. These women were in the government and civil society, and they represented Afghanistan in international circles. My point is, did these women realize that they are facing a situation in the patrimonial community of Afghanistan and should not lose themselves to these external luxuries? Did this question become an essential point among you, and did someone raise it? If so, what were the effects? And if not, what do you think is the reason? Do you consider this a defect or not?
Afghan women should realize that if they once again have a space and a field to work in, they should stop busying themselves with shallow work. The same question is also raised before the Afghan civil society. They also had many opportunities, but they missed them. They got busy with power games, and then they realized that they were fake and had no basis. I want to hear the same thing from your mouth about women.
The Taliban are the force that has polarized Afghan society for the first time: one pole for women and one pole for men. Afghan men may be under the pressure of the Taliban, but this pressure is different from the pressure that has drastically bent the stature of women in Afghanistan. You want to talk about this 50% group of society and again follow women’s participation in the four layers that I said before, in a strategic way, that is, to stabilize and institutionalize their physical presence, and raise their voice and make it audible, make them a partner in the decision-making arena as well as in the action context. To illustrate these four aspects of participation in a strategic way, do you think you will address them in your new round?
Bakhtari: Your sayings are very accurate. Yes, there was this defect. This deficiency existed seriously, and Afghan women could have used the opportunities better than this, which unfortunately did not happen. However, I still believe that it would be cruel if we didn’t mention the brilliant achievements of women, the role they played in development, and the progress they made in all fields despite the limitations and obstacles they had. The fact that today there is a generation of knowledgeable and educated women in society deserves praise and happiness and cannot be denied. These are the result of collective efforts, including the efforts of Afghan women; Women who were in parliament, women who were in government, and women who were in non-governmental organizations.
Women also played a significant role in non-governmental organizations such as the media. The influence that Afghan women had in the media led to a good change. However, Afghan women are a part of the Afghan society, the product of this society, and alone, they cannot break the narrative in Afghanistan.
Women alone could not prevent the Taliban’s advancements. They could not prevent the structural and discriminatory violence of the Taliban. With all this, I agree that all the people of Afghanistan, including women, had responsibilities they did not take care of well. They had positions and privileges that they did not use well. For this reason, they are responsible for the failure we are facing.
Sheesha Media: I want to ask your opinion about one of the biggest challenges that Afghan society is facing, which is violence and extremism. Let’s start with your definition of violence. In terms of culture, in terms of religious beliefs, and terms of conditions, and economic relationships, what are the origins of violence in Afghan society that is so explicit and cruel?
Bakhtari: Providing a comprehensive definition of violence is a difficult task for me. If I were to define it, I would say that violence is any behavior, speech, or thought that harms another person. This is a general definition of violence, and it is natural that violence has different types and may have different definitions depending on different issues.
In general, I think one type of violence is temporary violence that occurs due to immediate or psychological problems at a specific moment. The perpetrator of this type of violence does not do it based on a way of thinking or a mental structure and is more of a reaction to a situation or a specific situation in a specific context.
But the violence that has a structural root has an intellectual basis and happens based on a plan, a specific mentality, and thinking is violence against humanity and violence against people. For example, violence against women is structural violence that exists in the thinking of the individual and society, and it happens based on certain prejudices. Rather than having a reactive and psychological aspect, it occurs as a conscious and voluntary action.
Naturally, this kind of violence is influenced by various issues, and its effects are vast and multidimensional. The roots of this kind of violence can be seen in ignorance, lack of knowledge and common sense, illiteracy, religious thinking, social structures, and also a legacy that is passed from one generation to another in the form of an accepted social tradition. At the same time, war and crisis, which on the one hand, are the result of violent beliefs and platforms, in turn, both create and strengthen a violent culture.
Afghanistan is a country that has been plagued by indiscriminate violence for hundreds of years in its recent history. For forty-four years, our country has lived in an atmosphere of total war and violence. Violence and crisis have always existed in Afghanistan. Still, in the last half-century, the people have been the victim of a full-scale war that has had a devastating effect on collective behavior.
In regards to women, this matter becomes a little more serious. In the society of Afghanistan, women are facing violence of all types. This violence can be temporary, intellectual, and structural. This means that this violence exists both in the custom and culture of the society and the power structures. The existence of violence in power has turned people irresponsible against women, and no one faces restrictions and threats after being violent against women. Unfortunately, there has not been necessary and sufficient awareness regarding violence in Afghanistan.
When a man in Afghan society commits violence against his wife, sister, or daughter, he considers this act as an obvious action in his mind. He considers his action more of a normal and natural action to exercise control and fulfill his desires. He thinks it is his right, and in many cases, he does not define it as violence. For this reason, I consider violence against women as structural violence, a normal phenomenon in Afghanistan.
Well, structural violence in Afghanistan is a very important factor in all fields, especially in the field of women’s studies. At certain times, many structures, from the law to law-enforcement institutions to the executive branch and political institutions, are all against women. Some people may justify this violence and attribute it to culture, tradition, and religious beliefs. But let’s not forget that the justification of violence is also a type of violence that appears as software.
Let me give an example here. In Afghanistan’s civil law, a girl’s running away from home is legally considered a crime. While in human societies, young boys and girls naturally leave their families at their own will and live with someone else or alone. But based on what I call structural violence in Afghanistan, this act is culturally considered a sin for an Afghan girl and legally a crime and is punishable. The punishment for this act is a prison, killing, or stoning. This violence is very deep and structural. Many girls were in jail in Afghanistan for running away from home, and perhaps many of these girls are still in prison. Behavioral and verbal violence has been institutionalized in Afghanistan in such a way that sometimes even speaking about it is considered abnormal.
Sheesha Media: Regarding the examples of violence, especially concerning women, and its consequences and effects, we will go back to the political history of Afghanistan in more detail. As you said, we have had a history full of violence, a part of which goes back to the history of the whole human race, but when it comes to Afghan society, it finds more specific aspects.
