This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Muqadasa Ahmadzai.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace, I’m Melanne Verveer.
[AUDIO: NEWS REPORT “Locals Unsatisfied with Afghan Taliban COVID Awareness Campaign”]
Melanne Verveer The voice you are hearing is of a Taliban fighter explaining how members of his militia are raising awareness about COVID-19 in the territories the Taliban control. But among the fifty or so Afghans listening to him, there is not a single woman.
It’s a fact: the Taliban rarely take women into account, nor do they allow them to speak publicly.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI TALKING TO A WOMAN ABOUT COVID IN PASHTO]
Melanne Verveer This is Muqadasa Ahmadzai. She’s only 27, but she’s not afraid to speak up. She regularly travels to Taliban strongholds where men still control access to information.
Muqadasa has, first-hand, witnessed COVID-19 spiral out of control in a country ravaged by decades of war. She refuses to stand by as women are denied facts that could literally save their lives. So she brings the information to them, with the help of a network of women.
Muqadasa was only nine years old when the Taliban came to power. She knows first-hand that women and girls in Afghanistan are still paying the price for one of the longest conflicts in the world. For her, countering disinformation is part of a larger struggle for justice and peace.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai The provinces that we travel to are for the sole reason of researching the lives of women and people and how much they are affected. How are they affected by staying at home? How is this affecting the women and their homes?
For this reason, I travel to Nuristan and Paktia.
Melanne Verveer In all of her advocacy, Muqadasa is putting her life at risk. But she’s willing to do so to ensure that women are equal citizens in Afghanistan and are fully included as the country engages in a peace process that may bring the Taliban back to power.
Our producer Caro Rolando will tell us more in this episode produced in collaboration with UN Women.
Caro Rolando As COVID-19 spreads in Afghanistan, Muqadasa Ahmadzai is intent on serving her community, even if that puts her at risk of getting infected. There have been nearly 40,000 cases diagnosed, but the government has been extremely slow in testing and the real numbers are a mystery. So Muqadasa has taken it upon herself to advise others on what they can do to stay safe.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI TALKING TO A WOMAN ABOUT COVID IN PASHTO]
Here, she is telling a woman to stay at least six feet from others, and to be aware of COVID-19 symptoms like fever and coughing.
What Muqadasa is doing is unheard of — not only is she leading a network of activists to share information about COVID-19 with other women, but she’s doing it in Taliban strongholds.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai In other regards, during COVID-19 our activism surrounded how to protect yourself from COVID and what to do if you are affected by it. We were also working on raising awareness that women should be taking advantage of this situation.
Caro Rolando Disinformation is rampant in Afghanistan. In the areas that Muqadasa visits, many women don’t even know their basic rights, let alone how to get proper treatment. And very few of them can get their information online. Afghanistan’s Telecom Authority reports that about one in five people have Internet access. Most women can’t get the facts directly from their doctors either, because it’s difficult to access medical care.
[AUDIO: NEWS REPORT “Afghanistan: Humanitarian workers at forefront of fight against Covid-19”]
Caro Rolando In this news report, a woman, wearing a burqa, talks to a male doctor, fully covered in a mask, goggles, gloves and other medical gear.
Scenes like this are very rare in Afghanistan. You mostly see them in Kabul, the capital, a city packed with international workers. But Muqadasa ventures into insurgent strongholds in the east, where women don’t talk to male doctors. She takes the doctors’ recommendations to them.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI READING] “Hugging, handshakes, kissing cheeks – can spread COVID19 virus. #SalamForSafety is beautiful, traditional & powerful in protecting our health”
Caro Rolando This is Muqadasa reading a Tweet that she wrote in collaboration with UN Women in April. It’s one of the many platforms she uses to share facts about COVID-19. And she has a wide reach among those who can go online. On Twitter, she has over 65,000 followers, and on Facebook, she has nearly 150,000. In the videos she uploads, you can see that Muqadasa is always wearing a veil. Initially it was to protect herself from retaliation. But now, she also wears it as a shield against getting infected.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai In terms of security, I work in the eastern zone and the Taliban and ISIS are present here. I am very bothered and disturbed by this. Due to these security concerns, I hide my face from the general public and the media. I fight, I work. And as I am performing my activism and work, I do not want to become a target. Because if I get killed then my activism will remain unfinished and left behind.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI LEADING A GROUP OF WOMEN IN A PROTEST FOR PEACE IN JALALABAD]
Caro Rolando Just last month, Muqadasa led a group of women through the streets of Jalalabad to call for a ceasefire, and for women’s rights.
