Noorjahan Akbar is an internationally acclaimed gender equality and human rights activist. She has led nation-wide campaigns and protests in defence of human rights including Afghanistan’s first ever-march against street harassment. Noorjahan has worked with several organizations focusing on women's empowerment and ending gender-based violence and is also an acclaimed author.
She has been recognized for her efforts for gender equality around the world and is published on Al Jazeera & The New York Times. She was Glamour Magazine’s College Women of the Year in 2013 and featured on Forbes’s Women Changing the World, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women, and The Daily Beast’s Women Who Shake the World lists. Noorjahan currently runs Free Women Writers, a collective of activists and writers in Afghanistan advocating for gender equality and social justice and works as Communications Manager at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
Growing up in Afghanistan and Pakistan what was the driving force that led you to become a human rights activist and advocate for women?
It is hard to pinpoint one moment in time as the driver of my interest in human rights activism. It’s more a result of a culmination of events, family upbringing, and every-day experiences. My parents, both deeply passionate about social justice, taught me to turn compassion into action. My experiences as a woman in this unequal world, from experiencing street harassment as a child to watching friends and classmates be forced into marriages, also impacted me and led me to activism. I believe it is hard to be a woman aware of the prevalent and global violence women face in this world and not take action of some kind.
Your grandmother never had a formal education and your mum was among the first generation of girls in her town to go to school. Tell us about your personal journey with education and the impact this has had on your life?
I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to attend George School and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and American University in Washington, D.C. It took a lot of courage for my parents to encourage me to travel to the United States at the age of 16 to pursue my education. It was also made possible by the support of some really kind people who invested in my success, whether it was by providing me with scholarships or hosting me at their homes during winter breaks when I couldn’t afford to fly home. Above all that, I owe it to the incredible women of my country, including my mother and my grandmother, who fought for the right to education for their children, boys and girls, and continue the fight today. While I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and the number of women who are able to attend university has grown tremendously in Afghanistan over the last 13 years, we are still a minority. The vast majority of girls in my country are still not able to attend primary school. Security threats- such as the Taliban burning girls’ schools around the country- street harassment, lack of female teachers, schools, safe buildings, and toilets, lack of safe transportation to and from schools, and a myriad of other big and small factors prevent girls from unlocking their full potential and the fight to ensure their human right to education is far from over.
In 1996 The Taliban took control of Afghanistan, banning all schools for girls. Your parents fled to Pakistan as refugees so that you could get an education. Tell us about their decision and what this meant for them.
My parents’ decision to leave everything they know, their community and their home to make sure my sisters and I could go to school was transformative for our family. They took a tremendous risk to invest in their daughters despite having to live as refugees in another country where they didn’t know the language and had very few social protections and I wish more parents did that. It’s because of their sacrifice that my sisters and I are now able to work for change and hopefully, open the path for others to come.
Whilst your family were in Pakistan there they set up a learning centre for other Afghanistan refugees. Tell us about this centre and the impact it had on other refugees.
At the time there was a big community of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and they needed access to education in our own languages. My parents, along with another Afghan family, decided to open a school for our refugee community. My sisters and I both learned and taught at the school. Now that I think back about it, the school was more than an educational institution, it was a community where Afghan refugees could come to celebrate our culture and our shared history.
When you were 12 your family returned to Afghanistan and you went to school. What risks did you face?
The fall of the Taliban opened a window of opportunity for people in Afghanistan. There was a glimmer of hope that things would improve and we would finally be able to live in a democratic society that can provide for the basic needs of its people while guaranteeing their freedoms. I was thrilled to be going to school in my own country. I remember the day I enrolled in school like it was yesterday. I saw so many smiling faces of girls, many of whom were in school for the first time after six years of Taliban banning girl’s education. Even at that young age, I remember facing a lot of harassment on the way to and from school. A group of us girls would walk together to decrease the risks, but “catcalling” and stalking of girls was shockingly common. There were also reports of remaining members of the Taliban driving around in motorcycles and throwing acid in the faces of school girls. The reality outside Kabul where I lived, was different. In certain parts of the country, not much has changed, and girls still, 18 years later, can’t go to school unless their families move to bigger towns and cities.
People often ask you now if anything has changed in Afghanistan. What would you say to that question?