Until the victory of the People’s Democratic Party, we had violence in society. But this violence was monopolized by the government. We had a palace [Arg] that symbolically dominated violence. No one outside the palace had the right to use violence. It was the palace that had police and prisons to suppress criminals and mute people’s voices, and manage everything from a central point. Outside the circle of the authority of the palace, if someone committed violence, they would have been prosecuted and punished in a particular hierarchy of power.
What happened with the coup of the People’s Democratic Party was that the revolutionaries attacked the Palace, broke its walls, and two days later, symbolically opened its doors and named it People’s House. All the people could enter the palace and look closely at the horrible house. You probably also have memories from this era might remember the scenes. When the palace gate was opened for the first time, it was a massive event for the people of Afghanistan, who felt they were entering an exhibition or a museum. Before that, people thought the palace was a mysterious house where everything was violently thrown out. But no one knew what was going on inside. The People’s Democratic Party opened this gate, and the people visited the palace. Thanks to the violence of the People’s Democratic Party, the lives and secrets of the residents of the palace were also exposed. For example, for the first time, people saw blood clots in the walls of the palace. These blood clots belonged to the royal family. Or they saw pieces of meat on the branches of the tree. The People’s Democratic Party had not erased any traces and signs of violence that happened in the rooms and corridors of the palace.
When the People’s Democratic Party symbolically brought the people into Arg and took them out again, Arg also lost the grandeur it evoked due to the monopoly of violence. After the people left the gate of Arg, they carried and spread the violence on accounts of every individual in the mass.
After that, throughout Afghanistan, no one was unfamiliar with the taboo of violence. Violence spread like a plague in all the alleys, back alleys, villages, and towns of Afghanistan. After that day, we spent 40 or 44 years in widespread and continuous violence that was expanding daily. Now we see that the Taliban are back and trying to monopolize the violence again. They seem not to allow anyone other than themselves to fight, discriminate, and be hostile to women or fight against freedom of expression. Perhaps one of the only manifestations of the Taliban government is their struggle and thirst to monopolize violence in society.
Now I want to review your memories and personal experiences from this point of view. As a woman, do you feel that the male culture and perspective in Afghan society play a role in promoting and strengthening violence? How do you think we can find an antidote to this violence by expanding and deepening the presence and participation of women? How can we fight it by showing the streaks of violence in the culture and patrimonial view of society?
We should show the absence of women and say that the more this absence becomes prominent in society, the more violence will increase. On the contrary, the more and more profound the participation of women, the less violence we witness. When the presence of women increases, the level of violence ends; When the voice of women is heard in society, it reduces the burden of violence of the male voice; When women are involved in decision-making, decisions will be more compassionate and tolerant, and the level of violence in the policies and actions of rulers will decrease. In the same way, when women are present in the field of action, the acts of violence that take a legal color are reduced.
Now, when we see Afghan society from this point of view, we see a particular model of violence that is rarely seen in other communities. Looking more closely, we see that this widespread violence is closely related to the absence of women from the spheres of collective life. On the other hand, when we see the history of different societies, we realize that in each society, to the extent that the presence and participation of women increases, the graph of violence decreases relatively, and the graph of development increases. On the contrary, in any society where the participation of women falls, the graph of violence becomes somewhat higher, and the development cycle becomes slower.
In the Afghan society, which is now in the hands of the Taliban, we see that the violence has reached the peak of its growth, and the development is almost zero. You don’t see any movement towards development. I would like to ask that from your point of view, as a woman with a particular feminine view, not a discriminatory and harmful view against men, but with an independent and different view of a woman, what image can be understood? Do you think that this view, from this particular aspect, leads you to a remarkable reflection on the presence and participation of women?
Bakhtari: Well, if you don’t mind, let me say that I disagreed with one part of your analysis when you said that violence became common in Afghan society when the gates of Arg were opened. I will talk more about this later. But before that, I want to say that the essence of power is corruption. The concentration of power in one group or institution is corrupting and causes violence and various other structural problems at the level of society.
I refer to a book I like very much, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. Throughout the story he narrates in the book, he describes and explains the relationship between power and corruption that comes as a result of belonging to power beautifully and wonderfully. It is a human trait and instinct that when power and sovereignty are concentrated in one person or a small group, violence, dictatorship, and monogamy rise too. At the same time, various forms of violence in society are also created due to the concentration of power in one group or the hands of one person. This phenomenon existed in all empires, kingdoms, and governments of the world and still exists. There have been countries that, by creating a particular structure and order in society, have tried to organize the power and make it the norm and prevent violence from its origins. On the other hand, these countries have created mechanisms and procedures to control the power that has helped curb violence.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, has never reached this position. From here, I will express my opinion about the opening of the gates of Arg and the violence committed by the People’s Democratic Party against Dawood Khan’s family. I want to say that violence existed in the society of Afghanistan before that in a horrible way. In the villages of Afghanistan, the way the peasants were exploited, the way women and the weaker sections were oppressed, and the way children were beaten and harassed were all examples of violence common in society.
It is true that during the era of Abdul Rahman Khan, Nader Khan, the reign of Zahir Shah, especially in the first twenty years of his reign, when the government was mainly in the hands of his uncles, we witnessed terrible prisons, killings, and torture that happened by the royal family and by the order of their rulers. But along with it, exploitation, tyranny, and violence were widespread throughout Afghan society and were deposited in the same way in the layers of the society. We had a culture of violence that was not specific to the family or monarchy. The way of education or the way Afghan families treat their children is a clear example of violence. Therefore, there was violence before the “Sawr” coup.
Sheesha Media: Anyway, I mostly meant that before the “Hafte Sawr” coup, we had the royal system, which symbolically said that violence is our monopoly, and if others do violence, it is based on the permission we give.
