Fatema Jafari is a targeted woman. Yet, speaking from a café at the European University Institute she talks about her life with her trademark composure.
Refugee, underground teacher, midwife, women’s rights activist, politician and mother, the 38-year-old has worn many hats. However, it is her role as a politician that has put her in the Taliban’s cross-hairs.
Now a Policy Fellow at the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance, Fatema is dedicating her time to understanding how women can stop corruption in Afghanistan. After all, women are its main victims.
Born in central Afghanistan and part of the Hazara ethnic minority, Fatema started life as a refugee, fleeing to Iran as a young child with her family. Iran meant not only safety, but also the possibility of an education.
However, scores of Afghan refugee children were denied that luxury. Finding the situation intolerable, a teenage Fatema volunteered to tutor a couple of children from her family home.
News soon spread in the Afghan refugee community and children flocked to her home. Her father became one of her main detractors, but not because he disagreed with Fatema’s work: what she was doing was illegal. If caught, Fatema and her family could be sent off to war-torn Afghanistan.
Spurred by her mother’s encouragement, Fatema pressed on, continuing to tutot children in her own home. Once again, the number of pupils grew dangerously. ‘Parents told me to find a home. So I did’ she explains, with characteristic straightforwardness.
Fatema rented a space close to her home. Together with her siblings, she tutored twelve hours a day with no interruptions. What had started as an attempt to educate two or three children in Fatema’s home had become a clandestine school with 300 students.
Life changed in 2001, when a US-led military operation curbed the Taliban. Fatema and her family were allowed to return to Afghanistan. Finally able to study at university, Fatema became a midwife.
Midwifery is one of the few professional fields in Afghanistan dominated by women, meaning her work as midwife led her to some of the more remote areas of Herat, the country’s second-largest province. She was soon immersed in the brutality of Afghan womanhood.
‘The mortality rate was so high’ - she says. ‘I saw violence against women. Many came to me’. The perpetrators were the very men entrusted with their protection. The pain she was witnessing is part of a wider crisis. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 87% of Afghan women are subject to either physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The results are devastating: 80% of all suicides are attempted by women, making Afghanistan one of the few countries in the world where more women attempt to take their lives than men. Desperate, many women resort to self-immolation, setting themselves alight. Stigma means the real figures are unknown, with families ashamed to report the incident.
In 2009 Fatema was working as a midwifery teacher, when she decided to run for a seat on Herat’s provincial council.
Despite her husband’s support, it took her three months to convince the rest of her family, torn between concerns for her honour and concerns for her safety. They had a point.
Campaigning was a struggle. No political party would back a female candidate. Her family was not rich. A local politician toured mosques, mockingly telling worshippers not to vote for her. Undeterred, Fatema turned to her students, enlisting 100 volunteers to campaign door-to-door.
However, campaigning in urban Herat was not enough. The Taliban started sending her daily threats, stopping her from visiting the rural areas of the region. Not that threats were going to stop her. ‘I was the first to go to the media’ - she says. ‘Security was the problem, but I could send my message by TV and radio’. Fatema turned to local media, who carried her voice beyond the barrier of Taliban death threats.
The strategy worked. Fatema Jafari won the election, placing 9th out of 184 candidates. Now one of 19 representatives, she chairs the Family Support Committee. The name is somewhat of a misnomer: “I couldn’t call it the Women’s Committee, because of cultural reasons” she says. The group is a blend of approximately 80 organisations and activists, fighting for women’s rights.
One of the group’s main targets is the judiciary. For abused women, the Afghan justice system can often be hopeless. ‘If the woman is an ordinary woman and her husband is an ordinary man in society - nothing happens’ Fatema explains. In over a decade of work, she has seen countless cases being ignored, even when the life of young girls is at stake. If this were not enough, with little to no education and financially dependent from men, women are excluded from the networks used by many to expedite lengthy proceedings.
As a result many turn to the Taliban’s unofficial and parallel court system. Humaira Rasuli, a human rights’ lawyer and director of Women for Justice, women’s main challenges in the court are the stigma, the poorly trained judges and corruption, whereby powerful men are not held accountable for their actions.
The international community also has a role to play. For Fatema, extremists have yielded to demands from the international community to protect women’s rights before and the same could happen with the Taliban.
Now at the European University Institute in the Florence, Fatema is using her time to write her second book. Crucially, it is intended for Afghan women. ‘You can’t find anything written in my language about women’. However, books will not be enough to encourage a generation of women. What is needed are role models. And Fatema is one of them.
This article was published on 6 March on The New Arab: From midwife to politician: How Fatema Jafari is protecting the rights of women in Afghanistan