The Future of Women's Rights in Afghanistan: Interview with Fariba Nawa

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
NPR, Michael Martin
Southern Asia

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our next couple of conversations are about women facing serious challenges in this country and around the world. In a minute, we'll hear about a startling new novel, winner of a national book award, that tells the story of a pregnant young teen in a small town in Mississippi just days before Hurricane Katrina strikes. We'll hear from the author in a few minutes.

But first, we look to Afghanistan. Today, in Bonn, Germany, representatives from more than 80 countries are convening to talk about the transition of security forces as international troops prepare to withdraw in 2014. This comes a decade after the original Bonn conference laid the groundwork for the current Afghan government.

Also on the table is the question of whether a peace agreement should be negotiated with the Taliban and that has raised concerns that women's rights will be further repressed. I thought this would be a good time to speak with Fariba Nawa. She is an Afghan-American journalist who was born in Herat, in the west of Afghanistan.

She left the country and came to the U.S. as a child during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. She returned to Afghanistan in 2000, a year before the war started, and spent several years documenting her homeland's growing dependence on the illicit narcotics trade. That story is chronicled in her book titled "Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan."

And Fariba Nawa is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

FARIBA NAWA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As I mentioned that leaders are meeting today in Germany to talk about the future of Afghanistan, I just thought I'd start by asking, what do you hope they will talk about?

NAWA: I hope they're going to talk about the future of women, as well as men. It's not just going to be a conversation about the men of Afghanistan only, but about both genders and I hope that they come out with something that is going to be positive because we've seen several of these meetings over the years and nothing sufficient has come out of it.

MARTIN: What do you hope? That there would be a specific women's agenda? And what would that look like? Because I'm sure you know that, you know, oftentimes, when issues are discussed in those terms, you know, Western countries are accused of imposing their own cultural and political expectations on a country that is not theirs. So what do you hope that putting the focus on women will look like? And is that, in your view, in line, you know, with the culture and history of Afghanistan, and even if it isn't?

NAWA: It is in line with the culture and history. Thirty years ago, women were going to school and working and had many rights that they do not have now. Even if we can go back in time during the monarchy in Afghanistan, it would be better than what is going on now.

However, after the Taliban, great gains have been made for women. Two point seven million girls are in school right now, and during the Taliban, as we all know, they weren't allowed to go to school. Women are working. There are 69 members in parliament.

What I would like to see is that progress continuing, not going backwards.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that. Do you think that there has been progress? You've traveled around Afghanistan for more than a decade now. Do you think that women's rights have improved since the Taliban lost power?

NAWA: Absolutely. But the problem has been the continuing war and violence, and therefore the level of domestic violence and violence against women has apparently gone up. Oxfam just came out with a report saying that there are more cases reported and the reason I think there's more violence reported is partly because of that progress. Women feel that they can report these things.

There are more self-immolations now and this is a very strange way to look at it, but that's one way of struggling, of speaking up for women. Under the Taliban, women were muffled in every single way and I was there under the Taliban, as well as after, to see the problems they were having.

MARTIN: As world leaders meet in Germany today to talk about the future of Afghanistan, our guest is Fariba Nawa. She's telling us about her new book and also her vision for the future of Afghanistan.

As I mentioned, your book is called "Opium Nation." Talk about the drug trade in Afghanistan. And why is this such a significant issue?

NAWA: The drug trade is 60 percent of the economy right now and men and women all around the country, especially in the border areas, are involved in the drug trade. The country has been called a narco state because many people in the government are involved in the drug trade, as well as the insurgency, whether it be the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistani Taliban.

As you know, it's not just Afghans fighting against the opposition right now. It's also other extremists coming from specifically Pakistan and the Arab countries to cause trouble inside Afghanistan.

MARTIN: How did it happen that opium became – that the drug trade became such a significant part of the Afghan economy?

NAWA: It goes back to many, many times ago. Afghanistan did produce opium, but in very small amounts. Over time, during these years of war, it became the staple of the economy because drugs and war go hand in hand.

The mujahedeen used it against the Soviets. They were able to fund their war. They would buy arms with opium money, but also what changed over the years is that opium was refined into heroin and now two-thirds of the opium inside Afghanistan is refined into heroin whereas, before, it was done so in Turkey and Gulf and other countries where there were professional chemists. But now, those professional chemists are flown in.

And women have a big part in all this. There are increasing number of women involved in smuggling and trafficking because they're easier. They're not searched as often, also, in the government as well, and an increasing number of addicts.

The book really goes through the various actors involved in this chain of the drug trade and focuses on the women because that hasn't been done before. But it's also about men. You can't write about Afghan women without writing about their men, as well.

MARTIN: Sure. Finally, Fariba, before we let you go - and it's such a complex story and we thank you so much for coming in to tell us, just to give us just a little bit of insight into this. As you know, there's a weariness among Americans for this engagement and many people just would like to bring the troops home and shut the door. What is the argument for why America should remain involved in whatever capacity you feel is appropriate?

NAWA: It's a human rights issue. We've gone in. We've made a mess. We can't just leave. We can't keep doing this over and over to various countries and then come back...

MARTIN: Well, I mean, Fariba, I think - forgive me. I think the argument would be that it was already a mess.

NAWA: I think it's a bigger mess than it was before and if we hadn't gotten involved before, it would have been fine, but we've gotten involved. It was somewhat stable during the Taliban and now it's worse than it was as far as security is concerned.

MARTIN: Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American journalist. Her new book is called "Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan." She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Fariba, I hope you'll stay in touch with us and keep us posted as this story continues.

NAWA: Thank you.