For example, we allow a landlord who has the right to be violent against the peasant [up to the extent we permit]; But if violence exceeds the acceptable amount, we will break the neck of the owner and the lord. Or for example, Mullah is allowed to be violent to a certain extent. When he wants to act beyond that, he must ask permission from the king. But the violence was generally under the control of the royal family and was carried out by them. If we consider violence in the form of a pyramid, the top of the pyramid was in the hands of the royal family. Then, it was the monarchical system that spread violence across the bottom line of the society according to its will and gave each section and each layer the right to use specific levels of violence.
I would like to refer you to the fact that the People’s Democratic Party symbolically broke the royal family and collapsed the walls of Arg. After this action, violence became common in general society. Anyone had access to a gun they were not allowed to have before. Anyone had the right to kill. Together with violence, hatred and extremism became common in society. We have been in this trend for over 43 years, and we see the community suffering from an epidemic of violence. The Taliban have also followed this path and are trying to monopolize violence again and transfer the right to use violence to the government.
Let me have your opinion as part of a female perspective on this issue. It is true that throughout history, the structures of society have moved with the concentration of power. But when you want to find a solution to distribute power and curb violence, you must show concrete examples in certain places. One is that when the power is divided between men and women, the concentration of power is lost, and the graph of violence goes down by itself. We can see that in every society where women’s participation has been implemented, the graph of violence has gone down. This does not mean there is no violence in countries where women participate. But when you consider the countries comparatively, you see that whenever gender equality in favor of women is observed in the legal system of a government, the graph of violence in the country is much less than in a society like Afghanistan, in which, from the beginning, women are crashed within a structured framework. I would like to have your opinion in more detail.
Bakhtari: Well, you said that violence was taken away from the monopoly of a small group and fell into the hands of the mass. I say that the war started primarily, and in every war that occurs, there is naturally a violent tool to impose ideas and policies with excessive use of power. In Afghanistan, the violence that existed before spread more broadly and brutally in all layers of the community. You are correct that in the past, due to the fear of the system and the government, even if people wanted to, they still did not resort to violence. But after the People’s Democratic Party came to power, for both them and their opposing factions, violence became an everyday practice. It was during this period that the cells of Pole Charkhi prison were filled with thousands of people who were brutally killed and thrown into pits, and soil was poured over them with bulldozers. This was the violence that was applied by the ruling system.
On the other hand, rocket firing, attacks on military forces, and attacks on cities by Mujahideen were other examples of violence. Apart from what was the justification for each side, the violence became widespread throughout the community.
Naturally, a part of this violence, or a sharper arrow of this violence, was directed against women. Because when war and violence become common in society, women and children are the primary victims of the disaster. In the same way, whenever there is a natural disaster and crisis, famine and hunger, or policies and government changes, the first group to suffer is women. In a violent environment, women are the main targets of all tragedies, from rape to exploitation and trafficking and other oppressions. Similarly, in environmental crises, when the environment is damaged, women are the first to suffer.
In Afghanistan, as you said, when violence became common and was widely deposited in the layers of society, the country was known as “the most dangerous country for women”. In all these periods, opposition to the presence, participation, and role of women became a general rule. You have already explained well that in many periods of Afghanistan’s history, there was no serious opposition to the presence of women. For example, a woman could be a teacher or a low-ranking employee. But in the traditional approach of Afghan society, women were deprived of expressing their voice and being involved in the decision-making platforms. Such a mentality and attitude helped to create violence and promote violent tools in society, which was finally handed as a gift over to the Taliban.
With terrorist attacks, the Taliban imposed the most severe examples of violence on society. With these attacks, they dominated the minds of the people with their terrifying image. Taliban rule is based on fear, hatred, and violence. Today, the people of Afghanistan are afraid of the Taliban, such that an unarmed Talib soldier is capable of arresting, imprisoning, and persecuting large groups of people with physical violence without anyone saying anything or being held accountable. In the last twenty years, the Taliban have scared the people with their violent tools, and today they want all the tools of violence to be under their control.
Of course, every government wants to have the means of violence in its monopoly. In the scientific and modern justification of the word, this act is referred to as a “legitimate monopoly of violence”. In democratic societies, the limits of the legitimacy and use of violence are determined by democratic law. For this reason, violence has a preventive role to a large extent, rather than being used in a way for the benefit of consolidating authority or the foundations of government. The Taliban government, by any standard, is not considered among the rule-oriented and democratic governments. This government treats people with naked and irregular violence without the slightest sense of shame or accountability.
To be more precise, the Taliban have made violence common, acceptable, and unaccountable among all members of their group by destroying the democratic structure of the government. To express my point, I would like to give an example: the girls who protested peacefully in the first months of the Taliban’s rule for their fundamental rights, such as the right to education, the right to work, and the right to travel freely, were faced with the boundless violence of the Taliban. Some of these girls and women were arbitrarily arrested, jailed, and oppressed. Some were utterly lost, and nobody got any news about them. Of course, families do not talk about this. Undoubtedly, we all know the reason. This violence has severely damaged the entire society of Afghanistan, especially women.
In Afghanistan, although all the citizens have suffered, men have social status up to some extent. Most men have not lost their jobs and are employed in a different format. Men have not lost their business and can join men’s gatherings. Men can give interviews on television and express their opinions. The amount of violence against women is not used against men in any way.
During the first period of Taliban rule, I witnessed their treatment of women. Of course, I spent most of that time in Pakistan. For a short time, when I was in Afghanistan, I witnessed the Taliban hitting women’s feet with a machete, questioning women’s clothing, and closing schools, colleges, universities, and all places for girls. All these are detailed and deep examples of violence. Now the Taliban have come back to power with the same attitude and the same behavior. Again, although Afghan women are defenseless victims of this violence, they, unfortunately, are not supported by the men of society. The international community does not seriously protect them, and practically nothing is done to defend their rights.
In the country, not only are women not supported but also being marginalized more and more by the narratives put in front of them with the names of evil women and dishonorable women. They are forced to sit in the corners of the house and kill their voice, desires, and dreams. Keeping women at home and eliminating their presence in society is a clear example of violence, the continuation of which causes irreparable damage to women.
