In this episode, we speak with Jamila Afghani, the 2022 Laureate of the Aurora Prize For Awakening Humanity, which is a prestigious annual award conferred to grassroots human rights defenders.
Jamila Afghani is a the founder of the local Afghan NGO, Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization, which among other things supports girls education in Afghanistan. She founded the organization as a refugee in Pakistan but then established it in Afghanistan just months after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. For the last twenty years, her NGO has supported girls and women throughout Afghanistan — and even today, with the country back under the Taliban, the work continues.
In our conversation, Jamila Afghani explains how and why she began work as a civil society leader, which also includes a leadership position with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She also discusses how she fled Afghanistan in August 2021 and continues to lead her NGO, but now as a refugee in Canada.
Jamila Afghani [00:00:00] I believe that education is empowering any girl and any woman in any part of the world to stand for their rights and to seek their basic humanity and rights.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:13] What makes this prize so unique is how it honors the work of humanitarians and human rights defenders who are, generally speaking, far off the media radar. The awardees are not high-profile people. They work at the grassroots level, improving the lives of people around them. And if this describes someone, you know, the Aurora Prize is currently accepting nominations for next year’s honors. So, you can visit their website and learn how to nominate someone. Now, Jamila, first of all, congratulations on winning the Aurora Prize. That’s a very big deal.
Jamila Afghani [00:03:35] Thank you very much. It is an honor to be recognized by Aurora for the year 2022, when my country, my people are suffering a lot with the current political changes in Afghanistan. It was also a big recognition for my people, for girls and women of Afghanistan, not only for me as a person or as an individual.
Who is Jamila Afghani?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:03] So part of winning the Aurora Prize includes getting a large sum of money that you’re able to pass on to other entities. Have you decided what you will do with that prize money?
Jamila Afghani [00:04:21] Of course, that money will go for the cause of humanitarian and education needs. And of course, there is already two organizations decided that the fund will go to NECDO, which is a local Afghan organization, and also Women International League for Peace and Freedom, which is a feminist peace movement organization. The money will go through these two organizations. But still, we are working how to best utilize this funding as a seed funding in order to build upon or to make it more extended to larger beneficiaries inside Afghanistan.
What is the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO)?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:06] So you have been working at the intersection of women’s rights, women’s education, and peace building for a very long time. I’d love to learn the origin story back in 2000 of how you started the Noor educational and capacity development organization, NECDO.
Jamila Afghani [00:05:28] When I was a student of international relations at Peshawar University, that time was the Taliban’s first governing period, and at the same time there was high drought in Afghanistan and lots of people were migrating to Pakistan because of the Taliban regime and their anti-women policies. Lots of women were coming for education to Pakistan. That time, when I was a student with a group of friends, we came together and we formed Noor Education Center, we wanted to spread the light of education, as Noor means light in Arabic and also in Dari, in our language. And we started this initiative when I was a refugee living in Pakistan. Since then, I have remained actively engaged on women’s rights issues, especially in education, and why education was the most important element in my work, is because I feel it’s an essence of my life. I am in a rich, but a very conservative family. My father never allowed his daughters to go to school and also my brother was studying until secondary school, not more because he had money, and they consider that this is enough for a person to have money and education was not important.
How was Jamila Afghani able to attend university?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:03] So can I ask if education wasn’t important, how did you end up at a university in Peshawar?
Jamila Afghani [00:07:09] I have a physical disability. When I was young, I was not able to play with children outside. Most of the time I was sick. Most of the time, I was feeling lonely. So, one of my doctors advised my father to enroll me in school and when I got into school, my world was changed. And I was always busy with my color pencils, with my books, and I got very much interested in my studies. And when I was getting a higher score in my class comparatively to the other students, I attracted a lot of attention from my teachers, my principals. Then my father, when I was a bit grown up at the grade fifth or sixth, my father was saying that you should not continue your education because now you’re growing up. But I was requesting my father just one year more, just one year more, and this way I completed the school in Kabul. Then I was shifted, migrated to Pakistan because of the Russian invasion in Afghanistan. We migrated to Pakistan and then I continued my education in Pakistan, although there were big challenges. But thank God I could continue my education. And then I got my double masters from Peshawar University and then I realized that my disability was changed to a power for me. And that’s why I always tried to work for education. I believe that education is empowering any girl and any woman in any part of the world to stand for their rights and to seek their basic humanitarian rights.
