Category Archives: Perspectives

Audacity to Dream


For nearly three decades, the people of Afghanistan have been subjected to a succession of brutal wars, from the Soviet occupation (1979–1989) to a period of tribal civil wars (1990–1996) and the oppressive rule of the Taliban (1996–2001). These conflicts have left Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy devastated, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.

Prior to the Soviet occupation and Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was a relatively liberal country with a progressive outlook on women’s rights. Afghan women comprised 50% of government workers, 70% of schoolteachers, and 40% of doctors in Kabul. However, the effects of war and the Taliban regime quickly effaced the rights of women in public life and relegated them solely to the domestic domain.

In 2004, a new constitution was approved that has made women and men equal citizens under the law and mandates that women make up 25% of the new parliament. Billions of dollars in foreign aid have poured into the country, both through government-sponsored assistance programs and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).(1) Despite these relative improvements, the state of women in the country can be captured in the following statistics:

One of the worst places to be a woman: breaking down the numbers(2)

  • Afghanistan is the 2nd worst country in the world to be a mother.
  • 1 woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth in Afghanistan. In Australia the risk of maternal death is less than 1 in 7,400.
  • 87% of women in Afghanistan experience domestic violence.
  • 13% of females over 15 years old are literate, compared to 43% of males.
  • Almost double the number of boys compared to girls are enrolled in school.
  • The average Afghan woman won’t live to see her 50th birthday. In Australia female life expectancy is 84 years.
  • Afghan women earn 25 cents or less for every dollar men earn.
  • 27 per cent of parliamentary seats are held by women.
  • Only 16 per cent of peace agreements in the last two decades have contained a reference to women and gender.
  • According to local reports, from mid-2012 to early 2013, 30 female political and civil society leaders have been killed. Female political candidates are the target of 90% of all threats against candidates in Afghanistan.
  • Targeted attacks on civilian women and children as they go to work or school have increased by 20% in 2012 compared to 2011.

Even after 14 years of Taliban rule, equal opportunity in Afghanistan depends on more than sheer willpower. For Afghan women, straying from society’s norms can be dangerous. A brutal reminder of this was the mob murder in Kabul in March 2015 of Farkhunda, a female Qur’an teacher falsely accused of blasphemy after getting into an argument with a cleric.(3)

3 years earlier in 2012, Tahmina Kohistani trained in a dilapidated stadium, without proper running shoes, to be the only woman athlete to represent Afghanistan in the London Olympics. Her coach had to fight men outside the stadium in Kabul who told her not to run, that she was a bad Muslim woman, asked her to go home, “to get behind the man”. A taxi driver kicked her out of his cab when he found out she was training for the Olympics.

In all the abuse, Kohistani realized: deep in her lived not only a sprinter, but also a fighter.Tahmina+Kohistani+lTzQYBi6WyHmI will continue. Someone should respond this way. And someone should take these problems and I am the one who is ready for the problem.”

So she ran. And ran. Because no one could make her believe churning her legs as fast as she could possibly make them go was against Allah and the Muslim faith, which she remains so devoted to. She refused to compete without the hijab, especially during the holy season of Ramadan.

Only one man’s opinion mattered to her, and after early reservations, Kohistani’s father told her simply: “Run. Run for Afghanistan. Run like you’ve never run before.”

On the day she qualified for the Olympic games, she began to cry underneath her red, black and green scarf, cry for every little girl who was told not to run by her parents in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. She cried because those girls would never know the joy of moving with the wind in the middle of a dead sprint.

Kohistani finished the 100-meter sprint in 14.42 seconds, almost four seconds behind the world record. She did not qualify for the next round and finished 31st out of 32 competitors.

As if that mattered!

The Afghan sprinter wept openly as she spoke, tears dotting her hijab. “It was one of my dreams to go to the Olympic Games. And right now I achieve my dream and my dream come true and I am very happy for that.”

I’m here to represent a country with lots of problems right now,” she continued. “Right now we are facing the loss of children, the loss of family, every day there are bomb blasts, there is killing – it is very important for me to represent a country that has lots of problems like this.”

Right now, when I go back home, there will be a lot of problems, people who are waiting for me, people who will do things wrong with me.”

All the world thinks we just want war and we don’t do our best for peace but it’s not right. We need freedom, we love freedom.”

What I face, I face all the challenges, cross all the problems, and right now I am here.” Here. The Olympics.(4)

During her time in London, Kohistani was most struck by how much everyone smiles. “It is the thing I have learnt from your people – when I go back home I am going to do this with my people also. It is the most wonderful thing.”(5)

2015 – In August, Zainab ran an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul with three other young women. As they entered the capital, they were bombarded with theKP_573044_crop_1200x720 kind of insults reserved for Afghan women who have the audacity to do anything out of the ordinary in public.

The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like ‘prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam’,” Zainab recalled. The women had to cut the race short.

A marathon is exhausting for most practitioners, but few have to muster the additional willpower to endure the kind of abuse Zainab, 25, faces each time she laces her trainers to venture outdoors. The fitness regime of this sole Afghan woman, who took part in Afghanistan’s first official marathon – the Bamiyan marathon, was limited to jogging laps in her family’s small backyard because running outside was unsafe.

Sport has become, for Zainab, a tool to encourage Afghan women to defy cultural norms and assert themselves in society. As part of a generation that hardly remembers Taliban rule, and whose values evolve faster than those of society, Zainab has seen many male figures of authority try to thwart her few options to exercise.(3)

2016 – Women’s sports programs in Afghanistan, long a favorite of Western donors, have all but collapsed.