During this period of Taliban, my family and I are out of Afghanistan. We are not direct victims of Taliban violence. But indirectly, our lives, work, and plans have been badly affected. I have suffered from the rule of the Taliban, and I think my life will never be the same after August 15, 2021. Even when I smile and when I need to be happy, I still feel sadness, homelessness, and suffering. I understand with all my flesh and skin all the violence the Taliban is doing against Afghan women today. I am indeed in a safe place in terms of physical presence, and I am not a victim of violence. I do not directly experience the anger Afghan women have and the pain that women and girls face inside. But, anyway, in the position and capacity I am in, I think I am a part of this fight, and I want to continue it.
Women’s desirable participation in the future
Sheesha Media: One of the ways to deal with the harsh and discriminatory culture of the Taliban against women is to raise the issue of women’s participation more concretely. It is often asked why we should talk about the symbolic presence of women. For example, the symbolic percentage of women in parliament, government circles, and public gatherings has been criticized. I would like to ask your opinion on this matter.
Women’s physical participation, however, is the essential stage of participation. Participation cannot be practiced when you are not present – even in a symbolic way. Participation is not subjective or abstract. When we say women should participate, we mean they should be present. After ensuring their physical presence, the discussion of meaningful presence is raised. A woman should have her say, be heard, and have the stage to talk. Now, if you want to start from this very primary stage, one of your wishes should be to ensure the physical presence of women. If a movement is started by women who want to start women’s participation from their physical presence, will you join it? For example, if this movement wants women to have a 50% physical presence, do you support their call? When a meeting is held, even if it is symbolic, 50% of women should be present; if we form a cabinet, 50% of women should be included. Do you follow such a demand or reject it as a radical question? Will you support this demand as a positive struggle for women’s participation, or do you believe that these discussions are too far and the debate of 50% participation in all fields is not practical and should not be raised?
Bakhtari: By the way, I don’t make matters gender-related. I think all the country’s citizens have the right to participate in society, politics, culture, and economy and to be involved and participate in an institution according to their capabilities and competencies. But if we propose, for example, 50% of men and 50% of women everywhere, in my opinion, it is neither practical nor correct. It is good that we give more importance to merit.
According to the constitution of Afghanistan, positive points were given to women in parliamentary and provincial council elections. According to this positive point, more than thirty-two percent of women were elected to parliament and provincial councils. I was in favor of this positive discrimination. When this positive discrimination is included in the laws, according to the history of the traditional society of Afghanistan, it has sound effects. It leads to strengthening the role and participation of women.
Note that the facilities and opportunities are unequal in society, and there is no proportion between the number of educated men and women. Therefore, it is good to have positive points. But this theory and approach that 50% of women and 50% of men should be observed in all fields is not a logical policy, in my opinion.
Sheesha Media: I want to challenge you on the same matter from the perception of a woman. Let’s be careful that concepts related to human rights affect social relations. When we raise the issue of people’s rights in a public way, we open the possibility of its abuse. This is a feature of general concepts that powerful and deceitful people can easily misuse and manipulate. For example, you say that the participation of all Afghan citizens should be demonstrated. These same citizens are divided into men and women in a big classification. It logically means that a person has equal rights as a citizen wherever he is. Naturally, wherever there is a boy, there must also be a girl. Where there is a man, there must be a woman. Here, why should we refer to a wholly concrete and objective issue as an abstract concept and raise the issue of merit?
It is good to consider the reality of society. It is not your or my wish to raise the issue of 50% of men and women. Society is practically made up of 50% men and 50% women or something like that. When the issue of citizenship rights is raised, the example is that this right should reach men and women equally. This is not a question of expertise to do specialized and technical work. The issue is the right to citizenship. For example, the right to study, work, make decisions and use opportunities and facilities that affect the growth of a person in society. The discussion of expertise is entirely separate. When doing a particular task, you go logically and leave things to the experts. But the leadership discussion is the discussion of participation in social relations. The discussion of citizenship rights is the discussion of using opportunities and privileges. If you discuss meritocracy here, you will never provide the ground for the growth and fertility of women’s talent and human capacity. The dominant culture of the society is patriarchal. In this culture, men are the ones who determine the final limit and say that women’s participation is necessary or not necessary to this extent.
I consider the concept of the non-practicality of the citizenship rights of women or disadvantaged minorities as a type of exploitation by authoritarian and monopolistic circles, who, with this reasoning, open the way for the continuation of the process of usurping the rights of the weak and powerless sections of society. If you mention these expressions and terms, you are preparing the ground for the continuation of what you call structural discrimination against women. It is based on the discriminatory culture that they say that our society cannot accept the participation of 50 percent of women. Why should we obey this culture?
You brought up the example of Hamid Karzai. He opened a school for Afghan girls, gave women the right to be in the cabinet or parliament, appointed you as an ambassador, and appointed Dr. Sima Samar as the head of the Independent Human Rights Commission. Still, he did not want anyone to hear the voice of Zeenat Karzai [his wife] or see her picture. Here, Karzai followed the cultural traditions and values of the tribe and said that, for example, his wife was different from Manizha Bakhtari. Here you should stand against Karza and say that the issue of women’s rights also includes the issue of Zeenat Karzai’s rights, and he should recognize these rights and observe them in all areas of participation for Zeenat Karzai.
I want to separate the discussion of women’s citizenship rights from any general and abstract issue and turn it into a prominent point with examples for each person. Do not refer the discussion of citizenship rights to the framework of Sharia. They interpret Sharia from a male point of view and say that according to Sharia, women should stay at home or not reveal their ornaments to men. The meaning of this plain and simple word is that women should not talk about their citizenship rights, which are entirely objective and concrete.
I think the challenging question for you, as a woman who wants equal rights for men and women, is to set an example for women to participate alongside men. Based on this question, why doesn’t women’s participation mean 50% physical presence wherever there is a discussion of decision-making and leadership and benefiting from opportunities and facilities? Why do you say you don’t feel comfortable with this concept? Why don’t you consider this demand reasonable and practical? Can you explain a little more about it?
