“Entrepreneurship is the key for Afghan women”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Fereshteh Forough is the Co-Founder of Afghan Citadel Software Company (ACSC) and Board Member at Women’s Annex Foundation, U.S.

Q. What are your earliest memories of Afghanistan?
A. I was born in Iran, so unfortunately, I do not have any particular memories of growing up in Afghanistan. My family and I moved to Afghanistan in 2002 during the second year of transitional government. The image that I had in my mind was totally different from what I saw after I arrived. I had heard stories and seen pictures in my family’s album before, so it felt amazing to be there. I was not anymore afraid of being treated differently. It was a home-coming for me. I was in the place where I belonged.

Q. How do you see the progress and evolution of women in Afghanistan in last 12 years?
A. Since the fall of Taliban regime, women have made tremendous progress and taken giant strides in many fields. Women have decent political representation now. Women have access to education and healthcare services. There has been a significant decline in maternal mortality rate because of many awareness campaigns. There have been serious efforts from all stakeholders, and it is likely to get only better from here.

Q. What is the role of Afghan women, both living inside and abroad, in shaping the destiny of their country post 2014?
A. This is a good question but it is difficult to answer it briefly. I would say that entrepreneurship is the key for Afghan women. There are a great number of Afghan women entrepreneurs inside and outside the country, who run successful small and big business enterprises. It does not only create job opportunities for other women, but also promotes the idea od women’s empowerment.

Q. The crimes against women still continue at alarming rate. What do you think are the main factors responsible for it?
A. I would say illiteracy, orthodox beliefs and behaviour of men, in some cases. Social traditions are usually not based on Islamic tenets, like for example considering women as “second class”. Islam has clearly emphasized on granting equal rights to both men and women, without any kind of discrimination. Women in Afghanistan are not fully aware of their rights because they are not educated enough, and also because men are not taking interest in promoting women’s rights. There are very few men who are strong advocates of women’s rights. We need to have a constructive conversation that engages both sides, women and men.

Q. How do you predict the future of Afghan women, especially after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014?
A. Gender inequality and violence against women are very critical issues. Many efforts have been made to protect women’s rights in the past 13 years. Having the support of international community is of utmost importance. There are many laws for women approved by the government but implementation is lacking. The presence of international community technically means “peace” or “less violence”. I am positive and hopeful that the new government will support and engage more Afghan women.

Q. How has been the experience of living and working in U.S.?
A. It has been a wonderful experience. Every day is like a learning process for me. I have met many inspiring people either through my studies or work. Living in a safe environment with many useful resources is a blessing. I try to use every single opportunity here to be the voice of my people in Afghanistan, especially the Afghan women. I often speak about the amazing things they have done despite heavy odds.

Q. What are your dreams for your country?
A. Peace and equality is what I want for my country. A peaceful Afghanistan where all Afghans are treated equally, irrespective of their beliefs, gender, ethnicities and religion. A progressive society where people respect each other’s beliefs and ideas without resorting to violence. It is very much possible.



Tomorrow, Afghanistan will vote for change

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Security has been beefed up across the country for tomorrow’s high-voltage showdown between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who emerged as frontrunners after the first round of elections on April 5. According to Article 61 of the Afghan Constitution, if no candidate manages to secure 50+1 percent votes, the absolute majority required to form the government, the two frontrunners have to face off in the second round. With less than 24 hours to go now, fingers are firmly crossed.

The security challenges are massive and the armed opposition groups have already made their intentions clear. They are bent on disrupting the democratic processes in this country. But, like we saw in the first round, resilience of voters in this country is incredible. They seek democratic change. They have grown weary of war and violence. And, they deserve a better life.

Both candidates have been trying to woo voters with some grandiose promises. Abdullah Abdullah has pledged to promote good governance, alleviate poverty, combat corruption and strengthen security forces. His rival Ashraf Ghani has promised to bring political stability, good governance, rule of law, and reforms in judicial institutions. The campaigning has been fierce and bitter. Unlike in the first round, this time the two candidates pulled out all the stops to not only make their case strong but also make their opponent’s case weak.

Many interesting developments have happened in past few weeks. Zalmai Rasool, the former Foreign Minister who unsuccessfully tried his luck as presidential candidate on April 5, endorsed Dr. Abdullah’s ‘Reform and Integrity’ team. Many elections watchers were expecting him to support Ghani but he chose the opposite route. The former Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, who also made an unsuccessful bid in April 5 elections, also leapfrogged into Dr. Abdullah camp. Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief, also announced his support for Dr. Abdullah. Mr. Saleh, known for his heroics as chief of National Directorate of Security (NDS), has a huge following among youth.

But, the most jaw-dropping announcement was made by Rab Rasool Sayyaf, the veteran tribal leader who ended up in fourth place behind Dr, Abdullah, Dr. Ghani and Mr. Rassoul in the first round. There were intense speculations that he might support Ghani but he put all those speculations to rest by declaring his support for Dr. Abdullah at a press conference.

Dr. Ghani’s ‘Change and Continuity’ team has been boosted by the support of former vice president Zia Masood who was also nominated by Mr. Rassoul as his running mate. Sibghatullah Mujadadi, the former president and chairman of Loya Jirga and Meshrano Jirga, also endorsed Dr. Ghani. Daud Sultanzoi, who unsuccessfully contested the first round elections, also joined Dr. Ghani’s camp. And, he has Abdul Rashid Dostam as his running mate, which can prove significant.

Dr. Ghani, who managed just 33 percent votes in the first round, is likely to improve his tally in the runoff. According to Glevum Associates, a research group, Mr. Ghani has taken a lead (49 percent) over his opponent Abdullah Abdullah (42 percent) ahead of second round elections.

The former advisor to President Karzai, Dr. Ghani is a celebrated anthropologist. He studied at American University, Beirut and Columbia University, U.S. and taught at University of California and John Hopkins University. His political vision is both amalgamated and lucid. He seeks to transform the system and devolve financial powers to the provinces, giving them 40 percent of the national budget. In terms of security, he wants to establish rule of law and end discrimination. Dr. Ghani has also agreed to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he has his priorities spelt out clearly. He wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan.

Dr. Ghani wants to fight corruption, bring accountability and transparency in governmental and nongovernmental projects. To address the issue of violence against women, he wishes to engage religious scholars and preachers. To develop economy, he wants to attract investments by ensuring foolproof security and incentives to potential investors.

His opponent, Dr. Abdullah, who was the main challenger for President Karzai in 2009 presidential elections, is likely to give a strong fight. An ophthalmologist by training, he jumped the political bandwagon in 1980s when Soviet forces invaded the country. He served as Foreign Minister during Karzai’s first term as President, before he was axed in 2006.

Dr. Abdullah’s political vision is of a parliamentary system of governance with devolution of power to provinces. He says he will strengthen the security infrastructure and justice institutions. Like his opponent, he has also agreed to end the stalemate over bilateral security pact with the U.S. On the issue of negotiations with Taliban, he says those fighting to decimate the Afghan government will not be spared and those who have genuine grievances would be invited for talks.

To combat corruption and nepotism, Dr. Abdullah wants to introduce meritocracy and rule of law. The trade agreements and development projects, he says, would be monitored by Parliament and Provincial Councils. The institutional prejudice against women would end and they would get adequate representation in political institutions. He wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy.

Now, it is over to the people of Afghanistan. Tomorrow, they will give their verdict. But, there must be no cases of fraud, which will dent the confidence and trust of people in democratic institutions. The election observers must stay neutral and candidates should gracefully accept the people’s verdict.

That will be a real triumph of democracy and disgraceful defeat of naysayers and rabble-rousers.