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Q&A with Dr. Nilofar Ibrahimi, Member of Parliament, Afghanistan

Dr. Nilofar Ibrahimi is a member of the national assembly of Afghanistan. She represents Badakhshan province in the Wolesi Jirga (house of representatives). Her story is one of survival, pursuit of dreams, and dedication to women’s well-being and health.
Here, Dr. Ibrahimi shares her thoughts on the current state of Afghan women’s empowerment, the challenges women face in achieving equal rights, and the impact women have on the country’s long-term peace, security, and prosperity.

Article by Miriam Spradling January 4, 2018 //   11 minute read
Ambassador Cathy Russell, Dr. Nilofar Ibrahimi, and the Bush Institute's Farhat Popal spoke at The Texas Symposium on Women, Peace, and Security at Texas A&M in November.

What inspired you to run for Parliament? Tell us about the issues you champion as a Member of Parliament for Badakhshan Province. 

The woman who inspired me and gave me the motivation to run for the parliament was my mother. I lost my father when I was two years old, and she carried all the responsibilities of the family. I became a medical doctor and worked as an obstetrician- gynecologist in my village for seven years. During this time, I saw how women are only recognized as a wife or mother who only does the housework. I wanted to take the voices of those women out of their houses, and in consultation with my mother, I ran for the parliament. It was a huge struggle to compete in a very male-dominated society, and I had to work ten times harder, but I succeeded. Now I am a parliament member and proud of being a voice for other women.

What has been the most important step forward for women in the last 15 years?  

In 15 years, very important steps have been taken regarding placement of women within the structure of government and general empowerment. In high political levels, we have women as ministers, parliament members, diplomats, and ambassadors. We also have a very large number of women as teachers, doctors, students, and in different fields. However, we have failed to reach the grassroots levels. Years of war has destroyed our basic social and cultural structures, which are unfriendly to women, and we have failed to change them. Plus, I am afraid women empowerment and positive discrimination have remained in a level of quota, not actually progressing. 

How are Afghan women and men working together to advance women’s rights? 

The struggle for women empowerment or women's right is very different between men and women. The small percentage of men who honestly and committedly fight alongside women for women's rights are highly educated. Unfortunately, this does not represent a large number. Some men claim to fight for such efforts, but their efforts are hardly seen in implementation. Unfortunately, lack of education and possession of power among women has caused the movement not to be that strong because all women are not in the position to fight for themselves. These actions sometimes are limited to the cities only and fail to approach women in rural and remote areas. 

What is the most critical issue facing Afghan women today? 

Illiteracy and economic dependency are the two critical issues facing Afghan women today. These two areas are the most influential forces that can change both the position and status of women in the society. Literacy causes women to progress and make informed choices, or at least provides women with the awareness to voice their problems. Unfortunately, illiteracy keeps their understanding within their houses, shielding them from the outer world. Plus, many women are trapped inside the control cycle of patriarchy because they do not have any income. Economic dependency causes them to abide by all the roles defined to them. Many women go through different types of domestic violence but cannot complain because they do not know how to even survive without the financial support of their husband or their father.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about Afghan women and the challenges they face? 

The causes of the existing misconceptions come from lack of education among the people and its influence over social and cultural constructions. The traditional practices, often unfriendly to women, are rooted in general understandings, often mistaken as religious values. The Islamic rules are very supportive of women, but people in rural areas do not have that understanding. Lack of education has perpetuated this vagueness, and women suffer for a long time. The absence of women in the job market, in universities, and in decision making roles has made people believe that women are not capable of those roles. These misunderstanding have changed in cities at some levels, but it’s still a dominant view in rural areas.

These misconceptions are major impediments to the progress of women. For instance, it makes the working environment very tough for women because people do not take them seriously. Or, the families invest in their sons more than their daughters because they believe their sons can do better or deserve better.

Why is women’s economic empowerment so important to the future of Afghanistan? 

