Marufa Shinwari, an Afghan Canadian academic, recently established a master's program in gender studies at Afghanistan's premier seat of higher learning, Kabul University. Shinwari's return to Afghanistan was bittersweet nearly a quarter-century after radical Islamist fighters barred her from teaching at the university. She says that her aim is to groom future Afghan women scholars who are best positioned to write about their issues.
RFE: What motivated you after all these years to go back to Kabul and establish this gender studies program at Kabul University?
Marufa Shinwari: I did my thesis on making a gender studies program in Afghanistan … and I found out that the faculty there were already working toward that idea. So we put together our wish, and it happened. So I have to give the credit to the group of professors -- interestingly, mostly male professors, in the social sciences faculty.
RFE: What was the response from Afghan women, students, parents, and the wider society?
Shinwari: During my previous three visits to Afghanistan, I found that in many government offices I saw designated positions [for] mainly women trying to promote women's participation in the Afghan government system. Although we had students who were women, [we wanted them] to learn from an academic perspective what gender matters, feminist theory, and methodology had the most impact in Afghanistan. So 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.
RFE: What is the emphasis of this program? Is it purely academic, or is it pushing people toward some kind of activism, as historically there was a very strong women's movement in Afghanistan?
Shinwari: Through this program, men and women are empowered by the knowledge that the changes will come, so I believe it will promote more academia, not activism. But it can be used for that purpose -- it depends on the groups that are active there.
RFE: And how many students enrolled in the first year?
Shinwari: Twenty-seven students are enrolled, of which eight are men.
RFE: You grew up in Afghanistan in the ’70s and ’80s when it was a different society because urban Afghanistan, in particular Kabul, was very open and women participated in all walks of life. When you went back, how different is society today for women?
Shinwari: [There was] absolutely 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 doing studies or any education, of course affected women a lot. However, I see the new movement, the new generation of Afghan women, going in a good direction, and the new government itself is 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.
RFE: Historically, in Afghanistan there was a big gap between the urban areas, particularly Kabul, and the rest of the country. Now we know there have been some improvements in the cities, but do you see that 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, historically, 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 that are fighting and 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.
RFE: 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, and I already have some proposals that I'm trying to work with international funders, so I'm just waiting for a positive response. This would give a chance for students to move forward and do their master's and maybe in the future further education, and to become scholars that will contribute internationally.
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, and is either too much, too less, or not right. That's why I prefer and I really want to encourage Afghan women to pick up a pen and write about themselves, do the research. The objective of the program is mainly to educate Afghan girls to become future scholars, to write about Afghan women and their issues and their challenges, and to bring changes to their society.