Why did Jamila Afghani return to Afghanistan?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:59] So how soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 did you return to Afghanistan and establish the Noor educational and capacity development organization on the ground in Afghanistan, your home country?
Jamila Afghani [00:09:18] It was, I think, within the month of June 2001 when I went back physically to Kabul, and we started our program there. So I was with a few other women; we were the first group that we went back to Afghanistan and started our work there.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:40] And what sort of work were you doing back then, right after the Taliban regime had fallen just a few months earlier?
Jamila Afghani [00:09:49] That time, also, education was a huge, huge problem. The Taliban was not allowing girls to go to school and girls lost almost 4 years of their education under the Taliban’s first regime. So, the very first activity we started in Kabul, it was both literacy program and catch-up program. Literacy, of course, that was literacy and for catch up program, we had some quick sort of home schools, like in every village we were establishing home schools where we could have a teacher or two teachers, and they were teaching the nearby girls to cover the gap of their studies that they faced. So, like we were preparing the girls to go for the examination and have enough tutoring before going for the examination. So just in two or three years, those girls who were like having the gap of 4 years, we were covering through the catch-up program. So, in the very initial stages, we promoted 50,000 girls from the secondary education to university and to higher classes to bachelor classes.
How does Jamila Afghani educate girls and women in Afghanistan?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:12] And how did that just evolve over the years? You know, we had 20 years between Taliban rule in which girls’ education was permitted. How did your organization fit in to broader plans to educate girls throughout Afghanistan?
Jamila Afghani [00:11:34] During the first regime of Taliban, like when Taliban were closing the schools, there was no voice, nobody was raising their voice. But after 20 years of Taliban takeover, you can see that how much resistance was going on inside the country and outside the country. It is what we have invested in the last 20 years that we have struggled for educating our young generation, our girls, and women. So now they are responding, and they are struggling to attract the attention of the world, like me and many other platforms in many other events. My sisters are raising their voice for the support of education and human rights in Afghanistan.
Why did Jamila Afghani leave Afghanistan in 2021?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:24] I want to discuss your ongoing work in Afghanistan today, but I am also interested to learn the circumstances in which you were forced to flee Afghanistan. Again, I learned this is your sixth time now being a refugee. In August of 2021, what happened and how were you able to get out?
Jamila Afghani [00:12:49] This was unfortunately a very difficult situation. When the Taliban took over on the 15th of August, on the same day, I was planning to travel to Turkey for treatment. But as soon as I reached the airport, I saw that all the parliamentarians, politicians, ministers, lots of embassy employees, everybody was accumulated in the airport, and everybody was trying to get out of Afghanistan. And even some of the parliamentarians were with their bodyguards, with their gunmen. And they wanted to just sit in the plane and flee. I handed them my passport, my boarding pass for me and for my children but because of this chaotic situation, also because of the big crash of the parliamentarian, like they kicked us out from our seats, and they were sitting on our seats to flee.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:48] And this was a commercial flight that you had previously scheduled for medical treatment, but these parliamentarians just kicked you and your family out of the seat in their rush to escape before the Taliban came. Wow.
Jamila Afghani [00:14:01] Exactly. So then when I realized that all politicians are here and everybody is here and I was afraid that if they may hurt my children at the same time, we heard the gunfire and also there was an explosion outside of the airport. Me and my kids, we escaped away from the airport because I thought the Taliban was going to attack the airport. So, everybody, all politicians are there. So, it will be very good target for Taliban if they could kill everybody just with very easy effort. So, we went back home, and I remained in Kabul until the 26th of August. I had several attempts to get out. I had the visa from 11 countries and every time when I was going to the airport, it was a very chaotic situation and the Taliban checkpoints throughout and the airport with my disability and the young children, it was really difficult. Then I had a contact of an ambassador in Kabul, and I shared my concerns with them, and I said, like, I’m stuck in this situation. He was kind enough and he helped us and supported us for the evacuation. So, I ended up in Norway. I was for one year in Norway, but unfortunately Norway also put us in North Norway, which was a very cold and very dark place. And because of my disability, I was also not able to move a lot, to be active a lot. So finally, I decided to be shifted to Canada for the past two months and I’m in Canada right now.