Muqadasa’s activism started when she was a teenager growing up in Jalalabad. She studied English and journalism in secret. She hid it from her parents for as long as she could.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai My family didn’t approve of this at first and tried to discourage my activities. Even my friends and my relatives – they used to laugh at me.
Caro Rolando But Muqadasa didn’t give in. She wanted to study, she wanted to contribute to society, even during the toughest years of the war, right after the Taliban fell. Like many other young people in Afghanistan, she turned to poetry as a way to express herself. She did something that no one in her family ever imagined a woman could do: she published a book of poetry called “I still remember you”, in Pashto, her mother tongue.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI RECITING A POEM TO A CROWD]
Caro Rolando Here is Muqadasa some time later, reading a poem about peace to a large audience.
She says: Raise your hands together and collectively pray for the peace of Afghanistan.
One day an uncle came to Muqadasa’s home carrying a copy of her book. He told everyone that Muqadasa was the author. It was a complete shock. Her father was outraged, and they even beat her after finding out. But her relatives insisted that Muqadasa had a lot of talent and that they should be proud of her.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai What I heard at home from my family bothered me more than what I had to hear from outsiders because my family should be standing by me. I was beaten by my family continuously for a couple of days when they found out.
Caro Rolando But the more Muqadasa’s uncle and community members spoke out in support of her, the more her parents began to understand the importance of her work.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai I would perform my activism in secret. I would only go on the radio to hide my identity. But later on when I started appearing on TV, my family found out. I told my dad and brother that I can also do what a son can do. I told them that I can do the same thing that a son can do as a daughter, as a woman. I can bring change to the home and the society. I had a book of poems that I had published, and people came to my father and said that the work a man couldn’t do, your sons couldn’t do, your daughter did. And that’s what changed for my father and he started to believe in me. And slowly I was able to prove to him that I can become an activist and make him proud.
Caro Rolando Ultimately, Muqadasa was able to convince her father that women could write poetry and do many more things. She slowly gained more and more autonomy. Until one day, in 2017, Muqadasa did something that no other woman in her city had done before: she painted murals for peace in the streets of her hometown, Jalalabad.
In that region, the Taliban and the Islamic State insurgent groups dominate vast territories. But Muqadasa and other women took to the streets to paint.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai Our idea of painting graffiti on the walls was to encourage combatants to renounce violence. Our message was, “We call upon you as our brothers, join with us and spray love instead of blood.”
Caro Rolando Using bright yellows, reds, greens and blues, Muqadasa and her colleagues created a beautiful abstract image. Her idea was to use graffiti to encourage combatants to renounce violence.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai When we first launched this campaign, people flocked around us. People would go back and forth with their cars. They’d laugh, they’d stare, they’d stand around us wondering “what are these people doing?”
Caro Rolando Muqadasa wants to ensure that the community work she does translates into sustainable and long-term inclusion of women in the peace talks and in government. This is an important approach, according to Megan Manion, who works with UN Women Afghanistan.
Megan Manion Muqadasa’s work is extremely unique in Afghanistan. And it’s not only the work with Ending violence against women and providing services and support directly to survivors of violence, but it’s also that work of blending art and community action through the peace campaigns that she does that really, I think, bring a human component to the work that she does and also brings the possibility for people who are participating to enter at different points, but reach the same or similar end goal, which is a more supportive environment for women’s rights.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: AFGHANISTAN YOUTH PARLIAMENT – 2009]
Caro Rolando In 2016, at only 23 years old, Muqadasa was democratically elected to the Afghan Youth Parliament, which was launched with the support of the United Nations Population Fund.
The aim of the Youth Parliament is to educate young people about democracy. Muqadasa says it had been a great opportunity for her.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai The Youth Parliament made a very huge impact in my life, especially in terms of teaching us how to be a politician and a diplomat. In the Youth Parliament we get to recommend policies to the government. So, this has made a very positive influence in my life and in this aspect we were able to, as youth, recommend policies for the government to provide what the youth needs.
