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What more women in government would mean for Afghanistan

War is a reality of life in Afghanistan, but it's not all-consuming, say a delegation of Afghan women leaders who recently visited Washington. The country is also undergoing significant social and cultural shifts around gender and leadership. Judy Woodruff talks with Shaharzad Akbar, a senior advisor to President Ghani, and Muqaddesa Yourish of Afghanistan's Civil Service Commission.

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  • William Brangham:

    Much of the news from Afghanistan is about war, an endless war, between the government and Taliban militants. Attacks in Kabul happen almost weekly.

    But even after years of fighting, efforts to rebuild continue. Recently, a delegation of Afghan women leaders visited Washington, and we wanted to talk with some of them about what life is like for them in their country.

    This conversation took place before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered to bring the Taliban directly into the political process.

    Judy Woodruff spoke with two of these women.

    Shaharzad Akbar is a senior adviser to President Ghani. Before that, she was country director for the Open Society Foundation. Muqaddesa Yourish is a member of Afghanistan's Civil Service Commission. Prior to that, she was director of human resources for the city of Kabul.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shaharzad Akbar, Muqaddesa Yourish, welcome to the program.

    Shaharzad Akbar, let me start with you.

    People think of Afghanistan as a country in the middle of a war.

    Is it not consumed with fighting?

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    War is definitely a part of the reality — a part of our reality, an important part of it, but it's not the whole of our reality.

    It's also a country that's being reconstructed. It's a country that is undergoing a generational shift in leadership. It's also a country that's undergoing widespread social and cultural change. Gender norms are being discussed. What does it mean to be an Afghan in a modern world? This is a part of a discussion.

    Thousands of people are pursuing higher education. Millions of children are graduating from schools. So it's much broader than that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why are you trying to get more women involved in public service, in visible public service jobs?

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    It matters greatly to improving the life of everyone in Afghanistan, I think, to have women in public service, particularly in the lives of women.

    When we are around the table, we are present in the room, the discussions include women, the discussions include women's well-being, the availability of services to women, and also the specific needs of women.

    But also we have brilliant, well-educated, experienced, competent women in Afghanistan who deserve to be in the Afghan government and in senior decision-making processes, and our government needs that expertise desperately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Muqaddesa Yourish, how do you persuade women that they should take a public role? What are the questions they have when you talk to them?

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    What I always talk about is how we, as senior women in the government, are a testimony to the fact that the government of Afghanistan is very open to giving women equal opportunities to be part of the government.

    And at the same time, as my role as a commissioner in the Civil Service Commission, we have continuously been trying to make sure that we have policies such as work safety policies, and also measures such as a career coaching center for women to make sure that we provide an enabling environment for women to feel safe in the workplace and also to come forward and join the civil service.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that is a concern that many Afghan women have?

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Traditionally, you know, there's a strong disbelief about a woman's credibility and also women being in the government.

    So I think a big part of what we are doing in the Civil Service Commission in terms of making sure that we provide the enabling environment for women to be in the government also feeds into that bigger picture of making sure that we fight with that — credibility that exists for women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shaharzad Akbar, how much do you have to overcome what men think of women and their role and what their role should be?

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    There's a lot to overcome about people's perceptions, both men and women in some cases.

    I have constantly walked into rooms full of men. I sit in meetings. And the first few weeks when I had assumed my position, a lot of people looked at me and thought, oh, OK, government wants to look diverse, they have just brought a young woman here, she probably is not qualified for this job.

    So, that was the assumption. And changing that assumption, building relationships, having a voice on political issues, all of this takes a lot of daily courage, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sure.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    And every time I spoke up initially, I was hesitant, and my voice would shake. I would be worried about people's judgments, my colleague's judgments.

    But, slowly, I have started to build a network of support with other women in the government. That is something that is also very, very important, with women in the civil service, all of us support each other, give each other tips.

    But also male colleagues come to view you differently when they see your work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was going to say, some of these things happen, I think, to women everywhere, not just in Afghanistan.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Muqaddesa Yourish, are there parts of Afghanistan where you can go and openly recruit? Are there parts where you cannot? We know the Taliban still holds a great deal of influence in your country.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    There are conflicted areas where sometimes the government has control of the area, and other times the Taliban, but — and we call them sometimes — whenever they're under the control of the Taliban, we call them the inaccessible districts and villages.

    I wouldn't really say it's at the provincial level, but it's obviously at the village or district level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you think — Shaharzad, how do you think the work you are doing may change your country?

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    It's difficult living in Kabul. It's a city — and working in Kabul — it's a city that, as you know, is constantly attacked.

    And some attacks really leave you wounded and angry and also in a state of despair. But then I look at everything around me that gives me hope. I see a generation of women younger than me. They are more assertive, they are more confident, they have a lot of dreams for Afghanistan.

    I see my colleagues in the government, and I see that we are developing a common language on development, on politics. We are redefining our vision for Afghanistan.

    I see that more and more interested in politics of values, rather than politics of ethnicity or religion. And when I see all these signs, I see the major trends of how, for instance, the government is being reformed from within and it's actually becoming about service, rather than power.

    When I see these major trends, that gives me hope and inspires me every day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Muqaddesa Yourish, just finally, education. How much of this depends on young women being able to get a good education? And is education able everywhere to women?

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    We definitely have had advances when it comes to education for girls and women in the past 17 years.

    We have more and more families who are willing to send their girls to school. And, very recently, we announced 17,000 civil service vacancies, and 3,000 of them are specific vacancies for women teachers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It adds up to a lot of potential change and a lot of change right now, and certainly is another dimension to your country.

    Thank you very much for being with us, Muqaddesa Yourish and Shaharzad Akbar. We appreciate it.

  • Shaharzad Akbar:

    Thank you for having us.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Thank you for having us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

  • Muqaddesa Yourish:

    Thank you.

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