RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan has named Anarkali Honaryar, a 25-year-old dentist and human rights activist, as its Person of the Year. The annual award goes to an outstanding individual whose contributions to democracy and civil society have had a significant effect on Afghanistan's effort to rebuild. Honaryar was chosen for the award by a panel of more than 30 Afghan journalists, civil society activists, and human rights advocates.
As a young girl, Anarkali Honaryar dreamed of becoming a pilot and flying to foreign countries.
Growing up in Afghanistan's northern Baghlan Province, however, Anarkali soon realized that seemingly insurmountable obstacles stood in her way.
Her school years in the 1990s coincided with some of Afghanistan's most turbulent times in recent history. The country was ravaged by civil war, there was no stable government in Kabul, and many provinces, like Baghlan, were controlled by warlords.
Foreshadowing dark days to come, the hard-line Taliban were advancing rapidly, with one province after another falling under the movement's restrictive control.
The 25-year-old Anarkali today considers herself lucky that her native Baghlan Province never fell to the Taliban. While girls were banned from schools in Taliban-controlled areas, she enjoyed relative freedom in Baghlan and was able to continue her education.
That isn't to say that Anarkali and her family did not endure many hardships, however. Despite her educational opportunities, Anarkali came to believe that all doors were closed to her, and that she would never be able to travel beyond her province, since most of the country was ruled by the Taliban.
People in Baghlan lived in constant fear that Taliban militants could invade their province at any moment and deprive them of their most basic rights – from education and free speech to the freedom to watch television or wear their hair the way they wanted.
As members of Afghanistan's Sikh minority, Anarkali's family had even more reason to worry.
The hard-line Taliban promoted Sunni Islam in an extreme form that was unforgiving even to followers of other sects of Islam, such as Shi’a, let alone non-Muslims, such as Sikhs or Hindus.
But the great changes that came to Afghanistan brought a reversal of fortune for Anarkali. The Taliban were overthrown in late 2001 and a new government took power in Kabul. Girls returned to school, and women to work.
Anarkali had the impression that life -- slowly but steadily -- was going back to normal.
"However, many things were still missing," Anarkali says. She realized that despite all the changes, Afghan women still had a long way to go to win basic human rights.
New Era, New Goals
Having decided that being a pilot wouldn't be an acceptable job for a woman in Afghanistan's traditional society, Anarkali pursued her second career choice -- becoming a dentist.
She also made the decision not to accept the situation of women in Afghanistan, but to fight for her own rights and those of other Afghan women.
Since graduating from Kabul University four years ago, Anarkali has been working for Afghanistan's Independent Commission for Human Rights, (ICHR), which has offices in Kabul and throughout the country.
"Women face different kinds of difficulties, such as domestic abuse. Our biggest [cases] are related to domestic violence against women,” Anarkali explained. “Another huge issue in our country is forced marriage. Traditionally, Afghans overspend on weddings and to avoid these expenses, some families exchange their daughters -- two families with daughters and sons forcibly marry them off."
Along with her colleagues, Anarkali meets with women throughout the country with the aim of raising women's awareness of their rights.
"Afghan women should know they have the right to choose who they marry, to stand up against domestic violence, and to refuse to fall victim to dreadful traditions," she says.
Many women, she says, overcome their initial hesitation, have begun to come to ICHR offices to seek advice or discuss their problems.
"For example, a woman has become a victim of a forced marriage some five or 10 years ago, and now she has two or three children and is facing problems at home,” Anarkali said. “In such cases we try to reconcile both sides, because the children would suffer if their parents get divorced. But according to Afghan laws, men can divorce their wives, and the law provides such rights for women, too, if they provide four credible bases for divorce. So if reconciliation efforts don't work, we guide the women to legal offices."
In addition to women's causes, Anarkali has become known for advocating the rights of Afghanistan's religious minorities. Her work in human rights has made Anarkali almost a household name in Kabul, and she frequently appears on television to discuss rights issues. She says that when people recognize her on the street, they stop her to tell her their problems and to seek advice.
Honored And Proud
Upon receiving the Person of the Year award from RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, Anarkali said she is honored to receive the recognition, and proud of the work performed by the Independent Commission for Human Rights.
She says it will take many years and much more effort before women in Afghanistan will be able to enjoy full equal rights.
And while her dedication to that effort means she no longer imagines herself becoming a pilot, she does have a new dream -- that her daughters and nieces will one day live in a society where they can pursue that dream or any other they wish.