Notes from the Field

Kabul University Students Take Lead in Afghanistan’s Future

November 14, 2012

The streets of Kabul were packed as usual with cars as women scurried by in the street covering their faces with their headscarves to keep out the dust. But today, traffic was much worse than usual due to a new minister traveling in his convoy of armored cars flanked by heavily armed men. Despite Kabul’s growth and international presence, public streets are still very much male territory and most women still feel uncomfortable walking around. I watched this familiar scene from the office window of one of Afghanistan’s most prominent human rights activists, Hangama Anwari. Hangama very much represents the “other side” of female life in Afghanistan – the powerful, confident side not often seen in the news.

Afghan woman crosses street

Despite gains, the streets of Afghanistan are still intimidating for most women. Photo/Janet Ketcham

Hangama now works with young Afghan women and men to promote respect for women’s rights. Hangama completed her degree in Law and Political Science at the University of Balkh and later moved to Kabul where she began her career as an advisor on women and children’s rights.

The streets outside Hangama’s office are clearly a man’s world, but in marked contrast, the atmosphere within the confines of the capital’s universities has visibly improved when it comes to women. Enrollment in universities is increasing for women – rising from nearly 13,000 in 2008 to nearly 16,000 in 2010 – who walk confidently around chatting to their friends and actively participating in classes with a confidence often surprising to visitors from outside the country.

In The Asia Foundation’s just-launched 2012 Survey of the Afghan People, education consistently ranks as one of the key areas that Afghans identify as an area of both improvement and need. In fact, 87 percent of respondents said that women and men should have equal opportunities in education. This is very good news. What’s not so good, however, is that women are still markedly underrepresented in leadership positions, such as teachers and politicians. The survey found that less than half (45 percent) of the population believes that females and males should have equal representation in political leadership positions. And while 53 percent agree that women should decide for themselves how to vote, many still say that men should play some role in advising or influencing women’s choices at the ballot box.

Starting in 2012, The Asia Foundation has been conducting training in Leadership, Peace- Building, and Conflict Resolution in the women’s and men’s dormitories at Kabul University, with Hangama as the trainer. As in most countries, the university students are traditionally known as being activists, and the dormitories can be political hotspots as different ethnic groups strive to live together and complete their studies in relative peace.

The trainings are also challenging concepts of leadership. They are helping the students see that they need to value the opinions of all to make a difference. When I spoke with Hangama, she told me that women are not so pressured by political parties, perhaps because they are seen as less important in the political process of the country. Both women and men initially saw the term “leader” as someone who is in control, unreachable, and according to the women, “definitely male and preferably tall.”

Hangama works with the students to encourage them to see themselves as leaders who can one day make positive changes in their classes, families, and communities. And, shifting this perception is critical in increasing women’s leadership:  in the survey, 80 percent of women and 55 of men say women should be able to work outside the home, but this number has slightly decreased over the last eight years. Hangama raises this trend as an issue for discussion sessions during the classes.

The classes on conflict management are the ones Hangama finds most interesting. She encourages the young men and women to focus on how smaller conflicts build up to bigger ones and that solving them is valuable for moving a peaceful society forward. Around half the survey respondents say they sometimes fear for the safety of themselves and their friends and family. “War” and “terrorism” seem impossible for university students to solve, but connecting it with increased respect for others and more informed negotiation skills is attainable.

On September 26, 90 women received their training certificates. One of the participants told me that the training had changed her perspective on who can be a leader and had given her confidence to manage issues with her professors, classmates, and even her dorm roommates.

The case studies in the training materials are mostly related to women’s issues. Hangama thought hard about whether to adjust them for the training in the men’s dorm, then decided to keep them as they are. She is adamant that nothing will change for women unless men are also educated to create a supportive environment for girls and women to grow up, study, and work in.

Last week, Hangama went to the men’s dormitory to facilitate a training and the guard at the gate didn’t want to let her in, as he couldn’t believe a woman was coming into such male territory to train them in leadership. One of the participants was walking by and explained to the guard that the training was useful for them and that Hangama was welcome.

Slightly more than half of the survey respondents in 2012 said that the country is moving in the right direction. By improving their leadership skills, these young people in the dormitories at Kabul University are no doubt helping to move Afghanistan forward.

Fiona Rowand is The Asia Foundation’s education program director in Afghanistan. She can be reached at frowand@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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