Sunita Viswanath said Monday that all human beings know their rights, and it is not Western influence that tells a young girl that having her nose cut off is wrong.
Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women, spoke about her organization and the future of Afghan feminism to a group of about 20 students and community members in William L. Harkness Hall Monday afternoon. Before the founding of Women for Afghan Women, which operates in both Afghanistan and in Queens, the large Afghan-American community in New York City did not have a gathering point and advocate, Viswanath said.
In 2000, Viswanath, who worked for a women’s foundation called The Sister’s Fund, could not even find an Afghan women’s group in New York to support with a grant.
“There were so few people talking about Afghanistan, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said, adding that she founded Women for Afghan Women in April 2001.
Today, the organization runs numerous family guidance centers, women’s shelters and children support centers in Afghanistan, and is still expanding, she said. Viswanath has family guidance centers in five Afghan cities at present, and she said she plans to operate in eight by next year.
Viswanath stressed that the security currently offered by foreign troops in Afghanistan is crucial to the success of the work her organization is doing. She urged those who do not support the foreign military presence in the country to consider the women of Afghanistan.
“If the foreign troops leave, our work cannot happen,” she said.
Viswanath, who is from India, said her first priority was to understand the Afghan community and culture.
“I’m not Afghan,” she said. “I didn’t want to do anything in Afghanistan without our feet firmly in the community. We couldn’t do this if we didn’t insist we were going to grow from the community.”
For example, before calling in authorities to deal with a situation, the organization first holds a traditional gathering of relevant parties and respected community members called a “jirga.”
To illustrate the challenges women face in Afghanistan, Viswanath recounted a visit to an Afghan women’s prison where the women were jailed for running away from abusive living situations or going outside without an escort.
Their children were jailed with them, she added.
“We could not believe the horrible conditions,” she said. “We couldn’t actually find anyone who was there for a crime we would consider a crime.”
In 2003, Women for Afghan Women organized the first women’s rights conference in the southern city of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Despite security warnings from the United Nations, Viswanath insisted on holding the conference in Kandahar to support the women from southern Afghanistan, who did not have the option of moving to safer cities. Thirty Afghan women gathered together for three days. The Taliban has since murdered two of those women.
Viswanath shared her concern for the future of Afghan women, explaining that her organization is one of several leading the fight against the Afghan government’s bid to take control of the 14 women’s shelters in the country run by NGOs. The government claims the shelters are corrupt and mismanage money.
In place of the current shelters, government-run shelters would require women to prove their case before a panel of eight men before they could be admitted. Women would be refused refuge if any family member, including an abuser, agreed to take them in. In addition, women would be required to undergo forensic examination to determine their virginal status if any sexual abuse or misconduct was alleged during their case.
“If this one domino falls, we feel absolutely certain there will be many others.” Viswanath said.
Four students interviewed said they were deeply impressed by Viswanath’s work.
Marissa Dearing ’14 described the event as inspiring and added that she would love to be involved with Women for Afghan Women.
An international student from Afghanistan, Wazhma Sadat ’14, said she was happy to see an organization continuing its efforts in Afghanistan when the world has largely turned its eyes from the country’s problems.
“It is very sad to see how people are not paying much attention to Afghanistan anymore, and I am happy to see organizations like this that are continuing their efforts and help,” she said.
The event was sponsored by the Yale Afghanistan Forum, the Yale Women’s Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, Reach Out Yale, the International Students Organization, the Muslim Students Association and the South Asian Studies Council.