She is one of only a handful of female Afghan MPs who speaks up for women’s rights, and faces death threats for her views. She has endured street beatings from extremists, a Taliban attack that resulted in a miscarriage, a secretly polygamous husband, and multiple assassination attempts – still Shukria Barakzai, 43, is fighting for a number of different efforts including gender equality in a country where 85% of women have no formal education and are illiterate; improve the understanding and knowledge of Afghan women in a society where more than 50% of girls are married or engaged by the time they reach age 12 to protect them from kidnapping and rape; and reshape the political and social landscape of Afghanistan, one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman.
How did Barakzai become a high-profile advocate of women’s rights and media freedom in a country where women’s rights are severely restricted?
In 1999, she fell ill and went to see a doctor; Taliban extremists caught her on the street without her husband and beat her for what they saw as a crime. This incident spurred Barakzai into action. She started an underground school for girls, and her students would hide learning materials under their burqas and clothes to keep religious police at bay. When the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in late 2001, she resumed her education and gained a degree in archaeology and geology from Kabul University.
In 2002, Barakzai founded Aina-E-Zan (Women’s Mirror), a national weekly newspaper, to encourage women to fight for their own rights, and to build a strong democracy and civil society. In the October 2004 parliamentary elections—beating out her own husband for the seat—she was elected as a member of the House of the People or Wolesi Jirga.
“He was a multimillionaire at that time. [He] spent half a million US dollars, [with] big pollsters, and I was like a poor woman with one microphone, with a loudspeaker. I did a street campaign. Even today it’s not an easy job for any woman to [be using] a loudspeaker and walking on the street and asking for democracy and explaining the election and asking men and women to vote for a woman. Luckily, I got triple — or maybe four times — the votes that my husband did,” Barakzai told Mic.
She believes she won because she didn’t run on slogans, but instead built a campaign on two simple ideas – rights and justice. “We all are thirsty for that. Justice in Afghanistan is like oxygen for us,” she added.
However, Afghanistan’s most outspoken feminist MP paid a heavy price for her activism. In November 2014, she survived an assassination attempt that killed three people. Officials said the suicide bomber was driving a car which attempted to ram Barakzai’s vehicle as she headed to Parliament. Unfazed by the attack on her life, she made a national address from her hospital bed and was back to work within 48 hours.
As a chairwoman of the Defiance Committee and a member of the Standing Committee on Peace and International Security of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, she has devoted much of her time as a politician advocating for peace and stability. In June 2015, Barakzai met with a Taliban delegation in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate and discuss the possibility of a power-sharing deal that includes equal rights for all Afghans.
She continues to campaign on issues such as maternal and infant mortality, child marriage, forced marriage, polygamy, and violence against women. “In my opinion the burqa is not that important. What is important is education, democracy and freedom,” she states.
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