Afghanistan today is not the Afghanistan of 2001. While the fight continues, we have more children attending schools than ever in the history of the country. We have women working in virtually every field. More young people are able to travel globally for education and learn new ways of life and perspectives. There is a flourishing art and media scene that is challenging norms and championing progressive causes. This is a new Afghanistan, a resilient Afghanistan that will not go backwards. As people inside the country risk their lives to defend their hard-won rights and freedoms, I feel it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to stand with them. That doesn’t mean necessarily supporting foreign troops in the country, but it does mean ensuring that the human rights of the people of Afghanistan are not traded for a political win for the United States. Standing with the people of Afghanistan means making sure we, Afghan women and youth, are at every table where our future is being discussed.
What is one thing you want people to learn and take from your experiences?
I want people to know that gender inequality and patriarchy is a global and deadly threat and it will take all of us to end it. 1 in 3 women around the world have faced physical or sexualized violence. More than 80% have faced harassment. Women continue to be deprived of education, access to basic healthcare, the basic freedom to safely exist in public spaces, and other human rights. The majority of women killed in homicides are murdered by a current or former intimate partner. These are not only women’s issues, they signal a crisis in our homes, communities, and nations. It’s past time that more men joined the fight for gender equity and past time that our nations invested in making women’s lives and safety a priority.
You have led nation-wide campaigns and protests in defence of human rights. What have been the highlights for you so far?
The highlight has been speaking to Afghan women from different walks of life. Through Free Women Writers, travelling to rural areas of the country, and collaborating with other activists and writers, I’ve learned so much from the courageous women of my country. They’ve taught me how to resist and persevere and I am forever grateful to them for that.
What caused you to lead your country’s first ever-march against street harassment and what impact has this had?
Before the rally, I had organized a group of activists and we’d reached out to women from all walks of life in Kabul to ask them what obstacles they faced on a daily basis. Nearly every woman we spoke to said street harassment hindered their active participation in society and made them feel unsafe. Research now shows that 90% of women in Kabul and other big cities in Afghanistan have faced some form of harassment, from physical harassment to verbal abuse, to stalking, to threats. We organized the rally to recognize street harassment as an issue and I believe we accomplished that. Before the march, street harassment was not on the agenda of the major human rights and women’s rights organizations in the country. Today, that has changed, and Afghanistan has a law on the books about harassment.
What is Free Women Writers, why did you start it and what impact has this had on other women?
Free Women Writers is a volunteer-based collective of Afghan women writers and advocates in Afghanistan and the diaspora. We use storytelling online, through books, and at events to advance women’s human rights. We also sponsor a young woman’s higher education in Afghanistan every year. Since our inception in 2013, we’ve published two books for Afghan women: a collective of women’s writings and a guide for women facing violence. We’ve also reached thousands of people through our online platforms and our events in Afghanistan and the diaspora to organize and advocate for equality and justice.
What advice would you give to girls who are about to make decisions on their education and future careers?
Go for it and don’t be afraid of failure. It’s not failure if you learn from it.
Looking at how far you’ve come and everything you have achieved - if you could go back and tell your teenage self something what would it be?
I would encourage younger me to be more compassionate with myself. I started activism when I was 13 years old. I would go to camps where internally displaced families lived and teach the girls how to read and write, on my own and as a volunteer. Ever since, I’ve pushed myself so hard to make positive change and that has come at a cost. I have faced threats and harassment and online smear campaigns. I have also been exhausted for the past two years, facing chronic pain, alleviated stress, and depression. Some of this could’ve been prevented by taking breaks. I am working on being better at self-care and encouraging fellow activists to make time for themselves because you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Are there any particular female role models or mentors who have acted as a source of support or inspiration for you?
My mother and my sisters continue to be my inspiration in life. My mother, a retired teacher, has fought all her life for the right to quality education and continues to be a fierce advocate for equality. My sisters- an artist, a political activist, and two child rights advocates- all do incredible work that I am in awe of every day. To be honest, I am inspired by all Afghan women, especially those who continue to fight for change in Afghanistan. Their work is difficult and risky, but it will pave the way for a better, safer, more equal future for all our children.
What’s next for you?
After more than ten years of volunteer activism, while going to school or maintaining jobs to make ends meet, I am taking a short break for self-care. Activism is draining. It’s often thankless work and women activists in particular, face tremendous harassment and threats online and offline. While on a hiatus from volunteer activism, I’m working with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which is a human rights organization that defends the best interest and rights of immigrant children in the U.S. As a former child refugee and current immigrant, I feel honoured to have the opportunity to give back and support this organization’s important work in a small way.
Education and empowerment in Afghanistan: Noorjahan Akbar at TEDxLafayetteCollege
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