As part of Karuna Center's 20th Anniversary year—connecting with our past, and looking ahead to build the future—we look back to an interview our Executive Director, Olivia Stokes Dreier, did in 2007. She spoke with Orzala Ashraf, a participant during a training Karuna Center gave in Kabul in partnership with Institute for Inclusive Security. The six-day multi-sector training seminar was entitled Securing Afghanistan: Women's Vital Contributions. The training culminated in a policy forum held at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought together more than 60 Afghan leaders and 17 international policy makers.
Though our time with Orzala was brief, we were honored by her active participation in the seminar and moved by her courageous work during the Taliban years and afterward. Eight years later, Orzala is still an active human rights & civil society activist in Afghanistan. She is founder of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, and she now directs the Women and Youth Leadership Centre, an organization she also founded, after we met, in 2009. She is also now a prominent scholar and a Trustee of Afghan Aid, in addition to being a member of the World Economic Forum. Orzala recently completed her PhD thesis on local governance in Afghanistan at the University of London.
OA: Thank you very much. My name is Orzala Ashraf, I am the founder of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan [HAWCA], and I am an elected member for two networks in the country: Afghan Women's Network, and Civil Society and Human Rights Network.
OSD: Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about the organization you started – how you started it, why you started it, and how you were able to keep it going during the Taliban years?
OA: I was born in Afghanistan, I grew up here, and did my primary school education in Kabul. But due to the start of civil war in Kabul, me and my family had to leave the country, leave our home, and become refugees in Pakistan in 1989. It was an absolute new way of living in the refugee camp: it was dusty, full of complications and with lack of access to all kinds of basic resources. So from age 11 up until almost my 20s, I grew up in a refugee community. And living with refugees, and dealing with their daily issues—of girls my age, or women who were widows, or orphans—encouraged me to seek some way to support these women and children.
I was lucky enough to be allowed by my parents to continue my education at least up to secondary education, and then I returned back to my refugee camp. In this refugee camp, I started running one class with my relatives and neighbors living nearby—that was a literacy class. Actually, some of my students are now running schools in the refugee camp. So that was how I started to get involved more in the social field and supporting women and children. Apart from the need over there, meeting or discussing with NGOs and international NGOs was also another motive encouraging me that something was possible.
Ten years later, I traveled back to Kabul, and it was a city of ghosts. It was a calm city, and everywhere you could see dust. It really shocked me. This was two years after the Taliban domination of the country. Wherever I went and visited friends and family members and relatives living here, I saw serious concern about education restrictions by the Taliban on girls and women. And everyone came to me and said, "Look, you are living at least a little bit away from us, in the nearest country or city where you can do something – use your contacts to provide us with some little support." As a result, I returned and discussed the situation with my colleagues and said, "We have to do something: people are willing to learn, girls are ready to get into schools and classes, and how can we help them?" I decided to organize an organization together with my friends. We founded HAWCA [Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan].
We started through our personal connections with families or people that we knew to find some women who are able to teach. Most of them were teachers before the war and before the situation of the Taliban. They said, "We are willing to teach and to contribute our houses as classrooms," and our [HAWCA's] contribution was materials; we would smuggle books from Peshawar and bring them into Kabul, and we would buy them some blackboards. At that time you would not easily find blackboards in town because there was no market for blackboards and school materials.
Each class was organized in an underground way, meaning in a house, in a family home; they had one room that was an ordinary room, like a guest room for sitting—and they had a blackboard but behind a window and curtains. When the class was starting, they would open the curtain and they would learn; and the moment there was a knock at the door or something, they would close the curtains so that nobody knows that they were schools.
Well, I have to say thank you, to you, for coming all the way from the United States and providing this us with great opportunity for discussing violence or particularly about this conflict. My opinion in the moment about the country is that, first, I am not agreed to call Afghanistan a post-conflict context. Half of the country is already at war, although I can agree it is different from a real fighting time. If the door shuts loudly, I jump a meter high; it is still a very fragile situation. It is a little bit more strong on the side of violent conflict than on the side of peace.
I think that the approach the government in this country and even the international community took [in the years since the military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan] was not the collaborative part of our experience, as we discussed this morning. It was, rather, avoiding conflict. In order to show something to the world: “Look, we win this war,” they avoided many conflicts existing in this country. For example, there have been enormous atrocities, enormous violations of human rights; nobody discusses it.
We have this famous proverb that says “teer pa heer.” Teer means past, and heer means forgetting: we should forget the past. My strong belief is that as long as we go on with this teer pa heer ideology or policy in saying we have to forget what happens in the past, we are not going to have a really good future. And in this country the main approach was this teer pa heer approach: to say, “OK, whatever is past, we forget it.” That’s the result of returning back to a fragile situation, because we did not really resolve the conflicts existing, but rather we avoid looking at them.
One of my hopes is that we, though our own efforts at the civil society level, take lots of steps to resolve the conflicts and not to avoid them, to use negotiations, and to go countrywide, to the rural areas, to communities everywhere, and introduce to them that always, peace is an option: It is in favor of everyone in their family, everyone in the community, everyone in the district, province, and country level to use peaceful means, and not violent means, and that can be possible through peacebuilding.