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Blog Post, Women in the World

“I come from the same blood as Taliban,” Maria Toorpakai Wazir said in a recent speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference that happens every year in May.

When asked how it was to live among terrorists, Toorpakai Wazir explains that in her area “the system is so conservative that you don’t know who is a Taliban and who is not.” There is a gun and drug culture, she continues, that has spread like wildfire in the recent decades. Because of the lack of government presence and infrastructure (mainly schools and hospitals), there is not much left for inhabitants to do. “These are lawless areas.”

Toorpakai Wazir was born in Waziristan, Pakistan, a semi-independent tribal region spreading across the border with Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, mujahidin escaped to Waziristan, which became a sanctuary for terrorists. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 also pushed many al Qaeda and Taliban elements into the region. The area is considered especially dangerous for women, both because of the presence of terrorists and the prevailing culturally conservative mindset. Women’s education, for example, is considered a vulgarity.

Also contributing to Waziristan’s tattered image is the fact that to those who aren’t residents, the region is difficult to enter. NGOs, human rights activists and media are seldom present. “It’s a restricted zone, so how can you hear the voices from those who want change, or don’t want to be terrorists?” she wonders.

A liberal family 

Toorpakai Wazir’s strong sense of freedom is rooted in her upbringing. She grew up in a different kind of family. Her father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, brought Toorpakai Wazir and her siblings up with exposure to liberal views; the women of the family had the same rights as the men. She explains that she grew up in a household where everyone could question everything, and no questions went unanswered. She touched on her home life last year during her appearance at the 7th Annual Women in the World New York Summit. Speaking with  Financial Times managing editor Gillian Test, Toorpakai Wazir said, “My father is very supportive and he believes in equality.”

Read the full story here

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Al Jazeera

Roya Mahboob knew that she wanted to build a career in technology from the first time she set her eyes on a computer in the only internet cafe in Herat, Afghanistan, when she was 16 years old.

In 2010, at the age of 23 she became the first tech chief executive in Afghanistan when she founded Afghan Citadel Software (ACS) with the aim of involving more women in her country’s growing technology business.

“We are not thinking, we are not supposed to do critical thinking,” says Mahboob, discussing the way she and many women grew up in Afghanistan. 

Mahboob was born in Iran to Afghan parents as one of seven children. Her parents had travelled to Iran during the Soviet invasion, and the family moved back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2003, where she began her university studies and learned English.

Along with some of her siblings, including her sister Elaha as her partner, Mahboob established ACS shortly after. 

“I think digital literacy can give women a voice in our global conversation. Then, they can find different skills and get their financial independence,” she says. Read More

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Words In the Bucket

“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too”. Emma Watson’s speech at the launch of the campaign ‘He for She’ has gained a lot of attention in the last month, and it seems the 24 year old has managed to put the point across.

The point of the campaign is that men should also be involved in the fight for women’s rights, plain and simple. The Gender Equality movement has had women as its main advocates since it started; it is only natural that, as women, we feel more strongly about defending our own rights, I definitely don’t blame the men for their lack of participation.

Only recently, men have started participating in the discourse and played a more active role, but to a very limited extent. It seems like Gender Equality is an issue many men don’t feel they should be talking about: especially those who believe in women’s rights often think that having a strong opinion about it, or an active role in defending them, would be overstepping the ‘one thing’ that women are actually leading. Around me for example, I have not seen a huge interest by the men in my life to actively participate in the fight for ‘Gender Equality”, and I know its not because they don’t believe it is right or have no interest in it at all, but because they think it’s “our thing” and they shouldn’t intervene.


Undoubtedly, this defeats the purpose. If we want equal rights, then we should have equal opportunities to participate in this social and political activity, and we should stop trying to define roles, or place pedestals everywhere. We are all on the ground. I think the idea tackled in the campaign is of great importance, and that men should stand up for this.

Now, this can be taken in two ways. The first is to think that this is an outrageous misinterpretation of the gender equality fight, that it sends the message of excluding women, rather painting a picture of a man telling a woman “I’ll take it from here, sweetheart” as quoted by a journalist in the Guardian. However I think this interpretation simply doesn’t grasp the point.The point has with no doubt been understood, so much that on the 29th of September, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Iceland, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, announced that Iceland will host a ‘Men Only” conference on gender equality, with a special focus on violence on women.


