ASGP Staff Member Featured on Afghan TV Show “THE MASK”

February 23, 2011

THE_MASK-251x300 A young Afghan woman is seated before a panel in a Kabul television studio. As the studio lights dim, a blue and white mask is slipped on the young woman, she is visibly shaken as she prepares to tell her story to television viewers countrywide. The mask is blue on one side representing the color of the burqa worn by many Afghan women, while the other side is white, representing innocence. Though haunting, the mask provides freedom for the young woman to safely tell her story of being married off at age 14 as a settlement to the family of a man her brother had killed. Terror and abuse followed as her husband made her his prisoner, beating her daily, until her escape to Kabul.

Televised throughout Afghanistan, Niqab (“The Mask”) is giving a voice to abused and victimized women. Hafiza Yazdany, Kabul Regional Program Manager for the US Government-funded Ambassador’s Small Grants Program to Support Gender Equality in Afghanistan (ASGP) joined the show for its debut as one of seven panelists. Other panelists included Afghan experts from the Human Rights Commission, university law professors, a scholar of Hajj and Religious studies, and two women activists. An expert in women’s rights and conflict resolution, Yazdany works tirelessly to prevent violence against Afghan women and advance their rights. Because of this work,Yazdany was approached by the show’s creator and producer, Sami Mahdi, to host the show, but declined because of her responsibilities with the ASGP.

Yazdany, who recently transitioned to working with another organization in Kabul, joined ASGP to work for gender equality and the empowerment of women in a traditional and conflict-ridden society where women face daunting challenges and limited opportunities. “Of course it takes time to change people’s behavior, and social change is not easy, but we must work hard at it,” said Yazdany.

Women’s rights severely deteriorated during the Taliban regime. Still today, women throughout the country lack access to education, employment, are largely excluded from social and economic participation, and are often subjected to physical and emotional abuse. According to human rights studies, the marked gap between men and women begins with individual families’ treatment of women and highly restricted views about women’s roles. “We have laws, but they are known only in cities and in the offices of professional organizations, not throughout villages and communities,” noted Yazdany. “We need awareness at the district and village level.”

ASGP is the only US Government funded program in Afghanistan that primarily supports gender equality, women’s empowerment and economic growth, and the institutional development of women-focused organizations nationwide.

Hafiza-300x236 As Regional Program Manager for the Kabul region, Yazdany’s ASGP team has supported 93 Afghan organizations. This includes new ventures by local artisans, jewelry makers, teachers, literacy associations, healthcare workers, and agriculture specialists. ASGP is working with women-focused civil society organizations in Kabul, Parwan and Panjshir provinces to help make their organizations sustainable, boosting their impact across Afghanistan.

“Since the fall of the Taliban, the government and NGOs are working for women’s rights, but still we have such problems in our community,” said Yazdany. “Many of the community shuras and jirgas [groups of community and religious elders] that are tasked with solving these issues are illiterate and uneducated, and only look to their customs and traditions for answers. They do not have information about the rule of law, constitutional law, or the law on the Elimination of Violence against Women or about their religion.”

The young woman’s story highlighted on the first episode of “The Mask” is not unique. In Afghan communities, village elders often decree such marriages within families as a form of conflict resolution. The show brings to light that this practice does not solve family problems, but rather entrenches them. Throughout Afghanistan, communities often blame the abused women for the exploitation and cruelty they endure. Most often, abused women are told that such a life is their destiny and that to speak out about it only illustrates weakness. Yazdany and her fellow panelists hope that the show will increase community awareness and help change such attitudes.

“Conflict is not necessarily a negative thing. It is part of society and can create something good and distinct. Yet, we must teach people to address conflict in a way where violence is not involved,” noted Yazdany, who recently completed her master’s degree in Peace and Human Rights at International European University for Peace Studies in Burg, Austria, and has brought her knowledge and expertise back to Afghanistan. “Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, and feeling the unfairness war and conflict have caused to women in my society, I wanted to continue my education abroad. I wanted to learn in a different and diverse culture and in an educational environment without gender discrimination,” says Yazdany.

“The Mask” is set to air twice a week for at least a year, and has already been featured on CNN and other international media outlets. Speaking about local reaction to the show, Yazdany says “People are acutely aware of these issues. Women, especially, appreciate this program. They appreciate hearing the reality.” Yazdany knows the path towards equality for Afghan women will not be easy. “I’m looking for the solution. I’m not looking for the cause. We need to change people’s thoughts,” she added. “From childhood, children are learning how to fight. They are not learning peace. From childhood, if they learn how to help each other and how to be friends with each other, things will change. From the beginning, men are learning to be the head of the home and control the family and show off their physical strength to their family and the community. We have to teach peace education in school curricula, and hold public awareness workshops and trainings on peace. Only then do we have a hope of seeing real, lasting change.”

— Alexandra Barnett

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