Teaching Women to Fish: Fighting for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Publication Date: 
22 Mar 2012

Roshan Sirran is one of the leading voices for Afghan women’s rights. She has 40 years of experience advocating for women’s rights as a teacher, municipal worker, education director, writer, leader of a local organization and member of the National Assembly.

Sirran has served as the women’s advocacy training consultant for IFES’ Support for Increased Electoral Participation (SIEP) program in Afghanistan for two years, where she assisted in program design and outreach, curriculum development, participant recruitment and training. Sirran facilitated trainings for IFES’ women’s advocacy training program and the Future Leaders Club program for young women.

Sirran is the founder and executive director of the Training Human Rights Association (THRA) for Afghan women, which is a leading grassroots, non-profit organization working to increase human rights awareness and develop capacity of Afghan women in areas related to participation, advocacy and leadership. She is also the founder and board chair for the newly-established Electoral Support Organization of Afghanistan (ESOA), which works on electoral reform.

Sirran recently sat down with IFES to talk about 40 years of working for women.

How did you begin to work in this field?

I started working for women’s rights 40 years ago. I did this to support the challenges women face, because I have seen and experienced those challenges firsthand.

I was in elementary school when I first started thinking about working for women’s rights. I had heard stories of women working in social services and politics – they were heroines to me. And I wanted to walk in their footsteps. Now, the fight for women’s rights is part of my existence; I cannot separate myself from that.

After school, I became part of the science and technology faculty of Kabul University. There, we started electing members of our classes for different leadership positions. This was my first experience with elections and free thought. And this really inspired me!

After working at the university, I was selected to serve as deputy to the women’s council of Kabul City. We started working to educate women, especially through courses for illiterate women, teaching them how to protect their constitutional, social and political rights. My first big project was to launch an advocacy and women’s rights campaign in 15 provinces in Afghanistan.

After all these years and experiences of working for women, in every interview with media and in every speech I talk about human rights, gender equality and peace. Even if only for a minute.

What organizations or projects are you currently involved with?

I lead my own organization, Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women (THRA). Our primary mission at THRA is to raise awareness of democratic values and good governance and encourage community leaders, public servants and civil society to advocate for women’s political rights.

Our focus has always been to advance the social and political rights of women. We also believe that men should be included in this process, as they also need to be educated on the rights of women. This is incredibly important. We do a lot of our work by bringing attention to women’s rights under Islam and Afghan law; advocacy and awareness campaigns; and building the capacity of women’s networks and other groups. THRA has also provided vocational and literacy training for women.

We [at THRA] have also monitored many elections. In 2004, I helped found the Free & Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), which was founded jointly by 15 civil society organizations. So my organization THRA was a founding organization of FEFA, which, to this day, is still the leading election observation organization in Afghanistan.

Today I still work on elections. I am now the board chair and founding member of a new civil society organization, the Electoral Support Organization of Afghanistan (ESOA). ESOA is working on electoral reform and we advocate for necessary changes to the Electoral Law.

You accomplished so much already as an advocate. What was the motivation for starting your own organization?

I established THRA in 1997 to support rule of law and democracy in the country. This was during Taliban rule and there were no organizations working for women’s rights. As you can imagine, there were no other support systems or organizations for women. But after the fall of the Taliban, many organizations started up and/or came back into existence. At that point, because THRA had already been working in women’s rights and we were the most experienced organization in Afghanistan fighting for women’s rights, everyone came to us for advice. They wanted to learn from our experiences, so we started training other organizations on how to work for women’s rights and how to organize themselves.

During these times, we were in the worst situation imaginable. While many activists left for Iran or Pakistan, a few of us stayed here to fight for women. After the Taliban closed all the schools, me and a group of women, just a bunch of us teachers without jobs, sat around and talked about establishing a group to support other women. I remember we could only listen to the radio and not go outside, so we were able to listen to Voice of America. And I remember hearing about celebrations for International Women’s Day. And I thought: who will help build this country? Who will fight for the rights of Afghan women who have lost so much?

What is your overarching goal?

We must restore gender equality in Afghanistan. At the institutional level, in all organizations, in all areas of the country there should be women’s representation.

I also want to see more representation of women in elections. After 2004 with the first Afghan elections, THRA started to observe elections. Our aim in these activities was also to promote women’s participation in the elections, promote female candidates, assist with women’s campaign planning and encourage women to vote.

