Najla Ayoubi is a lawyer, former judge, and human rights activist from Afghanistan. While holding various different positions in the highest legal offices in Afghanistan, Ayoubi has been dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights both in Afghanistan and around the world. In addition to her legal work, Ayoubi served as a Board Member for multiple human rights organizations, such as Open Society Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Network, the Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society, and several others. She is also one of the founding members of the Women’s Regional Network (a multinational women’s organization). During her time as a Spring Fellow at the Institute of Politics, Ayoubi sat down with the Gate to reflect on her work in the field of human rights.
The Gate: Can you talk a little bit about your work for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and how you are continuing this while also doing work here in the United States?
Najla Ayoubi: This is very interesting. We have physical agents or local partners who do most of the work in the region, and we have a staff located in the region. So we [the board members] are at the decision-making level, and we design most of the projects, but implementation is mainly done by our local partners. We do a lot overseas—we have a staff, as I mentioned, which makes us flexible, particularly to let our partners decide, because they are local, and they know how to strategize their work, particularly in their own countries. So that’s one answer, and the second one is that we just try to give the chance to our local partners to own the projects and to own the program. This is part of our organization and how we do it. Because we know that they understand what’s going on, and at the same time, they have to own a project or a program to be able to continue and to implement them effectively. Sometimes we have a very hard time coordinating, like when we have one of our members in Washington, another in Denver, another one, me, in Los Angeles, then we have two of our members in Pakistan and India, and another one in Djibouti . . . But if you’re passionate about something that you’re doing, there is no barrier. There are no difficulties to not managing it. So that’s how we do it.
Gate: What kind of progress is being made towards equal rights for women in Afghanistan today, and what are the largest difficulties that women face there?
Ayoubi: I’m going to talk about the difficulties, and then I will go to the progress, because I will end with the positive attitude, which I always do. The difficulties that women are facing . . . the major one is insecurity, and unemployment, illiteracy. Of course, the traditional issues—particularly the violence against women, domestic violence and family violence, and that definitely includes child marriage, forced marriage, arranged marriage—but that all we call the blood exchange, which unfortunately is a very bad tradition. Another point that I would like to really identify is insecurity, as I mentioned earlier, which is a very huge problem, particularly for women, not only from the physical perspective, but also psychologically and socially, because women cannot move from one part of a country to another part, or they cannot go to education or to work because of the insecurity and cultural violence. Those are the difficulties that unfortunately contribute to many women being perceived as a second citizen, or even not counted as a human. So that’s also something that has really lowered the confidence of the women who wanted to be part of the change and wanted to be a part of this society. That’s also another barrier. At the same time, there are so many positive things happening in Afghanistan, which most people really don’t know about. As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of extremist groups that are growing in the country, but at the same time, we have a very strong women’s movement and women’s civil society groups and networks that are fighting day and night to secure, or at least to promote, women’s rights. So that’s a positive. And also, we have some legislative guarantees, like in our Constitution, we have Article 22, which says that men and women have equal rights in front of the law. So that’s something that is a guarantee. We have also female participation in the Parliament, which really enables women to be decision-makers and also to be a part of the legislative body. 25 percent of the members in the lower house and 17 percent of the members in the upper house are women. Also we have lots of women in the provincial councils: 20 percent of women are working at the provincial council, and we have 34 provinces. We have four female ministers and also some independent directors, like the Human Rights Commission, which is led by a woman, and the Afghan Red Cross. We have female ambassadors representing Afghanistan in other countries; 3.5 million girls going to school. This is progress. I mean, there are lots and lots of good things happening, but at the same time, the huge concern of security unfortunately really limits lots of progress and also makes [the progress] more fragile. That’s why we have to just be very careful and make lots of efforts to not reverse these rights.
Gate: What do you think are the next steps forward for Afghanistan? What can women do, and what should they be doing to further expand their rights and to get rid of the problems of insecurity that you mentioned?
Ayoubi: I think one of the issues is based on my own personal experience. I think education is really, really, really needed. And not only for men, but also for women. If we have educated women, then these women will definitely become educated mothers. Then of course, the foundation of the society is the family, and they can bring lots of changes within their own families, and plus, at the same time, they will be economically independent and empowered. So if you have more education, then the education will lead you to economic empowerment, which is always my argument—that these three factors are really important for women. The economic empowerment will definitely lead you to political leadership. And if you have education, then you will definitely have others. And also you will be part of raising the next generation as healthy citizens of their countries. So I think, in terms of next steps, we definitely have to put lots of pressure—and of course, we ask the international community to help us—on designing the programs, on our government, civil society, our parliament, and the whole people, to make efforts to make Afghanistan an environment [where women and men can be educated]. If you’re spending money on education, then you will not be spending money on weapons.
Gate: You said once in an interview that we must start a dialogue with our enemies in order to secure peace. How have you managed to do this in your life, and how can one enter into a dialogue with enemies who are set on using force and violence to achieve their goals?