Bakhtari: Well, regarding the issue you raise, I think we agree on the principle of the issue, but we disagree on the details. I think the 50-50 debate is a misleading one. Maybe in a place where women contribute 70%, and men contribute 30%. The primary and significant issue is that in specialized institutions, the discussion of percentage distribution is irrelevant. For example, in judicial institutions where the debate is entirely specialized, if the issue of 50% participation is raised, should the judicial seats remain empty as there are practically no competent female staff? Suppose women experts in judicial affairs are not present. In that case, we cannot bring some women who have not studied law, do not have judicial expertise, and are not judges and include them in judicial institutions and positions.
Sheesha Media: Well, from a practical point of view, it may not be possible in the current situation of Afghan society, but from a theoretical point of view, do you want to have a judiciary that includes 50% women?
Bakhtari: Yes, I want. I want equal roles and participation of women in all matters, like the issue of leadership and participation, just as every other citizen of Afghanistan, regardless of gender. If they do not have an equal presence in leadership and governance, the women’s point of view and specific demands of women will not be raised. In the same way, if we do not have women at the leadership level with equal participation and role in the legislative field and executive structures, women’s rights will not be secured. Without a doubt, I want active and meaningful participation. At the same time, I emphasize that Afghan society needs to work more and more to ensure fair and meaningful participation of all its citizens, including women.
Suppose that the Taliban are not in power right now and we are still in the republic time. With this premise, in my opinion, first of all, education for more girls in school should be provided, women’s presence in the education system should be promoted, more girls should go to school, and more girls should reach the level of academic education. In Afghan society, even before the Taliban, almost eighty percent of the girls who graduated from school did not get access to higher education. Either they did not want to continue due to social and cultural pressure and restrictions, or their families did not allow them. Let’s remember that in Afghanistan, the role of motherhood and family formation is considered very important for women. Girls in Afghanistan usually get married at the same age that a person enters higher education, between the ages of sixteen and twenty.
I want real work to be done in this field. Many girls should go to school. A large number of them find their way to universities, and another large number of girls come to specialized departments and fill the ranks of leadership, management, and employment. If this capacity does not exist, we will face problems by raising the issue of 50% participation and the presence of women. First, we have to create its capacity so that we can reach 50% later.
Sheesha Media: Excellent. You raised a good point, and that is, if the participation of women and girls in all areas of collective life is to be meaningful, it should start with education as the first step. Education is the foundation of equal participation. In human rights, education is one of the most fundamental human rights. You can institutionalize individual human rights through education. Based on this matter, the Taliban consciously oppose the education of girls. The Taliban know that by educating girls, the concept of girls’ individuality is raised. When the idea of individuality is increased, it will be followed by the concept of the human rights of each individual. Then, the discussion of their presence, voice, will, decision, and action will highlight. If the debate on the human rights of women and girls is approached more pragmatically, the participation of 50% of women and girls should start from the education of girls and women. This right must be protected. In the current situation, the biggest challenge that the Taliban face is girls’ education. Do you believe that in the women’s movement, girls’ education should be the basis of women’s participation and make this a strategic matter in society?
Bakhtari: Undoubtedly, yes. I think education is not the most important but the most critical factor in realizing women’s rights. Everything starts with education. It starts from the official lesson, when girls gather in a class, study, shape their thoughts, and own a profession and material income, and this is where the right is secured.
I think girls’ education can be opposed to the Taliban’s authority in several ways. Firstly, girls become empowered and thinkers through school and education. Secondly, educated and enlightened women have critical wisdom and the power of questioning. They support justice and equality and do not accept slavery and subjugation. On the other hand, women gain economic empowerment through education and higher education. Women who have economic empowerment are included in decisions in family and community relations in a dignified manner. Naturally, economic empowerment and education provide the basis for their participation in macro-society decisions, political decisions, legislation, and culture building. In this way, their participation is embodied in intellectual and practical dimensions.
After August 15, 2021, when Afghan women and girls could not work or go to school, they also lost their opportunities for education, activity, and contribution to the future. This aspect of the adverse effects of stopping girls’ education is not summarized in the scale of one year and does not remain as a short period. In the following years, we would not have girls entering university and academic studies because girls’ schools are closed. If we consider the circle of education as the cycle of women’s progress, the Taliban has paralyzed this cycle from one part, which is closing schools.
It is true that several universities still accept women and girls, and they study in these centers. But the educational sequence has been interrupted due to girls being excluded from school. When girls cannot go to school and have access to education, their other rights are violated. When women’s rights are not addressed in a normative sequence and women do not benefit from all their rights, claiming that there are many women in the police or how many women work in the health sector does not mean the development of Afghanistan.
Let me add that if the Taliban open girls’ schools even today, this sequence will still be lost. When women don’t have the right to travel freely, when women don’t have the right to travel alone, when women can’t study in the fields they want, when women can’t work in certain places, and when for a woman raising children, housekeeping training, and religious education are considered more important than anything else even scientific subjects, all of these causes women’s progress to be affected and damaged for several generations.
The Taliban have closed all the ways of progress and development of women with their policies. Again, suppose we assume that we are even in a fragile situation similar to the previous system, and there are still opportunities. In that case, these opportunities should be provided for women, and the field of education and thinking should be provided for them. The political forces of the society are obliged to pay attention to the fundamental roots of the problems of Afghan women and consider a general and all-encompassing plan for all Afghan women by examining all points. There should be an organized and regular relationship between elite women, urban women, and women who live in villages so that it gradually becomes a nationwide women’s movement.