How does the Noor Education and Capacity Development Organization help girls access education in Afghanistan under Taliban rule?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:57] So the Noor education and capacity development organization, your work still is ongoing in Afghanistan. What is the nature of the work today given that the Taliban have banned girls from accessing education above a certain grade?
Jamila Afghani [00:16:16] We are doing some capacity building for women and girls, and we have financial and food support from WFP for the vulnerable families and communities in different districts and in different provinces. And thousands of people are benefiting from this project. Beside NECDO, I’m working with WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) Afghanistan, to provide psychosocial support for the victims of domestic violence, for those women who have lost their jobs, their identity, their social and political involvement after the fall of Kabul. And they are suffering a huge amount of stress and anxiety.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:03] And this is the Women International League for Peace and Freedom?
Jamila Afghani [00:17:07] Yeah, this is the part of Afghanistan section that we are working. We are also a women’s support membership organization. We have our members across the country, around 10,000 members we have. And we are engaged in different activities such as community mobilization and financial support for women led businesses, for women led NGOs. We are providing that coordination and support.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:41] So it’s my understanding and please correct me if I’m wrong, that while the Taliban have banned girls’ education above a certain grade level, there are still private organizations like yours and a few others that are nonetheless still serving the educational needs of Afghan women. Is that correct?
Jamila Afghani [00:18:05] Of course, yes. This is one of the main activities that we are doing. We are having hundreds of homeschools currently going on around the country. We have 2000 female teachers as a part of our membership groups and all of them are working in their homes and they have neighbor boards. They have established the home school type of activity and we are providing tutoring types of activities. It’s not full school, like those subjects which are difficult, like mathematics and science subjects and other subjects, like we are working with the girls to not remain behind, and we are hopeful as soon as the schools are reopened, that they will be able to fit in to the higher classes, to be ready to continue their studies and to not suffer much loss. So, this is what we are doing and it’s going on all around the country.
Could the Taliban change their policy and allow girls to attend school?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:10] Do you have any expectations, however, that the Taliban will indeed reverse its decision and allow girls to go to school formally?
Jamila Afghani [00:19:23] To be honest, I cannot trust the Taliban. When I met Amir Khan Muttaqi at this delegation in Oslo.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:33] This is a Taliban leader.
Jamila Afghani [00:19:36] He is acting foreign minister. And there was a meeting in Norway, and I was attending on behalf of Afghan women in that meeting. So, they were very clear cut, and they were very much sure that the schools would be open in March. But now, from that time up to now, we have conducted several press conferences, so many meetings, so many meetings outside of Afghanistan but still there is no change in the behavior of Taliban. So, I’m not very much hopeful the Taliban will keep their promise. But from the other side, I’m hopeful that we, Afghan girls and women, we are not the women of 20 years back to keep silent or we are not the women who do not understand about our rights, about the political and the international commitment the Taliban has done to international community. So, in support of our international colleagues and allies, we are trying to pressure the Taliban. And I hope at least for next year, the schools will be open, hopefully.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:53] Do you have any plans or any intentions to return to Afghanistan to continue your work from Afghanistan? I know you’re continuing your work from Canada, but are you planning to return to Afghanistan at all?
Jamila Afghani [00:21:12] I swear by God, if tomorrow is the chance that I should return back, I will return back.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:19] Well, can I ask what sort of assurances do you need? What needs to happen in order to enable you to return?
Jamila Afghani [00:21:27] If there is assurance that we will not be targeted or we will not be killed, or we will not be abandoned from our work. We need that assurance. So, although sometimes I think that I should go back without all those assurances, I feel that at least I’m alive. At least, I can contribute in a way or another way. If I’m not alive, how can I contribute? So, if we have that assurance that the amnesty the Taliban announced will happen, but practically it did not take place, if that amnesty is given to us, I will return immediately back to my country.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:11] The amnesty would be because you were a former government official, correct?
Jamila Afghani [00:22:16] Well, my role in government was not that much, which may disturb the Taliban, but my role as a civil society, and a women’s activist that always I was vocal on the injustice by this authority or by former authority, I was always a vocal voice. So that is my role as a peace builder, as a women’s rights activist, is a challenge that right now I’m speaking against them, against any injustice I’m speaking. So, this is the major concern that might be a huge barrier for my returning back to Afghanistan.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:02] Jamila, thank you so much for your time and congratulations again on this very well-deserved recognition as an Aurora laureate.
Jamila Afghani [00:23:12] Thank you very much.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:20] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.