Shaharzad Akbar's journey to college was not an easy one. When she was eleven, the Taliban regime banned girls from going to school in Afghanistan. As a result, her family moved to Pakistan so she could continue with her studies. In 2002, when she was fifteen, the Back to School Campaign--a joint initiative by the United Nations and the Afghan Government--made her return possible. Later, Akbar would become the first Afghan woman to study at Oxford University and founded Afghanistan 1400, a youth political movement that advocates for reforms and change in the country. In an interview with the Journal, Shaharzad Akbar spoke about the future of Afghanistan, the agenda her organization is pursuing, and the participation of women in this process. (1)
Journal of International Affairs: You have such a compelling background. Can you talk about what it was like growing up in Afghanistan, and how you got interested in peace and security issues?
Shaharzad Akbar: I grew up in different parts of Afghanistan because we kept moving the family. I went to school here for a few years, and then we moved to Pakistan when I was eleven, I think. We moved to Pakistan because the Taliban took over parts of the country and we could not go to school. My parents prioritized our education, so we went there and I studied in an Afghan school in Pakistan for a while. Then my sister and I started teaching English--we started our own English classes for Afghan immigrants. When I was fourteen, I was teaching men who were older than I was. It was a very interesting experience. I realized that there is a lot of interest among Afghans in education and in change. We then moved back to Kabul in 2002, and since then I have permanently been here with my family. However, I went away for my bachelor's degree for three years--I was a transfer student at Smith College--and then I studied for my master's degree in the UK. I graduated in 2011 and returned to Kabul. I work and live here.
Journal: You were the chairperson of Afghanistan 1400. Can you talk a little bit about the organization, and its mission and priorities?
Akbar: I am a founding member of Afghanistan 1400. I was also the first elected chairperson. A group of us--young Afghans, mainly--kept meeting at national and international meetings, and we seemed to say the same things. We seemed to have the same vision for Afghanistan in five, six, ten years, and we had the same frustrations about the narrative of Afghanistan inside and outside the country. So, we thought, let us sit down and try to figure something out, let us sit down and try to form something of our own. And in Afghanistan, the politics of patronage is strong. Main political parties are currently formed around former-jihad leaders. All parties are very ethnocentric--the majority is one ethnic group. --and very personality-oriented. It is not solely a vision, or a mission, or a series of values bringing them together; it is more about trying to protect your ethnicity and rallying around one male figure.
Journal: When it comes to starting a new organization and trying to break with traditional organizations, do you think that there are specific challenges related to being a female political activist, or that it is more a question of the youth versus the old elites?
Akbar: We realized that we have a set of values and a vision for Afghans that is very different from what is seen in the political space. We also realized that the new generation of Afghanistan lacks political platforms to represent them and their values. At the beginning, it was just a series of meetings, discussions, sitting for hours and hours until midnight talking about Afghanistan and our vision for it, and how we could find a way to work together. I must say, for a country that has been through civil war, and some really brutal wars, there is a lot of mistrust. During the initial few months, we were building trust and trying to understand each other, and trying to create a united narrative as the new generation of Afghanistan.
We slowly realized that there are certain values that are important to us: our constitution and the achievements of the past ten years, including women's rights, freedom of expression, and democratic processes. We also realized that we would like to rally around these values and share this similar vision with Afghanistan. We all want an Afghanistan that is not only stable and prosperous, but also democratic, We strive for gender equality and equal access to development. So these issues brought us together. We want to be part of the political space, we want to talk and raise attention about these issues, and eventually, maybe become a political party.
We have 1400 in our name because it is the year 1392 in the Afghan calendar; 1400 will be eight years from now, and also it would be the beginning of a new century for Afghanistan. Our hope is that the new century for Afghanistan will be a different, better century, and that we will be a part of making that happen, Our vision for the movement, of course, is that by 1400--in eight years--it will become a nationwide movement for political reform and change. We are still at the initial phase of our development. Our main event for our launch was focused on Afghan elections.
We see the democratic transfer of power--the political transition--as the most important...