Even though we have talked many times about the national women’s movement and claimed that there was a women’s movement in Afghanistan, we must admit that, unfortunately, with the definitions and components of a movement, such a thing did not emerge in Afghanistan. Of course, the valuable voices and protests that several girls formed in the first months of the Taliban’s rise to power in the streets were muted by the brutal violence of the Taliban, and this movement was once again polarized. Even now, there is the same division between the women who are inside Afghanistan and the women who are outside Afghanistan and have a platform to ask for justice. From a practical point of view, it is currently difficult to create a regular sequence and relationship. Of course, it is not impossible, but it is not easy either. In the meeting of the so-called Islamic scholars held in Kabul, a large number of Afghan women expected those who consider themselves religious scholars and religious elites of the society to seriously discuss the resumption of schools and the education of girls and emphasize the importance of girls’ lessons. However, no kind of attention, wisdom, and reasoning was seen in this regard.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell me why you expected this? For example, on what basis did you expect the Taliban or the mullahs who participated in the Taliban Jirga to defend women’s rights, status, and participation?
Bakhtari: It was a very unreasonable expectation. According to the past policies and the view that this so-called religious group had towards women, we should not have had any expectation from them to come and support girls’ education. Your sayings are accurate. However, when you are in an emergency, you feel that you are rooted somewhere, and some people have impacts on your roots, you hope for every good deed and try to keep your hope alive. Maybe it was for this reason that we thought that in the jirga or meeting that will be held in Kabul, there would be people who would warn the Taliban about their wrong policies towards women and at least insist that girls’ schools should be opened.
I want to emphasize again that our insistence is on the opening of girls’ schools, and we hope that the schools will open soon, But it is clear that simply opening girls’ schools will not solve the problems and is not enough by itself. When the educational curriculum is not appropriate, when girls do not have the opportunity to advance to higher classes, go to higher education, study in their desired fields, and do not have their other freedoms and rights in society, the opening of schools for girls does not bring any fundamental change in society. With all of these concerns, I am again in favor of opening girls’ schools. As soon as the girls leave the house, go to school, gather and sit in the classroom, it is an active and essential act. I have gained a part of my understanding and knowledge from my discussions back in my school days, therefore, opening schools for girls is outstanding, but it is not enough.
The amendment of the Constitution
Sheesha Media: It seems we are facing a situation in Afghanistan where we have lost all the attachments and interconnecting links as a nation. We do not have a common culture, common language, shared history, and shared destiny. We do not have an ideology that can connect people from different strata and regions. There are only two things left that can bring the people of Afghanistan together: one is the geography that is still valid in the official international format with the map of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s neighbors have respected this official geography, at least so far. The second thing that binds the people of Afghanistan together is the Constitution. In the past twenty years, the constitution was a relative bonding factor between many Afghan people. Of course, some criticized parts of the constitution. But there was almost a general agreement that this law was a document to create a social contract in society. We can bring the people of our land together around a social contract based on a constitutional document.
The Taliban have put these uniting factors in danger. They have officially declared the constitution abrogated and did not recognize it at all, so we no longer have a legal document representing the social contract between the people of Afghanistan. At the same time, with the violence carried out by the Taliban and the policy they have adopted, they have prepared the ground for us to lose our shared geography. It is possible that if the Taliban violence continues, groups will be found in different corners of the country and announce geographical separation. For instance, the geographical separation of Badakhshan, Faryab, Hazara regions, Nuristan, Kunar, or Khost. With the repressive system the Taliban have created, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to keep all of Afghanistan united with an iron fist and maintain this geography.
Therefore, the danger of disintegration and collapse threaten Afghanistan. The knowledgeable generation of Afghanistan also faces this big challenge. The generation that claims a national identity for themselves and believes that we are presented with this same identity at the global level. The generation that says they are residents of Afghanistan and their destiny is tied to Afghanistan. Anyway, the Taliban have monopolized our geography and controlled it de facto. But we have the constitution as a symbolic document. We can reach a relative agreement again on this constitution. But certainly, this law [the constitution] had loopholes that caused our government to become the most corrupt government in the world and prepared the ground for the return of the Taliban. An incident could not prevent.
Now we have to see which parts of this law were questionable and defective and how we can remove these defects from the law. I would like to ask you two questions: first, do you think that the constitution can become the basis of a renewed social contract between the people of Afghanistan in the future and that we should work on it? Second, if you believe in this document, what gaps do you see from the position of a woman, and a female civil activist, that you feel should be corrected so that we do not face an experience like the return of the Taliban or the failure of the previous government again?
Bakhtari: I believe that the Constitution, as a valid national guarantee and accepted by all Afghan people, is a vital document that can save Afghanistan and ensure equality and prosperity for all. The key to solving Afghanistan’s current problems, I think, is to believe in and adhere to the rights of citizens. We must believe in civil rights. We should get out of tribalism, throw away the ethnic-based identity and achieve the citizenship identity. We need to respect the citizenship rights of every Afghan by preserving and respecting the cultural values and symbols of every group and by preserving all cultures, language, and values. To achieve this goal, we need a national bond or a national document, which is the constitution. The Taliban are the only group that governs a country without a constitution and laws. The entire government revolves around the orders and conversations of a so-called “Amirul Momineen”.
It is necessary to have a constitution for Afghanistan. In the past twenty years, we had a constitution. Based on this principal law, we set other laws and managed international relations, relations with neighbors, citizenship rights, and other issues. I think this law, even though it guaranteed equal rights for all citizens, had severe loopholes. If we have the chance and luck to work on a new constitution again, I think the most important thing we should consider in the new constitution is the lack of concentration of power.
The centralism and presidential system enshrined in the constitution were part of Afghanistan’s problem. The distinction between the judiciary, legislative, and executive systems was not clearly explained in the constitution. Even the duties of the vice presidents were similar to those of the president’s secretary. The talks that took place at the Bonn conference, based on which the interim government and the transitional government were established, and the constitution was approved, I believe, did not have a correct knowledge base about Afghan society. Division of power was established and accepted based on ethnicity in the Bonn conference, although it was not explicitly stated in the constitution. Division of power based on racial platforms has been the most important factor causing further chaos in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the constitution is the mother law. All other laws passed, compiled, and approved in a country must not conflict with the Constitution. We saw that most of the laws that were in force in Afghanistan were in contradiction with the constitution, and this was another problem that we have seen in the last twenty years. Generally, the laws that are a subset of the constitution in Afghanistan’s legal system are old and outdated. In the past years, opinions were created based on the requirements and demands of a specific period, and they were not effective in the new period and should be seriously reviewed and revised.
