08 March 2007
by Ali Hakimi
Fatima Gailani believes girls and women should be given the same opportunities as boys and men to become educated and develop their vocational and professional skills.(IFRC)Disabled children are among Afghanistan's most vulnerable citizens. The country has experienced more than two decades of conflict, and according to Fatima Gailani, women and children are often the first victims of war. Here, a disabled child is assisted by female volunteers from the Red Crescent.(IFRC)
The president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society is not only a dedicated humanitarian and a volunteer, she also happens to be an outspoken champion of women’s rights and democracy. To mark International Women’s Day, 8 March, Fatima Gailani talks to the International Federation’s Ali Hakimi about her influential role and why she refuses to let ongoing violence in Afghanistan prevent the Red Crescent from doing its important work.
Ali Hakimi: What prompted you to get involved with the Red Crescent and what are your principle responsibilities as head of the organization?
Fatima Gailani: I knew the organization well because I volunteered as a teenager. My mother and my grandmother were volunteers. Before the war, I helped them in fundraising for the National Society.
Today, I think this is a noble work and the Red Crescent has a bright future. Also, when I arrived back in Afghanistan in 2002, after spending over two decades in exile, a new government was being established. I was interested in two ministries – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education – as well as the Red Crescent. Circumstances brought me to the National Society and I found my world at last. I am good at my work, I have a good team.
Working in the Red Crescent is very demanding. Afghanistan is a country prone to disasters. We have to deal with floods, droughts, earthquakes, war and insurgencies at the same time. We have to run from one side of the country to the other in order to deal with all these disasters at the same time. If we have a moment free of disasters, we have to help our government regarding the returnees. As head of this organisation, the words ‘I am tired’ should not be part of my vocabulary. I am very determined to promote this message to all my colleagues.
I strongly believe that the Red Crescent has to be within your heart, otherwise you cannot achieve anything. It is like being a poet… if you do not have the passion or you do not have it within you, you cannot write poetry. We have to finish our work with 100 per cent impartiality, neutrality and commitment.
A.H.: One of the principle aims of the Red Crescent is to assist the most vulnerable members of society and help communities become stronger. Who are the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan and how is the Red Crescent assisting them?
F.G.: Some of the most vulnerable are disabled parents, people who are mentally challenged because of the war and the young widows.
But in a country that has experienced 24 years of war, in a country that faces all kinds of disasters, you have too many vulnerable people. If we were to sit down and try to count, I’d say 60 per cent of this country’s population is vulnerable. It is not humanly possible to provide help to more than half a country.
My hope is that one day, we will be able to say that we managed to help some of the most vulnerable people by bringing them into Red Crescent homes for the destitute, known as Marastoon.
I want to give them some hope, not only in their hearts but their minds as well. Children living in Marastoon are given free education and they can learn a vocational trait, like tailoring or carpet weaving.
If we manage to offer some hope to these children, then their parents will have less to worry about since their children will be more independent. We’re working to help them become reintegrated into society and live healthy lives. If we manage to do this for the people in the Marastoon, I think we’ve done well.
A.H.: The security situation remains very dangerous in Afghanistan. How are women and children affected by the ongoing violence and has this instability had an impact on the work of the Red Crescent?
F.G.: Although everyone is affected by this difficult situation, we continue to perform well in the face of a harsh and unstable social, political and economic environment.
It is very important for me and my colleagues to keep the neutrality of the National Society in tact. Unfortunately, women and children are the first targets of war and conflict. So we try very hard to take care of women and children and give them special treatment.
A.H.: Afghanistan has one of the highest birth rates in the world, while child mortality is also alarmingly high. What is the Afghan Red Crescent doing to address maternal health and lowering child morbidity?
F.G.: One of the National Society’s main areas of focus is on health. Under our health care programme, we run clinics that have mother and child facilities. The clinics also offer family planning sessions to help women space out their children between births.
A.H: Another prominent woman, Soraya Parlika, also served as Head of the Afghan Red Crescent. She, too, is active in giving a voice to women in Afghanistan. Is she an inspiration to you?
F.G: Soraya is a good friend. We are contemporaries and we certainly learn from each other. I have many active women friends in this country. Some are colleagues, both locals and foreigners. We are complimenting each other in our respective fields and this should bring lots of positive changes.
By nature, I am not a hero worshipper… I don’t look up to people in films, singers or politicians.
However, many friends of my parents were important male and female personalities in this country and they did have an enormous impact on shaping the person I am today.
A.H.: What are your plans for the Afghan Red Crescent? Do you wish to bring more women into the National Society?
F.G.: Yes, we need to bring more women into the Red Crescent. We have started recruiting girls, and training them in the basic knowledge of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, while improving their language and organisational skills. If this scheme is successful, we will take on even more girls. By the end of my term, it would be great to have a good percentage of women working in this National Society.
I’m not sure our team will ever be completely gender balanced or if it needs to be. The percentage of educated girls in Afghanistan is lower than educated boys so if you create an artificial work environment, with a 50-50 male to female ratio, I am not sure it will work or be sustainable.
If we did this, we would also be dismissing some eligible male candidates just for the sake of only recruiting women. The bottom line is that we have to recruit capable people, the best people for the job.
Ali Hakimi: What was it like growing up as a young girl in Afghanistan?
Fatima Gailani: I had a very happy childhood. I was lucky because I was born and grew up in a very privileged family. Gender was not an issue and this gave me great confidence. In our family, girls and boys were educated and they were brought up with equal confidence, equal opportunities and a strong sense of responsibility.
