Participants of the Imam Initiative Program carried out by NECDO (Photo: NECDO)
By Jamila Afghani, Founder and Executive Director of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO)
Jamila Afghani is not my real name. ‘Afghani’ is the name that I, a feisty woman, chose for myself two decades ago when I became involved with social activism.
I decided that I would only be identified as an Afghani, rather than be linked to any ethnic group or tribe. Afghan surnames usually reflect the tribe and ethnicity of the person.
At first, my father objected to my unilateral decision to drop my surname and later on my husband made the same objection. But I stood up and stuck to my decision and am now well-known by my acquired name.
Born with a polio-induced disability, my handicap was pointed out to me at a very early age, questions of my independence and eligibility to marry were always in question. I decided early in my life that I would never be a burden to others. But what took me from self-sufficiency to helping others was a tragic occurrence.
My family and I fled to Peshawar, Pakistan because of the escalating violence in Afghanistan. We were staying in one of the refugee camps when, in a single day, 36 women and children died of heat and hunger in the camp.
A group of young women and I sprung into action and began a campaign to collect emergency aid. We were able to collect clothes and food for 1000 families in a single day. In doing this work, I realized that local activists have the energy and the power to advance change.
There was no looking back after that. My team (NECDO) and I set out to address the most pressing need for women and children in the refugee camps.
However, the 9/11 attack turned the world in Afghanistan upside down. The violence started invading communities with a renewed speed. In one of the school classes, a female trainee killed another while fighting for a piece of rope to hang their clothes. The reason for the death was the lack of education, lack of economic resources, and the inability to differentiate good from bad to make the right decisions due to decades of ongoing war, conflict, and violence.
It was apparent that people were getting used to violence as a part of their life.
That was the second turning point for me. I have decided to refocus on peace education, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding through approaches that mainstream gender equality and target socially-constructed biases.
The majority of the Afghan population is undereducated and illiterate, and they are not familiar with the Islamic teachings. Islamic extremism and the Taliban are using these weak points to gain power. They preach and propagate that fighting is a holy and Islamic cause and take advantage of people with a lack of knowledge and a desire to accomplish.
Making a shift in our work was not as easy. In Afghanistan, when a women-led group works on the issues of security or counterterrorism, it faces greater risks and receives more threats. Women face a conservative and male-dominated society, in which we are not seen as equal partners and experts, especially in highly masculinized security matters. They also fear that women could be easily corrupted and trapped in the hands of foreigners.
To overcome the resistance and advance change, my team and I began with the least controversial aspect – Quranic education. It served as an entry point. From there, we expanded to health education and, much later, to peace education and gender equality. It was our methodology to start from less controversial issues and move forward with patience.
Community life in Afghanistan centers around the mosques and even in urban areas. Weekly Friday prayers are an important event in which the preachers provide discourses on social issues. Therefore, working with imams and making them pass the message of gender equality within communities has become the focus of our work. People tend to accept what their religious leaders say, whereas projects that promote women’s rights and human rights may often be seen as “foreign” and therefore objectionable. My team and I choose the leaders carefully and pick those who have some influence with other fellow imams.
The Imam Initiative training started in 2007 with a small number of imams, and today we have reached out to 6000 imams in 22 provinces of Afghanistan. The trained imams have formed an imam volunteer network (NUA). Their sermons cover a range of topics, but the ones on marriage and inheritance receive the most interest.
Now, the only hope is that the message will spread from one to the other “like one candle lighting another.” The influential male engagement in the training programs to promote women’s rights in education, economic and political participation was an extremely successful methodology, which helped to advance the positive change of society.
I believe if one person gets that message, he or she will transfer to others. If we teach a mother, she will enlighten the whole family. If we share the message with a religious leader, he will transfer it to the whole community. When we train a group of imams to accept gender equality, the rest of the population will follow.
I believe that the change of mentality of men positively has a great impact on the transformation of societies and makes them resistant and strong.