With more than twenty years of experience in the humanitarian field inside and outside Afghanistan, Belquis Ahmadi is one of the foremost thought leaders on women, peace and security and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Currently a Senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace, Ahmadi has worked with relief, humanitarian and development organizations focusing on issues related to human rights advocacy, civil society development, gender mainstreaming, good governance, and rule of law and access justice. Ahmadi recently co-authored a report on women’s agency in peacebuilding as well as in violent extremism in Afghanistan. We had the chance to speak with her about her findings.
Pary Shuaib: Tell us about yourself. How did you start working for women’s rights in Afghanistan? What inspired you?
Belquis Ahmadi: I started working on women’s rights issues in 1995, but I have been interested in and dabbled in humanitarian issues since I was 19. I was and continue to be inspired by the resilience of Afghan women–and women in general. At a more personal level, I’ve seen the women and men in my family, through their words and actions, show me the power of love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and the importance of respect for human dignity.
Pary Shuaib: The USIP special report you co-authored, Afghan Women and Violent Extremism, sheds light on the diverse roles women play as it relates to violent extremism. “The opportunity to be powerful, to contribute to something that others deem important, and to have the same rights and abilities as men can all radicalize women to support violence. The paradox is that women are supporting groups that have regressive views about the status of women. Women may feel they are being empowered, but male members of the group will often “use” them without according them a higher social status.” This excerpt from the report speaks on the complexities of being an Afghan woman driven to join patriarchal causes. Can you elaborate on any point that particularly struck you while conducting the research?
Belquis Ahmadi: First, Afghan women are an untapped resource when it comes to peacebuilding. Unfortunately, they continue to be treated primarily as second-class citizens or passive, helpless victims. Their role in re-establishing the fabric of society—that has eroded over the past four decades of violent conflict—is ignored by leaders and policy makers. As a result of that patriarchal view, women are denied representation in peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts.
Second, women’s role in instigating and promoting violence and violent behavior is ignored in the design and implementation of policies dealing with countering violent extremism. This is despite locally held views in parts of the country that women often are promoters, or at least one of the causes, of domestic violence and instigators of inter and intra family violence. It is a perplexing situation where society believes that within the four walls of their homes, women instigate men’s violence and violent behavior; but outside, society refuses to recognize women’s role and their agency and capability to build peace.
Interestingly, during my research, women’s role in peace and violence (particularly during times of war) was presented almost entirely in the form of storytelling. There really haven’t been sufficient studies conducted about Afghan women’s role in violence in modern history.
Pary Shuaib: Some argue that the responsibility of peace lies in the hands of women. This reiterates the narrative of women as being naturally more peaceful. What do you think about that?
Belquis Ahmadi: I tend to agree with the statement as long as it is made in the context that as human beings, women are perfectly capable of initiating and maintaining peace just the way men are. But one must also recognize that just like men – women too have capability and potential to initiate and instigate conflict and violence.
Pary Shuaib: What is your hope for the effects of the report to be towards international efforts of peacebuilding in Afghanistan?
Belquis Ahmadi: I hope that women’s multiple roles and potential to affect peace and violence within Afghan society are recognized and considered when policy makers design, implement, or monitor and evaluate strategies for peacebuilding and countering violent extremism.
Pary Shuaib: What will it take for a peaceful Afghanistan for the next generations?
Belquis Ahmadi: Recognition of the potential and the contribution of both men and women and utilizing them to bring peace, starting with their own families is essential for peace in Afghanistan. Peace education and promotion of tolerance and respect for human dignity and rights must be included in the educational system from a very early age. Effective and legitimate government institutions, fair and equal enforcement of laws, social justice and good governance can address grievances that often lead to violence.
Pary Shuaib: Finally, what advice would you give to your countless admirers who wish to emulate the extraordinary work you have done and continue to do?
Belquis Ahmadi: Do not lower your standard to those who instigate ethnic tension. We are stronger if we are united. Believe in yourself! You are much smarter and stronger than you think you are. Recognize and utilize your potential to be an agent for peace and positive change. Be kind to people and do good work.
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