I also work with a women’s advocacy group in Afghanistan. The aim of this group is to change the legal framework in a way that benefits women’s rights. We are currently targeting members of parliament and high-level decision makers.

You face incredible challenges in this area in Afghanistan. What would you say are the greatest difficulties you face?

In every phase of my life and in every experience in the fight for women’s rights, there is always a new and different challenge. As a young woman at the university, it was different and unusual for a girl to study with boys. Later, while I was working with Pamir, a biweekly newsletter published by the Municipality of Kabul that promotes civic life, there was the question of life and death because we were publishing information on women’s rights. Every minute of every day, there were bombs and gunfire. The challenges were unlike anything I had ever faced before.

During the Taliban time, challenges were totally different. We had to wear a burqa and I couldn’t even recognize my own sister walking down the street. We were forced indoors and we were teaching inside the house; this was illegal and very risky. The Taliban, if they found out we were educating women, they could kill us. They could destroy our homes.

Our challenges have changed over the years. And we [women advocates] still face many challenges today.

Today, there are lots of men in powerful positions who do not deserve them, regardless of the level of the position. They receive their positions because they are men.

Secondly, we still see the harmful impact of bad traditional practices throughout Afghanistan. Girls are married off at too soon an age, forced into arranged marriages and most are not allowed to go to school to receive an education.

Where have you seen most success in this field?

Despite many challenges, we’ve seen many successes in the advancement of human rights and capacity building. Our ability to work with one another and build the capacity of young advocates and organizations has come a long way.

What has been the most inspiring experience you have had doing this work?

Always learning from my colleagues! I feel I always have something to learn from my colleagues and the organizations I work with. And they and their work, their inspiration and dedication, are truly inspiring to me.

I’ve learned so many things from my experiences with IFES and from working with our women’s advocacy and Future Leaders Club participants. I remember when I started working for the IFES women’s advocacy program and the motto was “Women can change Afghanistan.” This was truly inspiring for me.

I am proud to work with these women of influence and young women leaders. I will continue to work with them and to do anything I can for them for as long as they need my experience and my knowledge. IFES is paving the way forward for these participants by giving them the skills they need. It’s now up to them to go the rest of the way. Anything they can do to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan, to support their own lives and the lives of other women will be an inspiring journey.

How can the government and the international community support work for gender equality in Afghanistan?

Considering Afghanistan’s current situation, Afghan women cannot fight this fight alone. We need greater support nationally and internationally. We need them to support human rights and women’s rights across the country. When Afghan women’s rights are at risk, we need international cooperation to support our rights and combat these risks. In the Constitution of Afghanistan, Afghan women have rights. And in Islam, there are rights for women. We need help in pushing these rights forward; educating women on these rights; and achieving the full realization of these rights. When the international community provides support to any project and along any agenda, there must be gender considerations. Gender must be considered across the board, in every budget, in very program.

After 2014, with the withdrawal of foreign troops, I call upon the international community not to forget the extraordinary struggles of Afghan women. Please do not forget us. Afghan women, especially young women, still need much more assistance and guidance. Young women need scholarships; they need to be trained about their rights; and they need more support than anyone else in this country.

We have a saying in Dari; I think you have it in English, too: “You give a man to fish, he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” We need to teach young women to fish! They need to learn how to ensure their rights in the future to fight against the challenges which lay ahead.

What can people do in their everyday lives to promote gender equality?

I beg that please, please, please: men must be involved in the struggle for gender equality! And when men speak out in public, they should take every opportunity to speak in favor of women’s rights. Their support is needed on a daily basis. And this support should be sincere.

Men should respect women’s rights, not just in theory, but in practice and in everyday life. Many men may claim they support the idea of women’s rights, but they should also be supporting the women who live in their own homes. Allow their wives and daughters to be police officers, teachers, members of parliament and to do whatever they think they have the capacity to do.

I also wish for rule of law for my country, but without gender equality, this will not be achieved. Without women’s participation, democracy doesn’t mean anything. Women’s participation is key for democratic development of this country. Our achievements means nothing is they are only for half of the population.

I want see a flourishing democracy for Afghanistan. Democracy means rights for women; our right to work, right to education, right to being valued as a human beings! For my country, I wish for peace, an end to the war and gender equality.

Interviewers: Qayoom Suroush and Adam LeClair, IFES-CEPPS, SIEP Program, Kabul, Afghanistan