I always felt that I was equal with any person in society, but of course that was not the case for most girls in Afghanistan. A huge difference between men and women still exists today.
My father is a prominent religious leader, yet he is a very down-to-earth, loving person and really friendly. When we were younger, he played and joked with us. My mother was very strict with us. She taught us to know the value of a privileged life, and to spend money in a careful and responsible way. She was also an active woman. Besides her day-to-day responsibilities as the wife of a religious leader and as a mother, she always found time to be a volunteer in the Red Crescent. She is very proud of her achievements.
A.H.: Why did you leave Afghanistan and how did living abroad affect the way you think and what you do?
F.G.: My family was forced into exile in 1979 by the communist government. We were lucky that no one from our immediate family was killed by the communist government.
We took refuge in England. In exile, I was no longer a privileged person… I was just one of many refugees in a foreign country. As I was the eldest child, I had to take charge of my family.
All the male members of my family were involved in the resistance in Afghanistan. I had to learn English from scratch, I had to learn how to cook. On top of all that, I was a new mother. My daughter, Homaira, was only few months old. Somehow, I managed all this and learned how to settle down.
As soon as I was comfortable with my new situation and my new language, I started looking after wounded Afghan children as well as young members of the resistance, who were injured during the war and who were brought to England for treatment. I acted as a translator, took them to hospitals, talked to them, cooked for them. In short, I cared for them. Soon after that, I became the official spokesperson for the Afghan resistance in the West, based in England.
A.H.: What challenges do women, including yourself, face in the work place and in Afghan society today?
F.G.: In most parts of this country women face the exact same discrimination they faced five years ago. This discrimination does not come from the government… it comes from their own families.
Personally, I never think about my gender, whether I am in the Red Crescent or when I was recently working on the new Constitution. I had to go from village to village to speak to different people, sitting in the mosque talking to a congregation of men. I think when you reach certain level of education, people will respect you. But the dilemma is how to encourage fathers, brothers and families to give this chance to their daughters.
Whenever I get compliments from men from various tribes, I reply to them by saying, ‘If you want your daughter to be like me, then you have to give her the same opportunities that my father gave me.’
A.H.: You have achieved a level of success that few women in Afghanistan have managed to attain. What would you say to young women in your country, who aspire to accomplish as much as you?
F.G.: What I have accomplished in my life is not only exceptional in this country but around the world. Here, the role of the family is extremely important. If men within the family give girls the opportunity to be educated, and take their education to a higher level, then the situation will change for the better for women. Families must also support girls in putting into practice what they have learned.
I am the product of democracy under the former king of Afghanistan, Zaher Shah, whose 40-year rule ended in a coup in 1973. What was achieved by women at that time is still considered a high standard today. We had women in the senate, parliament and cabinet. We lost it all overnight, but the memory of those honourable women is still with us. So we know the importance of leaving a good record and being a good example. We achieved it once, we will achieve it again.
A.H.: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
F.G.: To tell you the truth, I do not know what a feminist is. I am totally for the rights of women. A big part of my adult life I fought for it. If I were a man, I would have done exactly the same, so you can call me whatever you like.
A.H.: In December 2001, just after the fall of the Taliban, the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, addressed the Afghan Women’s Summit for Democracy by saying that there could be “no true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women”. How has the role of women in Afghan society evolved since then?
F.G.: We cannot achieve peace, human rights, women rights or democracy with imported rules and regulations. It wouldn’t be sensible. The presence of foreign troops, the influence of the UN, the prescription of Kofi Annan can temporally bring changes for women. But are these changes really fundamental? Do they have roots in our society and our culture? I do not think so.
That’s why I insist upon an Afghan solution, meaning involving religious and tribal leaders and ordinary people in villages. In order to establish an Afghan feminism, we have to involve our religion and our culture.
A.H.: Are you frustrated that more economic, political and social progress hasn’t been made over past five years?
F.G.: Yes and no. I’ve stopped worrying about it. The first two years I used to worry when I saw any child out of school, any person without a job, any beggar in the street. I felt bad, as though it was my fault. I kept on feeling guilty.
Now, of course, I feel sad about it. I’ve never allowed myself to be indifferent, but I’ve reconciled myself to do what I can in my capacity as President of the Red Crescent to help vulnerable people and fight corruption.
A.H: You are a very strong woman. Which other strong women do you identify with?
F.G: I do not identify with just one person. I have a very strong mother. Both my grandmothers were very strong women. Many of my mother’s close friends were prominent women, real achievers, like Senator Homaira Saljoqi, Minister Kobra Norzai and many more.
I was also influenced by my father’s friends, like Prime Minister Mohammad Mosa Shafiq, Professor Khaliollah Khalili, who is also a well-known Afghan poet, and Ambassador Pazhwak. Above all, King Zaher Shah had a tremendous impact on my character.
I learned my sense of fairness from my father. From my early age, he taught me how to be fair, how to allow someone who is better than me to take the front seat and have the courage and honour to be the second best.
Another person whom I admire is Nelson Mandela. Mandela is a person that has touched not only the people in his own country, but way beyond it.
A.H.: What are your hopes for the future of your country?
F.G.: My hope is that more skilled people will get involved in rebuilding Afghanistan.
I really hope that one day the people of Afghanistan will talk about the present problems as a part of history.