Wadia, you are one of those rare women from Kabul who had the chance to receive an academic education and earn a Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of Richmond. What is the situation today in Afghanistan, regarding a woman’s right to study and graduate?
Certainly, Afghan women have come a long way since the ouster of the Taliban. Millions of girls now receive some level of education. Efforts are on-going by the national government, civil societies, and the international community to ensure women’s right to education. The national government claims that the number of female university students has risen by 50% since 2008. However, the drop-out rates for girls are extremely high. Many girls drop out of college for various reasons, such as pressure to get married, discrimination from family members, lack of financial support, even suicide attacks or acid attacks on women. These issues have yet to be addressed by the national government. The international community has, indeed, played a major role in the empowerment of women through education.
Our country has adopted certain written guarantees in our national constitution regarding the development of balanced education opportunities for women and permission to establish higher education institutes in specialize fields and basic literacy schools. Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, inaugurated the first-ever all-women’s university, Moraa, in Kabul, Afghanistan last year. In Afghanistan, there are currently over 36 state-run universities and 126 private educational institutions, all of which are co-educational.
So yes, we have witnessed progress in women’s access to education, but there are some fundamental challenges that continue to pose threats to women’s right to study and graduate.
How would you describe the overall position of women today in Afghanistan?
I am proud to see the achievements that Afghan women have accomplished in recent years. Their resilience, their strength, their determination, and their courage are unrivaled. The world may still remember our women as imprisoned souls behind burqas, but our women today are writers, politicians, police officers, leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, musicians, and singers.
What are the aspects of life where you think there are still many fundamental issues to be sorted out regarding women in your country?
Access to education is consistently seen as the biggest problem. The lack of schools for girls in the villages, the lack of personal security, the lack of female teachers, the tribal belief that education is not necessary for women, and the lack of female religious teachers are impediments to women’s access to education in addition to violence against women, forced marriages, economic problems, child marriages, and the lack of commitment to national laws. As mentioned earlier, impressive efforts have been made since 2001, but Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world to be born a woman.
You are the only female founder of a one-of-a-kind business news portal in Afghanistan, wadsam.com. Who helped you the most in launching this website in 2012?
When I first decided to launch my website, my friend and former colleague, who owns a web designing company, designed my website and taught me how to use Word Press. I am still grateful for his kind support as I had no prior experience in running a website.
How did your family and friends react after you launched the portal? Have you ever had any problems in your business surroundings because of the fact that a woman stands behind this whole project?
While my immediate family was supportive, I did receive some criticism from my extended family and some acquaintances. They told me not to attach the word ‘journalist’ to my name as it is degrading for a woman. Women journalists are forced to confront cultural taboos on a daily basis. The presence of women in the male-dominated media sector is considered inappropriate. I kept a very low profile for the longest time due to such social pressure and, of course, for security reasons.
Who is writing for your website, local journalists or foreign contributors? How many of them are women?
I am mostly running the English version of my website. My sister contributes by writing some articles, but she is mostly involved in editing. I have one male journalist who writes articles for the Dari version of my website. I have had Afghan female journalists in the past who volunteered as writers for my website.
You stated once that you face many challenges while managing your business, including not being able to go to business meetings regarding marketing on your portal. Who negotiates instead of you in the meetings? Do you see a solution to this problem in the future, and how?
I still go to some of the meetings where I know the person well enough and trust him/her. Usually, my brother, my husband, or my cousin accompanies me to my meetings. The solution lies in changing the people’s mindset. Our people’s belief represents the primary barrier to women practicing journalism. A young girl in my family told me that she wanted to study journalism in college. Her mother called her an ‘idiot’ for wanting to be a journalist. I don’t blame the mother. She must have heard other people looking down on female journalists. This is where the problem lies – the belief system. We should start making small changes at the familial level. Families should start encouraging their daughters to be more outgoing and to pursue things outside of societal norms and be comfortable with it. And, at the same time, we also need to be able to teach our young boys and young men to have that level of respect for these women.
One of the most intriguing stories you wrote about last year was the opening of the first family movie theater in Kabul, where women are allowed to attend the screenings after two decades. Although there is no official law forbidding women to go to the movies, it is considered inappropriate – and not only that: women are also not welcome in restaurants, parks, bars, or many public places made for gathering the family. So, how and where do women in Kabul socialise with their families? Also, what kind of small steps can be taken to change this attitude in your culture, regarding mixing males and females?
The Qargha reservoir and the Paghman valley, both situated on the outskirts of Kabul city, are regular summer spots where women socialize with their families. But even there, you will see women fully covered and restricted to designated areas due to the presence of unrelated men. Creating more events and places just for families can be a small step for changing our people’s mindset towards the mingling of males and females. Having specific hours/days just for families at certain restaurants, theme parks, or other public places can lead to more engagement between the sexes.
Women in the media are a cultural taboo in Afghanistan. Do you know any other brave and educated ladies who are doing jobs similar to yours? If so, do you have any idea how you can cooperate and maybe raise awareness about freedom for women in business?
Yes, I know some incredible women who are defying social barriers and have stepped into the world of journalism to have their stories heard. I am a writer for one of Afghanistan’s largest blogs, Free Women Writers, owned by Ms. Noorjahan Akbar. It is an incredible platform where writers and students have come together from across Afghanistan to promote gender equality and social justice in the country through their writings.
Regarding raising awareness about freedom for women in business, I know the founder of Leading Entrepreneurs of Afghanistan for Development (LEAD), which is a union of leading women entrepreneurs in the country and functions as an advocacy platform for women’s economic rights and roles. They raise awareness about businesses owned by women, lobby for better conditions for women in the economic sector, and assist in creating opportunities for women. I had the pleasure of working with them very briefly when they had just launched this program. Unfortunately, I still see a lack of support for women in media-related businesses.
How do you see running your business a decade from now? What do you think might change?
I envision Wadsam to be the Bloomberg of Afghanistan. One of the ways I see my website changing in a decade is by incorporating an e-commerce platform where I’d be able to showcase products made by Afghan businesswomen and sell those products internationally.
When you launched your website in 2012, your goal was to present Afghanistan in a different light, not just as a country known for war and politics. After five years of managing the business, what do you think – to what degree have you managed to reach this goal?
It is hard to answer this question as there is no way to measure how much progress I have made. However, it is always a delight to receive messages and emails from Afghan students in universities, entrepreneurs, start-up businesses, researchers, embassies, and business analysts telling me that Wadsam is their first-stop for business and positive news about Afghanistan. This is what keeps me going.