By: Bansari Kamdar
Politics in Afghanistan has always been fraught, especially for women. Afghanistan ranks last at 156th on the 2021 Global Gender Gap report. Earlier this year, Hosna Jalil, one of the highest-ranking women ever to serve in the Interior Ministry, quit her position to join the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as a deputy minister.
“I was kicked out because I was a loud voice,” says the 29-year-old Jalil in a conversation online. “I was not their yes lady anymore; I wasn’t there to make anyone happy… I took my fight, I picked my good fight and fought it till the end.”
It was not easy. The minister she worked under questioned her work ethic since his first week in the office. Jalil says she was undermined based on her gender, youth, and ethnicity. One minister accused her of getting salary from donor agencies and tried replacing her because she was not from a particular ethnicity.
As the deputy minister of policy and strategy at the Interior Ministry, her job included police reform and improving women’s participation in the police force and empowering them. She worked on institutional development and the provision of on-time and quality services to the Afghan National Police.
Jalil’s work and visibility as a woman in a senior security position also made her a target for harassment by her peers. During her time at the Interior Ministry, she received emails from lower-level employees calling her a “prostitute.” Verbal harassment included accusations of her “exchanging sexual favors to get the position.”
“The only thing that makes me happy about this is that it makes me believe that professionally they could not attack me, so they attack me personally,” says Jalil.
A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that psychological violence, including sexist remarks, has affected 81.8 percent of female parliamentarians globally. One in four were subjected to physical violence. While Jalil was fortunate to start in a position of authority that has prevented any physical and sexual violence, she worries that such violence and harassment is not uncommon for Afghan women in public office, based on her experience listening to the women in the police force.
She decries rampant discrimination in the public sector from access to resources to dictating one’s authority as a woman. “When they can’t take away your authority, they take your responsibility, and you end up being a symbolic person,” she says.
“Sometimes it is difficult to keep my motivation up every morning. Working long hours, being ignored, being harassed, and receiving statements which could attack someone’s personality, could attack someone’s ethics, usually by someone who feels entitled to their position.”
Now as the deputy minister of policy and plan in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, she intends to challenge these norms. Jalil believes that the ministry is not as strong as it should have become in the last 19 years. In her new role, she plans to strengthen women’s role in peace and security, ensure women equal access to services and resources, and empower and integrate women across all sectors.
Another major impediment is increased violence on the streets. Despite pledges by the Taliban to reduce violence as part of the peace process, there has been a surge of assassinations across the county. Activists, journalists, doctors, judges, and professionals are increasingly being targeted and killed – even more so if they are women.
In late March, three female health workers, part of the Afghan government’s polio vaccine campaign, were shot dead. Earlier that same month, three female journalists were murdered in Jalalabad.
Jalil too has received death threats from the Taliban; they have become a routine for the young minister and her female colleagues. “I deeply believe that the date that I am supposed to die is my fate. I am not careless, but I don’t want to give up based on threats,” she says.
“Our women have become resilient. It is normal now because around the peace talks and as we get closer to the peace process, it makes us more vulnerable. When we are not willing to compromise, pressure rises. One of the pressures is attacks.”
While peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban continue and the United States administration contemplates a hasty exit in May, the question over the fate of Afghan women’s rights remains unresolved.
“The Afghan government has put the women’s rights and children’s rights as a red line for the negotiation, but I still believe that women’s rights, children’s rights, youth rights are in the basket that is very much vulnerable to negotiations,” says Jalil. “It is one of those baskets that can be dropped easily.”
She adds that not only is the peace process fast paced but there have been numerous “U-turns” by various stakeholders that make it difficult to predict anything. Jalil raises concerns about the lack of clarity from the Taliban’s side in the ongoing negotiations.
“I am a Muslim and I love to live under the Islamic scriptures, but [at the] end of the day my definition of Islam and the Taliban’s definition of Islam is very different,” she says. “We have the same frame [Islamic values] but the picture inside is missing. The structure they want for women is missing.”
Quoting a scripture from the Quran, Jalil highlights that while education is mandatory for women and men in the holy book, women had little access to education under Taliban rule. The Taliban regime that was in power from 1996 to 2001 was notorious for denying women access to education and employment, restricting their freedom of movement, and subjecting them to public violence like lashing and execution by stoning.
Following the Taliban’s ouster, Afghan women have made many strides toward equality and reversing the damage of nearly 40 years of war. Aided by quotas, the Afghan National Assembly has the same percentage of women legislators as the U.S. Congress; 40 percent of all schoolchildren in Afghanistan are girls; and gender equality is enshrined in the Afghan constitution.
Nonetheless, the fear of losing women’s fragile gains remains. The Taliban claims that its views on female education have evolved since the 1990s but there is a “gap between official Taliban statements on rights and the restrictive positions adopted by Taliban officials on the ground,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Representation is another key issue. While women in Afghanistan are often disproportionately impacted by decades of war, they remain largely absent in the peace talks. Only four of the originally appointed 21-member negotiating team from the Afghan government are women. Their numbers are dwindling with each round of talks, from four at the Doha talks to just one Afghan woman negotiator at the latest Moscow talks. The Taliban, who control around 30 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, have no female representative at the peace talks.
Hosna Jalil just turned 29 on March 27. In closing, the young female minister says she is unafraid about what comes next. She thanks the challenges that she has undergone – from daily threats to her life and harassment at work to sickness and a close bout with ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura) – for making her stronger.
“These fancy-mancy suited Western-educated, U.S.-educated men, I don’t find the difference between them and the warlords. I want them to understand that if they do something wrong, there is someone who is going to speak about it, she is not going to let it be buried,” says Jalil.
“This is my responsibility to the next generation. I have to go through this so my next generation will not have to go through all of these issues. There has to be an end.”