Living in a Political Laboratory: an Interview with Rita Anwari Soltani on the Future of Afghan Women

Rita Anwari Soltani.

For most Afghans, the last 20 years has felt like an eternity. Add the ‘Taliban 1.0’ years and the civil conflict before that, and the Russian occupation, and it seems somehow more than twice as long. The violent uncertainties of warlordism and invasion have for a long time prevented significant reform of the country’s sexual politics. Despite the renewed cosmopolitanism under the Karzai and Ghani governments, and the ‘nation-building’ efforts of Western powers, 3.7 million Afghan children remain out of school. In other words, more than a third of Afghan children lack formal education. Of that figure, 60 per cent are girls.

Progress has been made in education since the 2000s, but the money spent by the United States on war-making could have paid for five years of education at Roedean, the top English girls’ public school, for every single girl in Afghanistan. You’d still have $500 billion change rattling around in your pocket.

There has however been one very major change in Afghan society: the turning of the generations. Today’s youth cohort is very different. A new generation of Afghan girls believe that women have an extended role to play in their society, and are unwilling to give up the precious gains they have struggled for in the last two decades.

The Afghan education system has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. It needs to produce outstanding outcomes to overturn the years of neglect and insecurity. The youth of Afghanistan need to be able to access the best universities in the world to enable them to return and build their state.

To explore these themes in more detail, Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi spoke with women’s education activist Rita Anwari Soltani. Ms. Soltani, who now lives in Australia, is the founding director of Women Empowerment and Leadership in Australia, an organization dedicated to the welfare of women, and has worked to improve educational opportunities for Afghans as well as mobilizing Australia’s Afghan community to support their compatriots.

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi: As an Afghan woman living in Australia, what made you decide to become a civic and social activist, and what valuable experiences have you had over the years?

I have been active in civil society for ten years. Back then, when I was in college, I worked with people from many different countries, not just Afghans. I could see that our projects were making a positive difference in their lives. However, I always dreamed of doing something for Afghanistan specifically by helping Afghan students to study in Australia. So, in 2017 I introduced an Australian diploma education course in Afghanistan to help Afghans prepare at home for studying here in Australia.

When I finally managed to visit Afghanistan in 2017, I spoke with many women and girls, from ordinary members of the public to politicians, to understand what they think and need. I came to the conclusion that Afghan women are confronted with numerous social problems, and that their lives can be improved. Helping Afghan women access good-quality education will show the world what we are capable of.

I’d been away from Afghanistan for 25 years, but after that one trip, I returned to Australia and founded the Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Organization. Our aim is to empower women, and especially Afghan women.

Back in Afghanistan, I designed a program to help women gain IELTS qualifications [International English Language Testing System] that opens access to international education institutions such as universities and colleges. Once our students had IELTS qualifications, they still needed advanced level qualifications in their chosen subjects. We helped them complete diploma-level courses remotely, and once they had diplomas, they were then eligible for Australian scholarships.

Throughout this time there have been both sweet and bitter experiences. I have met and communicated with many girls and women who are now close friends, even though some of them I have only ever known in the virtual world because they have not yet come to Australia. The bitterest experience for me was in visiting Afghanistan, where I could see that our girls and women have many valuable talents, yet lack the opportunities to deploy them usefully. Doing so in Afghanistan takes incredible courage.

I made another trip to Afghanistan in 2019. When I talked to women there, including those working in government ministries, I could see their capabilities, but in their eyes was an awareness of the social limitations that they suffer. Then there are the huge problems of war, insecurity, and poverty, in the face of which all people feel helpless, but especially women. I want to help change their outlook, but I don’t think real change is possible until the war in Afghanistan is over.

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi: After 20 years of spending on social programs in Afghanistan designed to help women and girls, we remain in a situation where the future of women there is uncertain. Has all that work merely been symbolic, or will the strong and capable women now in leadership roles be able to protect women’s rights?

Before the Karzai government, women were in a bad situation in Afghanistan. The Karzai and Ghani governments have overseen significant progress in the lives and attitudes of Afghan women. We have been able to study and work internationally and even globally. So ministers and officials have had some success. It’s harder to say whether the women in leadership positions are merely there symbolically because some positions are filled by quota, with 25 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for women. But the fact remains: we still have plenty of successful women. Where women used to be flogged, now they are delegates to international conferences.

Yet the country remains very patriarchal, and women continue to overcome social prejudices by working as journalists, lawyers, or academics. The Afghan National Army has 7000 female soldiers. So women are trying to defend the rights they have gained. We need ongoing help and support from international institutions such as the United Nations to maintain our position, which is now more in line with global norms and aspirations.

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi: In the current, very troubled, situation in Afghanistan, do you think that women in the media, including in television, have been able to bring to the world the voices of Afghan women?

You are talking to an example right now! I was born in Afghanistan. I have lived in Australia for many years, but today I am fighting for the rights of Afghan women. There are hundreds of Afghan women just like me who want to make their voices resound around the world. We have worldwide support, including in the White House. People and organizations all over the world want to assist Afghan women.

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi: Do you think that recent gains in Afghan women’s rights are vulnerable to future attempts at rollback?

The Taliban have their world view and might think they can reintroduce their old policies, under which women were housebound and subject to public floggings. However, back then, awareness of the rights women have elsewhere in the world was very limited. Women refugees with successful lives in safe countries could not communicate with women inside Afghanistan.

Today, it is all different. Technological advances in communications mean that individual acts of oppression are now both known and protested by the international community. The Taliban will have to accept that women in Afghanistan are no longer the women they were 20 years ago. A new generation has grown, and it is a stronger generation. As a result, there is no way in my opinion that the Taliban can silence the song of Afghan women. Even if they assassinate all the women leaders in the country itself, they cannot reach Afghan women around the world, such as myself in Australia. We will continue to fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan will all our strength and capabilities.

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi is an editor at Maqshosh.