Therefore, Afghanistan needs a value-oriented and credible constitution, and I hope that such an opportunity and context will become available so that we can lay the foundation for a new constitution by learning from the mistakes we made in the drafting of our past constitution. As you explained, this is undoubtedly the solution to Afghanistan’s problem. The end of the war, the provision of citizenship rights, and the participation of all citizens without any ethnic, linguistic, gender, or religious discrimination will be provided when we have a sufficient national guarantee for all the people of Afghanistan.
Let me raise another point here: we do not have a standard narrative in Afghanistan regarding some identity and historical issues. Unfortunately, our leaders could not create a standard narrative we can all unite around. Many countries in the world are comprised of different ethnicities. They don’t have historical and cultural diversity based on the narrative they have created; people have been placed together. But this has not happened in Afghanistan. We have to solve this issue while creating a constitution acceptable to the people of Afghanistan. If we fail to do these two things, we will still be in crisis.
Sheesha Media: Now, if we return specifically to the issue of women, in your opinion, what are the gaps in the Afghan constitution in the field of ensuring women’s rights? What points should be considered in the new national pledge [the constitution] to guarantee women’s citizenship rights?
Bakhtari: First, I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer, and I have no legal knowledge. Therefore, I will not be able to assess the constitution like a lawyer. But as a citizen, I think the constitution of Afghanistan had some positive privileges for women. Women’s participation, both in legislative and executive structures, was considered acceptable. Finally, this law gave equal rights to all citizens, and I consider this law to be rich and sound in providing citizenship rights. But despite this modern and value-oriented constitution, we could not have a legal guarantee to secure women’s rights. This has many reasons and factors, including the loophole in the subdivision rules. For example, in family law, the legal equality of men and women is not respected, and there are more privileges for men in inheritance, custody, and various other cases, which leads to the violation of women’s rights. Of course, I accept that the amendment of these laws was time-consuming, and in the last twenty years, this matter was not dealt with in a correct and principled way.
Sheesha Media: I want to ask you a more personal question. As a woman in your current position, how do you see the next five years of Afghanistan regarding women by reviewing the country’s history and the issues that existed in the past? Do you feel there is still room or streaks of hope for positive development concerning women? Hopes that you can convey from this platform to the people of Afghanistan and the women of Afghanistan. Or, on the contrary, you feel hopeless about the future.
Bakhtari: I hope that this situation will change. Tyranny is not eternal. The educated and literate generation, marginalized nowadays, will not remain silent until the end. To prove and justify my optimism, I can mention various factors such as international and regional pressures, the Taliban’s internal erosions and conflicts, and the same capacity and potential that exists in Afghan society and women. Therefore, I don’t think the Taliban will be in power long. But without a doubt, today’s generation suffers a lot of damage. For example, those who were supposed to study today have been deprived of this right. I want to say that we have hope. Hope is not dead in our hearts. However, we do not confine ourselves to only hopes. You can see that we have been working with all our capacities.
When you organize this program [Sheesha Media] and dedicate several hours of your time to it, you are creating a narrative. This is not just a simple talk. It is a type of resistance. It is a kind of struggle that you want to create a narrative for the future of Afghanistan with the help of the collective memory and collective wisdom of the Afghan people. You write history with these talks and conversations. You, I, and everyone in their positions work and convey one message that the Taliban is not the whole reality of Afghanistan. If you think the Taliban is a reality in Afghanistan, don’t neglect other truths in the country.
We are not limited in numbers as there are millions like me.
Another issue is that despite what I said, I grew up in a traditional and religious family. Still, in our family, there was freedom of clothing within the reasonable limits of urban life at that time. Despite our family being traditional, my mother was not wearing a burqa. She was a very fashionable and modern woman. She went out in the same clothing. My sisters and I went to school in the same clothes in childhood and adolescence. We were also a reality of Afghanistan. The number of families similar to us was not limited. At least from my perspective in Kabul city, I can say that there were thousands of other families like us. I could see thousands of other women like me in Kabul.
We went to school, worked, and had as much freedom of participation as there was at that time. Therefore, we were also the reality of Afghanistan. This fact was destroyed once with the arrival of the Mujahideen, secondly with the arrival of the Taliban, and now in the third stage with the return of the Taliban in the most violent way. We had to go beyond our cultural layer and dress in a conservative way that we didn’t want. I’ve been dressing much more conservatively than my aunt or uncle since I was almost a teenager.
See why this reality of Afghanistan was ignored? We were forced to accept the narrative of the extreme class of society. For the sake of peace and tranquility, we gave up all the cultural values that we defined for ourselves. Likewise, these pressures became more and more until we reached the Taliban, and according to their narrative, women should be eliminated. According to the belief of the Taliban, women should be removed from all circles of social, economic, and cultural life.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful. I think we are a large group. We are millions of people who think, work and fight against the Taliban’s cultural policies. This resistance is either by writing an article, interviewing, or protesting on the streets. I even support the armed resistance against the Taliban. Although I am a peaceful person, and if a problem is solved through dialogue, I prefer it; the bitter political reality is that as long as we don’t have the authority in the field, it is not possible to defeat a structured violent group that is supported by terrorism, drugs and the black economy. We cannot defeat such a group with only political and civil resistance.
Sheesha Media: Regarding your view on the military approach, I prefer to have another more specific conversation so that this issue can be considered from different aspects. We must examine and evaluate violent approaches as a whole so that their advantages and disadvantages are clear.
