Defending the rights of minorities and women: interview with Ms. Anarkali Honaryar
Anarkali Honaryar, winner of the 2011 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, belongs to a religious and ethnic minority group in Afghanistan. She is a Sikh woman elected to the Afghan upper house by the Afghan president in 2010.
In this interview, Ms. Honaryar talks about what it is like being a woman and a religious and ethnic minority member in Afghanistan.
UNESCO: What have been the conditions of women and minority groups in Afghanistan?
Ms. Honaryar: In Afghanistan we have different religious and ethnic minority groups which make Afghanistan a diverse state. In the past 30 years of conflict [Afghanistan has experienced a continuous state of war, social and economic turmoil since the late 1970s] the minority groups have suffered more than other portions of the society. Ignorance and lack of knowledge about minority groups have been one cause for ill-treatment against them in the past. However, since 2001 the situation for minority groups has improved we hope that this trend continues in the future.
Note: Ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan are such as Hazara and Uzbeks that constitute approximately 15 per cent and 10 per cent of the total population respectively. There are also smaller minority groups such as Baluch, Turkmen and Noristani that constitute less than 3 per cent of the total population. About 20 per cent of the Afghan population follow the Shia sect of Islam, mainly Hazara ethnic group, compared to a majority 80 per cent of the population which follow Sunni sect. Also a very small population of Sikhs (estimated less than 50,000) lives in Afghanistan, mostly in urban areas such as Kabul. During the civil war a majority of them migrated to other countries.
UNESCO: What happened in 2001 that caused the improvement?Ms. Honaryar: It has improved significantly since the fall of Taliban regime in 2001 [The Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 with harsh interpretations of Islam and Sharia law which denied all girls and women an education]. At present the Article 22 of the current Afghan Constitution which was ratified in 2004 states that all Afghans, men and women, should enjoy the same rights. This is a great improvement which Afghanistan did not have in the past. Afghanistan has also signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), which is another indicator of improvement for Afghan women’s status. More girls are going to school compared to before, and more women have access to basic health care centres.
People’s lack of education about women’s rights and lack of knowledge among women themselves have been strong obstacles on the way of improving women’s status in Afghanistan.
UNESCO: What kind of change would you like to see in the future? And do you think change is possible?
Ms. Honaryar: I want to see a sustainable improvement for women which should not be undermined by any circumstances. The current peace talks that have been initiated between the international community and the Afghan government with the Taliban should not reverse any improvements that had been made to women’s status in the past 10 years. Afghans, men and women, should be the main player of the peace process, and the future peace agreement needs to be an inclusive peace. All minority groups and women should be included in the process. I wish that insurgents also agree to respect to achievements which have been made in the past.
UNESCO: What would be obstacles for change?
Ms. Honaryar: The main obstacle is the pervasive illiteracy among the Afghans, especially the Afghan women. Women basically don’t know that their rights are violated, and in most cases, men are also unaware of violating their wife’s rights. Over 85% of Afghan women are illiterate which means a huge challenge. This problem is even worse in the rural areas where only one adult woman out of 10 are able to read and write.As I mentioned, more girls are going to school than before which is a good source of hope for a change in the future.
UNESCO: How have you, as a trained dentist, become a rights campaigner and activist and a member of Afghan Parliament’s upper house?
Ms. Honaryar: It is very difficult to predict the future and one’s career. When I was still studying at the university I was selected as a member of the Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga, the Afghan traditional assembly, in 2003. During that Loya Jirga I was advocating for equal rights for men and women. Article 22 of the Constitution called for equal rights for all Afghan citizens, but I was feeling that Afghan citizens meant Afghan men and not Afghan women. Therefore, I advocated that specifically the name of men and women should be mentioned under the article 22 of the Afghan constitution, which was finally the case. Now the Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution reads, “The citizens of Afghanistan, men and women, have equal rights and duties before the law.”
Note: According to the Afghan constitution the President appoints one third of the 120 members of the upper house Senators.
UNESCO: What is the most impressive case you have seen for women and minority groups in Afghanistan that fight for their rights with mutual respect and tolerance?
Ms. Honaryar: The interesting point about the minority groups in Afghanistan is that they see themselves as part of the Afghan society. They don’t consider themselves apart from the nation and the country. There are many examples for different ethnic groups or minority groups living peacefully together in the same neighbourhood. Despite many traditional barriers for women, it is interesting for me to see that girls and women, especially in the urban areas, attend school and literacy centres and take part in political activities such as elections.
UNESCO: You are the first non-Muslim female member of the Afghan Parliament’s upper house. What does this mean to you? What is your role in the parliament house? And how will it help with your work for the rights of Afghanistan’s minorities and women?
Ms. Honaryar: Fortunately, I have never experienced any discrimination from people or my colleagues, considering the fact that I belong to a religious minority group. My case should be a good example of unity and tolerance among Afghans. I use this opportunity to advocate for strengthening the sense of nationalism and being an Afghan, regardless of which religious or ethnic groups we belong to.
UNESCO: How do you feel about receiving the 2011 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence?
Ms. Honaryar: I have received some other national prizes before, and this was my first international prize. I feel that this prize does not belong to me only, but to all Afghan people. I am happy that I could represent Afghanistan in tolerance and women’s rights. There are many people in Afghanistan who genuinely work to promote equal rights for Afghans and I am happy that by receiving this prize, people around the world know that Afghanistan is trying to go in the right direction.
I would like to thank UNESCO for its excellent work and for prizes such as the Madanjeet Singh prize which promotes a tolerance and non-violence approach towards achieving women’s and minority groups’ rights
By Mohammad Amin Sadiqi and Rojana Manowalailao, UNESCO