Shattering the Stereotypes: A Conversation with Afghan Peacebuilders Mary Akrami and Palwasha Hassan

Since 2001, when the Bush administration declared that the war on terror was “also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” the ideological rallying cry of “liberating” Afghan women from their culture and religion has dominated media and policy circles. Afghan women are frequently portrayed as being deprived of their rights, oppressed by the veil, and victims of forced marriage, honor crimes, and violent abuse. However, women peacebuilders from across the country are challenging these narratives and pushing others to recognize the detrimental effects they have on Afghan women and society.

According to Mary Akrami, Director of the Afghan Women’s Network and former Executive Director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, “People have forgotten that 40 years ago, Afghanistan was very liberal. Since as far as 1919, women had access to education and held leadership positions. It was a time when women were considered equal to men and were respected. They played a crucial role in conflict mediation and resolution. If a woman placed her chadar between warring parties, the dispute would end then and there.”

“It is not fair to erase this part of our history, but unfortunately, it is a price we had to pay as a result of the war that destroyed so much of our history.”

“It is true that historically, Afghan women have had fewer opportunities than men. Afghanistan was a poor country, and we did not have the same facilities or luxuries that other countries had. Despite this, Afghan women played a big role in peacebuilding, long before the first peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban took place. It is not fair to erase this part of our history, but unfortunately, it is a price we had to pay as a result of the war that destroyed so much of our history.”

Palwasha Hassan, Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center and a founding member of the Afghan Women’s Network, echoed her colleague’s sentiments. “In 2001, when the U.S. attacked and bombed Afghanistan, I was one of the young people who were vehemently opposed to the Taliban’s policies, but at the same time, I was not for the bombardment of our country or the killing of our people. The U.S. came in with big words, claiming they would liberate Afghan women and make our country beautiful. All of the flowery language was there, but they failed to ask us what we really wanted. We wanted peace. Our motto was, ‘We lost our fathers and husbands to the Soviet war; we do not want to lose our brothers and sons to the American war.’”

A composite photo of Mary Akrami and Palwasha Hassan, the two Afghan women featured in the blog post.

Pictured above: Mary Akrami (left), Director of the Afghan Women’s Network, and Palwasha Hassan (right), Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center.

Two decades since the war on terror began, Afghan women peacebuilders continue to face stereotypes on a daily basis. During Akrami’s first trip to the United States, when she was presented with the International Women of Courage Award by the Department of State, she was asked by her taxi driver if she ever met Osama bin Laden, to which she jokingly replied, “I came to meet him at the White House.” While serving as a fellow at Columbia University, she was surprised at just how many people thought Osama bin Laden was Afghan or that Afghanistan remains the headquarters of the Taliban. “They are in Doha; they are in Islamabad,” she exclaimed, “not in Afghanistan.”

One of the more painful stereotypes these peacebuilders are faced with and constantly find themselves denouncing is that their religion, Islam, does not afford women equal rights and is incompatible with democracy and liberal values.

“Our everyday work is about justice, the Islamic principle adalah.”

Hassan stated, “Our everyday work is about justice, the Islamic principle adalah. In my opinion, we are doing more than some mullahs or religious preachers, who use religion in a way that makes other people feel guilty about what they think. People like me view religion as a form of guidance. Religion is all about personal conviction. We have to help those who are in need and be respectful of everyone around us. There is no coercion in Islam. Those who use force and kill innocent people are giving a wrong image of religion.”

Akrami reiterated this belief. “The extremists that claim they are following the rules of Islam are not talking about the real Islam, and unfortunately, women and children have suffered because of it. From a very young age, I was taught that as a Muslim, I must be kind and respectful towards other human beings. Islam teaches me that I should not ignore those who are in need, but rather, I should help them. My religion gave me the courage to do the work I do today.”

These women have indeed displayed tremendous courage and resilience, especially when meeting face-to-face with members of the Taliban. Women have played critical roles as leaders and peacebuilders throughout Afghanistan’s peace process, including articulating women’s rights in a framework of Islamic values that Taliban members can understand.

Recently, Akrami confronted members of the Taliban about the way they misrepresent Islam to achieve their political objectives. “I told them, ‘The way you want to implement or impose Islam is not the real Islam. For me, the real Islam is that I should not abuse my power. I should not disrespect or hurt another human being.’ Through the dialogue we had, I realized that the Taliban also suffered from the war. They must understand that if they want peace, they must accept today’s Afghanistan and acknowledge the real Islam and the rights of women. We can never go back.”

“I have always believed that the solution lies in bringing the Taliban to the table instead of resorting to killing and violence,” Hassan said. “It is difficult. A lot of women asked me how we could make peace with the Taliban. ‘These are the same people who killed our loved ones and did so many horrible things,’ they said. Their concerns were valid, but we want to make sure we are not part of the losing side. Eventually, the women decided they wanted to help bring peace and make their voices heard. We lost everything in war, and we do not want to lose in peace. You cannot end violence through violence, only through peace.”

“The international community must place its trust in Afghan women.”

Moving forward, Hassan believes, “We must continue to encourage interactions between the Taliban, the media, and women’s groups and other civil society organizations. That will allow for peace talks to run more smoothly and help build confidence and trust between the two sides.”

“The international community must place its trust in Afghan women,” Akrami argues. “The women of Afghanistan have committed to serving their people. We ask everyone around the world to stop viewing Afghan women as victims. They should trust us and know that the women of Afghanistan will never give up.”


Hareem Fatima Abdullah is a former research assistant at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She recently graduated from George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government and International Politics, with the highest distinction.

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