Even the relatively few encouraging stories, like women’s taekwondo, one of the sports that may see an Afghan woman sent to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are at best qualified successes. Afghanistan’s strongest hope for a female taekwondo medalist, Somaya Ghulami, 23, actually lives in Iran and commutes to practice sessions. She said she would never be able to compete if she had to live in her own country.(6)

As dreams sprint; Change comes at a crawl in this war-torn country
One half heckles, the other simply yearns to be free!






Flexible Working for Women key to Gender Equality in the Workplace?

Jan 21, 2014; one of the world’s leading financiers, Mohamed El-Erian resigned from the post of CEO and Co-Chief Investment Officer at PIMCO, a global investment firm and one of the world’s largest bond investors. Later in the year, he told Worth magazine that he left his globetrotting job because “his need to be a good father was greater than his desire to be a good investor”.

According to El-Erian, it is the modern workplace, that men like him have been in charge of, that needs to change. “I am incredibly fortunate to be able to structure my life in this way,” he confessed. “Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury. But, hopefully, as companies give more attention to the importance of work-life balance, more and more people will be in a better position to act holistically on what’s important to them.”(1)

As per 2014 Pew Research Center report, an increasing number of men in the U.S. have been making the choice to share equally in childcare or decide to be stay-at-home dads.(2)

◾ In 1989, 10% of fathers were stay-at-home parents. This grew to 16% by 2014.
◾ Only 5% of stay-at-home dads in 1989 said caring for family was the main reason for staying home. Now, that number is 21%.

Jenny Garrett, the author of Rocking Your Role, a guide for women who earn the main salary in their family, welcomed the trend. However, she warned that there was still a “taboo” around female breadwinners and stay-at-home fathers.
It’s something that’s kept quiet or treated as a bit embarrassing. We need to have more conversations about it in order for it to become more acceptable and for people to understand what makes the family unit work,” she said.(3)

In a 2013 debate hosted by the Diversity Council of Australia on ‘Flexible working hours for women is key to gender Equality’, ABC journalist Annabel Crabb started with a snapshot of her own ‘ridiculous’ career and family life that is ably facilitated by flexibility before continuing the argument for the affirmative team. She highlighted the cultural barrier at the root of all workplace inequality.

We are still gobsmacked when a man takes parental leave because there is still a pretty bloody reliable assumption that women will be shouldering most of the caring responsibilities,” Crabb explained. “We’re not getting anywhere until the work life juggle is everybody’s juggle; not the woman’s. Women can’t move between their careers and home with ease until men do the same. Every man who works till 10pm at his desk every night isn’t only promoting his own career but he is limiting others.”

She argued that it is not the fault of flexibility itself that it remains a women’s issue rather it is the fault of the cultural barriers that need dismantling.(4)

Justine Roberts, the co-founder of Mumsnet, says despite the increase in stay-at-home fathers, men are still significantly less likely than women to be the main child carer in families.
It would be nice to think that one day it will simply be a matter of individual couples’ preferences that determines which parent downscales their career,” she said.(3)

Societies need to empower men to take equal responsibility in family life.

On the other hand, Al Watts, the president of the US National At-Home Dad Network says, “Stay-at-home dads have a unique situation – we don’t have role models so we are kind of doing this on our own and trying to figure out how to navigate the relationships that are different than we expected them to be when we first got married.

As women have taken on more high-paying careers, the assumption that they’ll stay home with the children has become less automatic.(2)

Understanding the changing needs, a new Shared Parental Leave rule was passed in the UK this April. According to this parents can now evenly split 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay between them during their baby’s first year. Research has found that 83 per cent of those who are considering becoming parents would want to take shared parental leave when they have a child.

Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: “This Edwardian notion that women should stay at home while men go out and support the family has simply no place in this day and age. We need a modern Britain and a fair society that works for families, not against them. We’ve introduced shared parental leave so that parents can make their own decisions about how to raise their family, whether it’s giving women the choice to go back to work earlier or men the opportunity to spend more time with their children”.(5)

The new rules apply to couples who are adopting, in a same-sex partnership, or bringing up a baby from a previous relationship, as well as to birth parents.

The right to six weeks’ leave at 90% of full earnings remains exclusively for birth mothers and primary adopters, so it’s unlikely many mums will be handing their newborn to dad and dashing back to their desk after a fortnight(6) but it opens up important options that families couldn’t consider before.

Professor Marian Baird, the director of the women and work research group at the University of Sydney, argued during the Diversity Council of Australia debate that flexible work for only women actually leads to greater inequality in the workplace. Because the overwhelming majority of employees who currently access flexible work arrangements are women – and particularly working mothers – it serves to reinforce the gap between men and women in the workplace.

Journalist, presenter, radio broadcaster, Tracey Spicer argues that the relationship between flexibility and equality is clear.
To me, it’s a mathematical equation: greater flexibility for both sexes plus clear career paths will mean gender equality,” she said. “Flexibility allows us [her and her husband] to live the dream of 50:50 parenting and work.”(4)

“Fathers are parents too” Prof Ottoline Leyser

“Provide child care grants to allow the husband to work part time” Ruth Amos (Young Engineer for Britain Awardee)

“Everyone must accept and believe – and therefore act on – the fact that children are equally the responsibility of both parents. No more assumptions that they’re the ‘mother’s problem’” Prof Athene Donald (Cambridge)

“I would have found it difficult to maintain my career at the level it is at without my incredibly supportive husband who was prepared to stay home when the kids were sick or to fetch them from nursery or do the washing. “We need to change the culture. I think this is happening but not fast enough.” Prof Christine Watson (Cambridge).

The higher need is to break societal attitudes towards gender roles but expecting stereotypes to change overnight is unrealistic. However, shouldn’t policies be made to facilitate attitude shift? If not then, Special policies for one gender will keep the group in the ‘special needs’ category. Gender Equality should mean both genders have Equal Freedom of Choice.

Move with the times; Prepare for the Future!

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