The second way of interpreting this would be to think that this is a delightful way of making sure that men are ‘physically’ introduced in the discourse. They will have to sit in a room and discuss these sorts of issues; there will be no escaping. Moreover, let’s presume that of the people that will attend the conference, many will have to prepare themselves before the event, as gender might not be an area of their expertise (who wants to go to a conference unprepared?). This will mean more men will have more detailed information on the issues that surround gender equality, gender violence and women’s rights, and therefore they will have a fuller understanding of what we women have been talking about all these years. Exposing men so directly to these issues is an important step towards a successful and equal fight towards gender equality.

If this is the case, whether this will be a successful conference all depends on the actual logistics and agenda of the event, my questions for now are: Will women be in the panel? Will there be women giving talks and telling their stories? Will women experts lead the conference on the issues and only have men participate?


I think it’s a great initiative and I hope it will bring men to actually find a true interest in gender issues and to spread the word to other men. This is not just our (women) fight; it is your fight too.

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Words In the Bucket

Gender is at the top of the agenda in International Development.

“ Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” is the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)[1], announced in 2000 by the Secretary General of the UN. The promoting part of the goal has been tackled, now it is time to act.

International news and press releases from pressure groups like Amnesty International constantly share news of women suffering abuse, of different kinds. In India, there has been a  case on the link between lack of access to hygiene and rape; women and girls are raped on the way to find a clean place to use the toilet.  Another story is the one of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death for apostasy because she married a Christian man in Sudan. She was arrested and forced to give birth in a dirty prison, in chains. Not to mention the 200 million children that are estimated to be victims of sexual abuse every year. The situation worsens when there is an ongoing conflict, as protective networks usually collapse during this time. This was one of the biggest topics at the world summit to end sexual violence during conflict a few weeks ago in London. Most of the victims of rape during war are women, so gender-based violence was big on the agenda too.

As we approach the New Year many international organisations are pushing for women and girls to be at the top of the post 2015 MDG agenda. The Nike funded “girl effect” has for example released a Girls Declaration which is a call for action linking women empowerment to poverty alleviation.

The Guardian Global Development recently featured an interactive graph showing Women’s rights by country (please see below- it’s worth a watch). It gives a great overview the legal side of the topic (which often is what actually changes things) showing country by country, what laws and legislations prevent or allow women’s rights.

Gender is everywhere.

A few weeks ago I received a notification from a discussion group on LinkedIn that discusses gender issues. The discussion started with the question:

“How do you define empowering women in few words? All women want to be empowered but a few women seek power”

I was baffled. I did not, and still do not, think that there is a way of defining “women empowerment” in a few words. I also don’t agree with the second statement on women not seeking power -what does seeking power mean anyways?

As I expected, a series of clichéd explanations started coming up in the comments to this question. Some suggested that empowering women was giving them self-confidence, others mentioned equal treatment within the law, others suggested economic independence, and some spoke of access to health care and quality education, the list goes on. All valid points, but they still were not a holistic explanation of what women empowerment really means.

As I read on, it became clear that finding one sentence was probably not possible, the definitions – or indicators-  that define women empowerment are too many.

Ruth Alsop and Nina Heinsohn describe empowerment as the ‘capacity to make effective decisions and convert them into desired outcomes”.  This made me think that perhaps though it was not possible to use one sentence to describe women empowerment, ironically it would have been possible to use one word: CHOICE.

When an individual is able to choose – socially, politically and economically- they are free and therefore become empowered. Having the possibility to express your religious or political views, to be able to wear what you want, and to choose your own path is what we should aspire for every human being to have.

Just yesterday the European court for Human Rights ruled the French ban on veil as not being a violation of human rights.  Yet another example of taking away women’s choice.

With the deadline of Beijing +20 and many women around the world still not enjoying basic human rights, now is the moment to spur recommitment on women rights.

Although I don’t undermine the importance of definitions, having worked in the development sector and in an emergency context, I think the time has come – after years of promoting and defining gender-related words –  to stop trying to give words a meaning and Give Women a Choice.

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