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13. December 2019

Interview: Why be a feminist (in Afghanistan)?

What unites Chancellor Merkel, Lady Gaga and Demi Moore? Each of them said in an interview that she is not a feminist. Lady Gaga even felt she had to add that she loved men. Is there a contradiction between loving men and being a feminist? What does it mean to be a feminist? In Germany some self-proclaimed spokes(wo)men of feminism reject the idea that everybody can be a feminist – especially not women being Muslims and wearing a scarf or burkha. Is it possible to deny someone the right to be a feminist? We asked two staff members of Medica Afghanistan about that. They were our guests at our Cologne headquarters in november: Programme Director Saifora Ibrahim Paktiss and Vida Faizi, Programme manager of the Psychosocial Counselling Department.

Why is a woman or man a feminist? Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström once said:

"Feminism represents the radical notion that women are human."

Sounds simple. It’s about human rights, isn’t it?

Would you say about yourself that you are a feminist?

Saifora Paktiss: “Before I came to Medica Afghanistan I used to call myself a feminist but I did not know what it means in daily life. Now I see the reasons why to be a feminist every day. We are in action for women and girls in Afghanistan who really have suffered day by day. And it’s not only them who suffer it’s even us ourselves. We also have our challenges at work and in our homes even with our own family members and others, may them be male or female. So yes I am a feminist. Yes.”

Vida Faizi: “Being a feminist of course is not easy. During the last 16 years that I worked with Medica Afghanistan I learned to be a feminist. Before that I didn’t believe that one day I can be a feminist in a country like Afghanistan. Besides for a long time I thought being a feminist was to love women and to hate men. That was a different view I had. Now I digested with my whole body and soul what it is to be a feminist. I am working for women. In such a country like Afghanista women need me and my commitment for their rights. Whether Afghan or European women: wherever in the world I just see them as women beings. I don’t make a difference by religion or anything. Slowly I came to the decision to see myself as a feminist. Yes I can say, I can claim that I’m a feminist. I am proud that I am working for women in Afghanistan since many years. Everywhere I will be a feminist. It’s a knowledge that nobody can take from me.” 

Why do we need feminism?

Vida Faizi: “If a woman laughs, I laugh with her, if a woman cries, I try to support her. Feminism is needed for 100 percent in the world. Many people should be feminist to work from the heart for women. That’s all.”

Saifora Paktiss: “Especially when we speak from a trauma perspective: you cannot see the sufferings of women. It’s a feeling in the heart, a pain you cannot see it, but it is there. Feminism helps you to feel the suffering that women experience day by day in our society just because they are women.”

We explained to our colleagues, that here in Germany there is a broad discussion about feminism and being a Muslim. That some people say, it’s not possible being both – especially, if you as a woman follow rules like covering your hair or face. We asked them:

Is it possible to be a Muslim and a feminist?

Saifora Paktiss: “I have been a number of times in Germany. There have been some incidents where I notices a feeling of discrimination as a Muslim. I mean feminism is not depending or limited to country, religion or race or to language or to west and east and all this. Feminism is a concept, it’s a belief, it’s adaptable in different contexts. So being a Muslim and being a feminist both are possible. We have a similar concept in Islam. Our relations with others should be based on empathy and dignity. Feminism really does not exclude one for being a Muslim, non-Muslim, a black or white or anybody.”

Vida Faizi: “The problem is not with Islam and feminism. The problem is how some Muslims put it into practice and interpret their religion. At our work for Medica Afghanistan we are supporting all woman. The Muslim feminist for me is not meaning an appearance, it’s a mindset. It’s not related to my scarf or my religion. I respect all religions. Islam is not a barrier for my being a feminist.”

What about covering your hair or face as a symbol of oppression of women?

Vida Faizi: “In Afghanistan being feminist or talking about women’s rights is a big risk. Many people don’t have the courage to talk about women’s rights. As a women’s rights organisation we receive a lot of threats – individual threats and group threats. Personally, I twice changed my home. Of course we are all stressed. Afghanistan is a cultural country. People value more and more the culture rather than religion. Some people even cannot differentiate between the cultural rule, state law and Islamic law. They mix up everything. This is the problem not the religion itself.”

Saifora Paktiss: “When I come to western countries and I see somebody wearing shorts or similar cloths I accept them, it’s their culture and their tradition that allows them to do it. For me covering my hair is a symbol of my culture, my belief. It’s not an oppression thing. When I started wearing my scarf my father and brothers they were looking at me surprised ‘ah you are wearing a scarf’ and I said ‘yes, I am feeling secure in it.’ So it’s really not a matter of oppression. Even in my own country my scarf made trouble for me. I really wanted to be a diplomat, so I appeared in my foreign office examination. When it came to the end of the oral exam the head of the political section, an afghan man, he said: ‘Excuse me Saifora your scarf is not suited for the ministry of foreign affairs.’ Then I said very respectfully ‘Sir, you really have to see my intellect, but not my wardrobe.’ O.k., that meant no job. So this even happened in my own country. So how can I blame others. It was back then when I decided there will be no compromise on my scarf anywhere. It’s my own choice. Anybody can be anything. It’s a symbol of my identity, my religion, my beliefs and my cultural tradition.”

We thank Saifora Ibrahim Paktiss and Vida Faizi for the interview.

Author: Christine Vallbracht, Online Officer at medica mondiale

Related topics

 Jamila Afghani, Medica Afghanistan: “Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed to pay for peace”

Afghanistan: Combating violence against women within families

Women’s rights heroine Shakiba: "I will never remain silent when I see injustice against women."