Women's economic empowerment is a fundamental factor that can guarantee long-term progress and actual empowerment. It directly defines and shapes the everyday lives of women and gives them independence. When women can support themselves financially, they can make their own choices. A woman won't have to suffer domestic violence and stay at home; she can eat healthier, visit a doctor, and make her own decisions without worrying about finances.

Unfortunately, women’s economic empowerment is sometimes seen as something for women only, but it is for the good of humanity. Afghanistan as a developing country that needs human resources to prosper. The absence of women’s contributions is making the development process weaker because 50% of the forces for that are missing. In addition, empowered women will raise healthier children who secure a better future for the country.

How do women’s rights affect Afghanistan’s peacebuilding efforts? 

Women in Afghanistan are the first victims of war. Years of war has made their political, economic, and social status vulnerable. As mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, they have been affected by consequences of war. It has deprived them of access to education, healthcare, employment, and freedom and has limited their lives to the house. They have kept life running when most of the men are at war. They have a defining role in shaping the attitudes of their communities toward an understanding of peace and development. When women are given their rights, when they are independent, and when they voice their problems, they will be a great force for change. Their contribution will carry on through the children and families they offer to society. Plus, their approach to peace is different because it is impossible for a woman to allow a war where she loses her child. Based on my experience attending peace negotiations with the Taliban, women bring a very different perspective on the table. In peace negotiations in Oslo and Shanti, I found that the female delegation was more convincing and made the opposition groups listen more.

What does the increasing number of Afghan girls attending school mean for the country? 

Maybe we should turn the question around and ask what are the impacts of not educating girls in a society.  

I think failure to educate girls has a direct impact both on their families and on wider society, especially in a country like Afghanistan. Studies in Afghanistan and other countries have shown that that increasing the number of girls benefiting from education has a positive effect on a country’s per capita economic growth.

The social impact of female education is more profound. I am true believer of the “you educate a woman; you educate a generation” assumption. Educated girls tend to educate their children, which is of absolute importance in Afghanistan. Studies in 14 countries have shown that each additional year a mother is educated increases the likelihood of her children enrolling in school by almost 10%.

A girl’s education also has a greater impact [on her life]. I think that, in Afghanistan, there is a negative correlation between child marriage and girls’ education. Educated girls are less likely to become victims of child marriage.

Overall, although progress has been made in girls’ education in Afghanistan, there are a lot of issues to be resolved and barriers to overcome. Despite improvements, the percentage of girls attending secondary and high schools is still far behind the percentage of the boys. To further increase the number of Afghan girls attending schools, we need to overcome social, security, economical, and other barriers. 

What is the most important thing the international community can do to help Afghan women protect and expand their rights? 

There are many areas. Afghan government and women need the support of international community. I want to emphasize two things here. First, at this point, implementation of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1325 is a must. The Afghan government is both at war and trying to negotiate with insurgents, and women's rights should be considered there. It is crucial that the international community ensures that the Afghan government sets realistic approaches in this regard. Also, the annual reports on Resolution 1325 submitted to the UN by the government need to be evaluated.

The second most important thing is creating a strategic plan to empower women in rural areas. In the past 15 years, support for women has often been limited to cities, and women’s roles in some official positions have been limited to quotas, such as three female ministers or four female ambassadors. Women's rights cannot be protected in the long run as long as women in rural areas are not empowered. Most of the people in Afghanistan live in rural areas, and their empowerment is the key to sustainable development.   

Afghanistan is an agricultural society, and women contribute a lot to rural areas. However, their contribution is not recognized, and it’s men who take the products to the market. So, if women are empowered to be active in the agricultural sector of the economy, it’s necessary to facilitate a way for them to take their products to the market.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I come from a mountainous and remote province, Badakhshan, and it has shaped how I see women empowerment. The focus of government and the international community on women has always been at the macro rather than micro level. Unfortunately, placing women in roles with decision-making power often has not gone further than symbolism. I strongly emphasize shifting the focus to the micro level and empowering women at the local level. In developing countries where central government services are not good, focusing only on the macro level fails to touch the lives of local women. Again, I want to say that our local women need to be empowered [for Afghanistan] to reach to sustainable development.