Afghan-Canadian academic Marufa Shinwari recently established Afghanistan’s first ever master’s degree program in gender and women’s studies at Kabul University. Shinwari fled her native Afghanistan nearly a quarter-century ago after radical Islamist militants barred her from teaching at the university. Now, she says her aim is to groom future Afghan women scholars who are best positioned to write about the issues Afghan women face. In its first year, the program currently has 27 students enrolled, eight of whom are men. Shinwari discussed her plans and the challenges ahead with Abubakar Siddique, editor of RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Gandhara: After all these years, why come back to Afghanistan and establish this program now?
Marufa Shinwari: I wrote my own master’s thesis on building a gender studies program in Afghanistan…and I found that the faculty were already working toward this idea, so we put together our wish, and it happened. I have to give credit to those professors--interestingly, mostly male professors--from the social sciences department.
Gandhara: What was the response from Afghan women, students, parents, and society at large?
Shinwari: During my previous three visits to Afghanistan, I found that many government offices had designated positions, mainly for women, who were trying to promote women's participation in the Afghan government. Although we had students who were women, [we wanted them] to learn from an academic perspective which gender matters, feminist theory, and methodology had the most impact in Afghanistan. Often my visits were brainstorming sessions with the professors, as there was already this foundation from the government, but we need scholars to study and do research in this area, and women were excluded from that.
Afghanistan -- An Afghan woman speaks during a class of the gender and women's studies master's program at Kabul University, October 19, 2015.
Gandhara: You grew up in Afghanistan in the ’70s and ’80s when it was a different society. Urban Afghanistan, Kabul in particular, was very open and women participated in all walks of life. How different is society today for women?
Shinwari: There has absolutely been a big change. The gap that happened after 30, 35 years of war, and the gap from taking women away from all this activism, from studying or getting an education, of course affected women a lot. However, I see the new movement, the new generation of Afghan women, moving in a good direction. The new government is itself a kind of transition government, from that of the militarist structure toward an Islamic-based democracy. I see that positive change is happening. Girls are going back to school; we see many women scholars and women in politics.
Gandhara: We know there have been some improvements for women in the cities, but does that historical divide between urban and rural Afghanistan still exists, or has it deepened even more?
Shinwari: I see change happening. I had meetings with five or six directors of universities in the provinces. I learned that the women are participating, and they are coming to get their bachelor's degrees, which amazed me. So that gap is kind of breaking down, which is good, but the best would be to just give it time, to let Afghans move forward by themselves.
The best thing that I learned in Afghanistan is that for women's rights, there are very educated professors and scholars who are trying to bring women's rights back. That was what amazed me: that it was not only women and girls, but men were beside them, helping.
Gandhara: Do you see your program extending into some of these provincial universities in the near future?
Shinwari: Yes. I've thought a lot about it. I already have some proposals and I'm trying to work with international funders, so I'm just waiting for a positive response. This would give students a chance to move forward and do their master's and maybe even further education in the future, and to become scholars who will contribute to the field internationally.
Afghanistan--An Afghan woman speaks during class on October 19, 2015
If you look around and look for Afghan women in history or any studies in regard to Afghan women, you find very few that are actually written by Afghan women. All of it is written by Westerners or outsiders. So when somebody else is talking about you, issues are already explained secondhand. It’s either too much, not enough, or not right. That's why I really want to encourage Afghan women to pick up a pen and write about themselves, to do the research themselves. The objective of the program is mainly to educate Afghan girls to become future scholars, to write about Afghan women and their issues, and to bring changes to their society.