Ayoubi: We have a proverb in Afghanistan: you cannot wash blood with blood. I think blood can be washed only with water. Water is soft, clean…a very different thing in life. So for me, in the past, I was thinking, how long can you not talk to these people? And I even thought that I didn’t want to talk to these people. But time makes you mature—you don’t have the choice to not work with them: they’re in your office every day, in your community . . . every day, they are everywhere. But if you work with them, instead of not talking to them, then you may bring a lot of positive change in these people. If you keep distance, then there is no win. If you keep closer to them, there’s a win-win situation. You will be reaching toward peace, but at the same time you will learn a lot, because we don’t know why they fight. Sometimes I’m really curious as to why they are choosing this path, why they choose to use the weapon. So that’s also something that you learn about, and which makes you closer as a human, instead of just looking at things in a negative way. In my life, it was very difficult, of course, at the beginning, but later on I realized that hating people, it will of course not help you, and it won’t help the other person either. But if you love people, then you will receive love. And I was able to at least communicate with these people, and of course, not all of them, but at least some of them, I still communicate with even now. From my perspective, you cannot continue to lose the lives of the people because you dislike someone—you don’t like their ideas, or their opinions, or their faith, or their personalities or anything—it won’t work, it won’t help. That’s my strategy.
Gate: And how are you able to start discussions with these people, who are seemingly so different or come from a different place than you do?
Ayoubi: It was very difficult for me, as I mentioned earlier. This was not an easy step because when I was seeing some of these people, I really didn’t even say hi to them, even though we were sitting in the same room at the same table, because my heart was so full of pain. I’m not saying it was full of hate, but it was full of pain, and it was not letting me speak with them. But there was time that I resented some other countries, and I saw how other people . . . [I realized] it’s not only me that’s suffering from this conflict, particularly the people who think that they are winning by fighting with other people. And I realized . . . I started feeling sympathy towards them. And when you start feeling sympathy, not in their political cause or in the cause that they are harming others, but as a human, you feel sympathy. You ask, are these people sick? Do they have any issues that they never talked about? What are these people’s grievances? So this put me in a situation where I had to accept the reality. Because I was very idealistic, thinking if they killed my father, then they have to be killed. But later I realized, you cannot, you know, just by killing, remove all of these grievances. There will be another rise up of the grievances in their children, which was happening to us, then in their grandchildren, and this goes on and on and on. So, as I mentioned, it was so difficult, but you have to have to courage to communicate with those who you don’t agree with. So I built that courage within me by seeing them—by, instead of confronting them, building sympathy towards them as a human, not as a fighter, as a human. So I managed. I managed to talk to them, and I don’t know, actually, even now…I don’t have anything against them anymore. My heart is so clean. Because you know, it hurts you also, if you have a heart full of pain and hate, full of negative emotions, it hurts you first, and then others. Because the other people don’t see inside of you. Instead of keeping that inside or having that mentality, you have to change. I changed. I’m more peaceful, more calm, more relaxed, compared to probably ten years ago.
Gate: What do you think students can do to help advance the rights of women in Afghanistan or around the world?
Ayoubi: I think there are several things that a student could do, from my perspective. First of all, I think that if they can, I think they should do lots of grassroots-level research and analysis. That will give them a real perspective, because from outside, I know you can read and understand, but when you’re inside at the grassroots level, then you will be feeling what the people are going through. Students could do that. Research too, of course, and this research should be very grassroots-level, talking to the actual people, and not the people who represent them. The second one is I think it’s good to think about what type of skills the students have by themselves that they feel they can transfer or share with other people, and particularly the disadvantaged. Even here in this university you can share a lot and do a lot for each other. Most of the women I know in Afghanistan, even me, being a very strong woman all the time in my life, from my very childhood . . . from when I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade, I started to be strong . . . and even from that age, I never shared my personal frustrations with anyone, which created lots of problems within me. So that’s also something students can do: students can build lots of bridges, like of trust between lots of different communities, even within Chicago or within the U.S. or beyond this country. That will help students to speak out, to share their experiences, to think of their pain. If you try to remove your frustration and pain, you will be able to think straightforward, very nicely, very peacefully. That’s also something that you can do. Plus, I think, one thing students can do is be aware of what’s going on. And with a movement, they can do a lot. Of course not violent movements—I’m never encouraging violent movements. But any kind of protest or movement definitely will bring changes and definitely will make a difference in the lives of women. I have six students I’m sponsoring for their education personally. So if students have anything that they can share with the poor families, with poor girls of those families, that will definitely make their lives different. There are so many things you can do, so many things.
Gate: You are in a difficult, emotionally taxing line of work that brings you into contact with lots of violence and lots of hardship. How do you keep yourself motivated to keep fighting for what you believe in, despite all of that?
Ayoubi: I already mentioned during my seminars that if I took violence or anything bad happening to me—taking that, sitting at home, not moving, not doing anything—nothing will change. And life will go on not in favor of anybody. So that’s really what motivates me. That even if I’m facing these problems, I have to do something about it, not just sitting . . . So even if I’m taking one very small step towards a solution, I’ll be more happy. This is one. And second, most of these people who are violating your rights. Maybe that time, you will be affected negatively. But for the long term, they never know that they are making you stronger, because they teach you how to react or how to deal with those situations. And for me, in my personal life and my professional life, living in that country and that region, this was always the case. They made me by violating my rights and pressurizing me, putting me in a situation that I was not able to respond to [at the time], but in the long term, they made me a strong woman that I can stand for other women who face the same and know how to deal with those situations. They don’t know that they are helping us to win. So for me, that’s a motivation. That’s something that really keeps me going, and plus, I’m not saying 100 percent, but at least 80 percent or 90 percent of time that I was facing issues or problems and violence, I never had someone to go to. But I’m thinking, oh my god, I had no one to go to when I needed someone except my family. But now I’m here with all of this knowledge and experience in dealing with those sort of things. Why not stand for someone else, some other woman who is going through now, what I was going through before?
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.