Caro Rolando Youth leadership is incredibly important in Afghanistan, given that this country has one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the world. 63 percent of the population is below 25 years old.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: COUNTING VOTES IN THE AFGHANISTAN YOUTH PARLIAMENT – 2009]
Caro Rolando Here’s a member of the Youth Parliament counting vote. Two years after getting elected to the Youth Parliament, Muqadasa became the Deputy Speaker. All of this experience has allowed her to carry out even more on-the-ground advocacy and to do so with expertise, especially as it pertains to peace activism and women’s rights.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI AT THE LOYA JIRGA]
Caro Rolando A few months ago, Muqadasa travelled to Kabul to take part in the Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly of prominent Afghans.
Over 3,000 people attended. They gathered to discuss whether the government should release 400 Taliban prisoners in order to move forward with the peace talks. This is a major concession and Muqadasa wanted to know why other women were willing to support their release, given all the violence the Taliban imposed upon their communities over the years. In this video, Muqadasa asks another woman at the Loya Jirga about her thoughts on some of the policies they are considering at the gathering.
[AUDIO CLIP: MUQADASA AHMADZAI AT THE LOYA JIRGA]
“Muqadasa Ahmadzai Dear sister, you have come to the consultative Loya Jirga and there was a discussion on whether to release 400 prisoners who are with the government or not. What was your advice?
Woman participant My advice was that if they are to be released, then they should be released, so that the war is eliminated from our homeland, because the number of widows, orphans, disabled and martyrs in our country has increased dramatically. And we are very tired.”
Caro Rolando These women show great strength and courage by supporting the release of the Taliban prisoners. They’re willing to concede freedom to these men – who didn’t allow them to participate in society for years, just to achieve peace. But the fact that they are able to speak about this topic, in public, while being filmed, is a milestone, as Megan Manion, from UN Women, explains:
Megan Manion Women’s inclusion in events like the Loya Jirga are important because it represents direct engagement either through a consultative or leadership process in the early phases of a peace process. And so it’s really critical to ensure that women are included even at this early stage in this political decision-making body, so that their perspectives and expertise can be represented in the decision that’s taken.
Caro Rolando There are only four women on the Afghanistan government’s team of 21 negotiators. Like Muqadasa, they’ve risked their lives doing their work. But they continue to show up, facing their former oppressors in hopes of being heard. And their voices are essential, as Hillary Clinton said during a landmark speech at the United Nations, last March.
[AUDIO: SECRETARY CLINTON AT UN EVENT ON THE US/TALIBAN PEACE AGREEMENT – 2020] “Hear from them directly about what is at stake in these negotiations. The women of Afghanistan have made profound contributions to their country towards reconstruction and development, they have used their voices and influence to support a moderate Afghanistan, to serve as a bulwark against the return to extremism.”
Caro Rolando Muqadasa is doing her part. In 2018, she ran for a seat in Parliament. In Afghanistan’s Parliament, only 68 of the 249 seats are reserved for women. It was a difficult race and Muqadasa didn’t win, but she plans to keep running until she does. She’s only 27, but she already knows what her priorities will be when she makes it.
Muqadasa Ahmadzai We have to find a way to involve those women as well in the voting process or create a strong policy or a strong law that women should not be married off at a young age.
Caro Rolando At the time of this recording the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have restarted in Qatar. Muqadasa makes sure that the women she visits know about them, and the impact they’ll have on their future.
Melanne Verveer The peace process has major implications for Afghan women like Muqadasa. They could lose their hard earned rights and opportunities, unless their voices are heard and given priority in the negotiations with the Taliban. At this critical moment, we must all stand with the women of Afghanistan.
This story was produced by Caro Rolando in collaboration with UN Women. Special thanks to Mehek Mazhar and Hirra Farooqi for their voiceover and translation work.
If you like what you heard, please spread it far and wide. You can subscribe to the podcast on your favorite listening app, or find all of our episodes at seekingpeacepodcast.com.
In our next episode, we’ll speak with South Sudanese Model and LGBTQI activist Aweng Ade-Chuol. As a proud advocate of mental health awareness, Aweng will tell us about her own struggles and talk about why it is important to offer mental health support to everyone – especially refugee girls.
Aweng Ade-Chuol I’ve never been to South Sudan. And that was, kind of, quote unquote stolen from me, I would say. I never got to see what home really is, because last time my mother was there, she was pregnant with me, ended up in Kenya from Kenya to Australia. It’s just like – I hear about it, I eat the food, I speak the language. But somehow I’ve never been in a space that I love so very much.
Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
The second season of Seeking Peace is produced by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and Adonde Media, in collaboration with UN Women and Our Secure Future.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.