Our past political resistance has mainly experienced three approaches. First, the ideological approach is an old and outdated approach that has led to chaos in Afghanistan and many other countries. In Afghanistan, those with an idealistic approach have created acute crises, some of which you mentioned in your speech. A second approach is a military approach that we have been dealing with for the last forty-three years. The People’s Democratic Party coup started with an army attack on Arg; After that, the resistance that took place throughout the country was military resistance and war, which continued in various forms. One of the options raised against the Taliban is the same military and war option. The third is the ethnic approach to politics, which you explained in your words, and you clearly said that throughout the history of Afghanistan, we had ethnic politics that dominated the country with violence and repression of the political system. We sought the antidote to the ethnic approach in ethnic politics. We have done that, unfortunately, not only did it not help to solve the crisis, but it also made the crisis more profound and more critical.
Now we have gone through all three approaches and consider them a part of our experience. These options cost a lot, and at the end of the day, they did not give us an acceptable result.
I want to have another question: If there is to be a movement in Afghanistan that will protect the democratic and civil values of the society and create hope for the social mobilization of the people, which is entirely different from the traditional approaches that we have had in the field of social and political mobilization, what will be the position, contribution and the role of Manizha Bakhtari in planning, strengthening and promoting this movement?
Bakhtari: If I answer this question realistically, I must say that it is suitable for my colleagues and contemporaries to give our place to the younger generation. We will do what we can, but it is good to pay more attention to the youth so they can draft a plan for life in Afghanistan and today’s world and implement it. These types of plans are suitable to be proposed by the youth themselves. But from my position as someone who feels responsible for women’s issues, and like every other woman in Afghanistan, this is the primary concern of my life. If my experience and thoughts are helpful, I will work with this movement.
At the same time, I want to say that I also have plans for my personal life and future that I need to follow. Let me explain: Although the government has fallen and we have faced dozens of problems in terms of work – from financial problems to political difficulties and various other issues – this year, I have been fighting tirelessly. As long as I have my official position as Afghanistan’s ambassador in Austria, I will continue to fight and play my role. But after the end of this mission, I prefer to serve the movement and the people of Afghanistan more academically in terms of writing and text production.
I have an intense connection with literature, writing, and reading, and as a result of the work I have done in recent years, I have been separated from this part of my work. Nothing else satisfies me as much as literature, reading, and writing. Therefore, if I have any time left, I will dedicate it to text production, research, writing, and reading. This is a plan I have for myself, and at the same time, I support a nationwide movement for Afghan women.
This does not mean that I give up on the resistance and movement. I want to be at the service of the same theory and think about women’s issues in another way. In a movement, we have different rings and layers, all of which are connected, and this normative connection causes the orderly activities of a movement. A movement simultaneously consists of legislators, policymakers, government officials, members of civil society, employees, housewives, girls, and women from different strata with different thoughts and capabilities that fight for the expectations, demands, and rights of women. Everyone plays a role in this process, and everyone’s role is essential.
Of course, I have heard opinions that say, for example, women who used to work in the government or had duties in the parliament and civil society do not have a place in the new movement that has been launched. I don’t think this is a reasonable opinion. We must provide an environment for all members of society to participate and play a role in the resistance to secure women’s rights and status as citizens. Let’s suppose that women want to raise an issue such as enhancing women’s livelihood or opening a girls’ school or a hospital. The proposal for this issue starts from one of the layers of the movement. This proposal should be conveyed to the public opinion through peaceful gatherings, demonstrations, and interviews or with short and long writings. In the meantime, all issues should not be limited to proposals, requests, and demands. Proposals must find a suitable platform. This is where we need politicians, policymakers, and executives who are either women or those who believe in the equality of women’s rights to turn these proposals into policies, reflect them in the law and implement them in practice. This means the national women’s movement must be together in a general and interconnected structure to achieve its objectives. For the movement, theoretical thinking and work must be produced, which is very important. The contribution and role that I have considered for my future and the remaining years of my life are to write, produce thoughts, support the resistance and struggle of the Afghan people against extremism and ignorance, and raise awareness about the importance of education.
Sheesha Media: We are coming to the end of this interview. We are grateful to you. In the end, I want to hear your message for your audience, for the women and girls of Afghanistan who are now resisting in challenging conditions and under a very harsh and oppressive system showing constructive endurance. What do you expect from these girls and brave women in Afghanistan?
Bakhtari: My expectation from these brave women will undoubtedly be to say, ‘don’t get tired’. Despite all the despair and hopelessness that dominates the society of Afghanistan, don’t be disappointed and tired. Resistance is a long and tiring journey, and you must continue your resistance in whatever form it takes, even if it’s as little as showing a piece of paper on social media. Even if it’s as little as a sentence, you write or a photo you take and publish. It includes your help to the girl next door or your conversation with your mother.
All of these are resistance. Keep this fight alive, keep going, and know that you are not alone. I should also mention that I am present at several international forums, and I see no interest in issues related to women’s rights, or rather, there is no interest in practical work. However, I have contributed a lot here. I have had meetings with presidents, ministers, and parliamentarians, and I have conveyed the message of my comrades to them. But unfortunately, I have not achieved the results I expected from my campaigns. Let me state a bitter example. On March 8th, I had a media campaign and invited women who hold high positions in international forums to tweet about women’s rights and girls’ rights to education. I told them not to make this issue political and only write about girls’ right to education. But in the campaign I had for about a hundred people, I got only five tweets.
What message does this example convey? It conveys that the international community is ignorant of the situation in Afghanistan. It is easy for them to compromise with the Taliban. All of these raise two issues: one is that the Taliban have changed, or if they haven’t changed, they are changing slowly. The second matter is that the international community says that what the Taliban are doing is customized to Afghan culture, and you [as Afghans] should compromise with your culture. Unfortunately, we are in a dire situation, but I never stay silent. Wherever I have had the opportunity to speak and talk, wherever I have had a conference, I have spoken about the situation in Afghanistan without any fear. I have spoken about the women and girls who are under the oppression and discrimination of the Taliban.
We are not alone in this struggle. Hundreds of women and men outside of Afghanistan can speak without fear, talk, and raise their voices. Our journey is shared. Our resistance is permanent. Let’s be together, be united, and support each other.
Sheesha Media: Thank you